A NEW RELIGION OF THE SOUL (I)
The story is set between "Day of the Dead" and "Meditations on the Abyss."
Legal Disclaimer: Babylon 5 and its characters are the property of JMS and all legal copyright holders. I'm just playing in the sandbox; I promise I'll clean up after myself.
"When jealous feelings and images penetrate the heart and mind, a kind of initiation takes place. The jealous person discovers new ways of thinking and a fresh appreciation for the the complicated demands of love. It is a baptism of fire into a new religion of the soul." -- Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore
Lennier steadied his breathing, concentrating on the length and feel of the fighting pike. Waiting, planning, positioning himself for the attack.
Before he could move, he found himself face down on the mat, struck breathless by the humiliating blow. Durhan watched from the side of the room. The Master would not deem to tax his energies with such an inadequate opponent. He nodded to Alison Dupree, senior trainee, a human female of indeterminate age. Dupree who let the slightest smile escape as she pulled Lennier to his feet. She poised, again readying herself for the drill.
Dupree was skilled in the use of the fighting pike, perhaps too skilled, Lennier thought as he took in a deep breath. The pain coursed through his joints and muscles. He couldn't remember ever feeling this tired.
The senior tilted her head. "If it's too much, Lennier--"
"No," he said too quickly. He would not dishonor himself by giving up. The eyes of his fellow trainees bored into him, urging him silently to win even a small victory for the unvictorious. He nodded to Dupree, trying to balance his need for rest and healing with his need to avoid complete and utter humiliation. "I am ready."
She turned to meet Durhan's slightly bemused expression. He nodded.
Meals had become a source of near-trauma for Lennier. He did not quite understand his discomfort. Many of the Ranger trainees were Minbari. Just like him. Some were human, others representing the alien races. But all shared a common goal.
So why did sharing a meal with them drive him to the edge of distraction? Perhaps it was the noise. While morning and midday meals were observed in strictest propriety, the Masters...in their infinite wisdom...had decided the evening meal should be more informal.
Lennier looked down at his plate. Eating was a sacred ritual, representing the body's desire for renewal through the sacrifice of others. It should be greeted with reverence and contemplation....
"Do you know what the last Xon said just before he died?"
Lennier clenched his teeth as Kalen Sevalla poised for the punch line. Kalen was one of the few Centauri who had signed up for Ranger training. He was also, in his own way, the epitome of Centauri charm and dignity. He sat at the next table, mesmerizing a group of human trainees.
"'Aaaaaarrrggghhh!!!!'" The humans who shared the table with Kalen laughed hysterically. Lennier rolled his eyes and snorted. Too loudly.
Kalen turned to the Minbari, a stereotypically gregarious smile on his face. "Don't you find the joke funny, Lennier?"
"No. Not really. It was vaguely amusing the first...." Lennier cocked his head slightly to the left. "Four hundred times I heard it. Now, it leaves a bit to be desired."
"Like your use of the Minbari fighting pike?"
Lennier was on his feet, followed a split second later by Kalen. "I would be happy to demonstrate my skill, if you doubt it."
"That wouldn't be such a good idea." A female voice interrupted them, cutting through the nervous hum of humans and Minbari. Alison Dupree stepped between Lennier and Kalen. Although she was several inches shorter than the Centauri and barely as tall as Lennier, both men pulled back respectfully.
"Of course." Kalen bared his teeth in what Lennier could only assume was the Centauri equivalent of a self-depricating smile. "I would never dream of disturbing meal time with such a display." He lowered his gaze to meet Dupree's eyes. "Mealtime, as we all know, Lennier, is a sacred ritual. It represents the body's desire for renewal through the sacrifice of others. It should be greeted with reverence and contemplation."
"Exactly." Dupree cut off Lennier's response before it could even form itself into a coherent sentence. "Lennier, let's have a little chat after meditation."
Lennier bowed. His appetite was gone.
The "little chat" turned out to be an informal meeting with Dupree, Durhan, and Turval. Lennier swallowed nervously as his three teachers smiled up from the conference table. Alison nodded to the empty chair just opposite Turval. Lennier sat wordlessly, waiting for someone to break the overwhelming silence.
"We have been meaning to speak with you for some time, Lennier." It was Turval, religious leader at Tuzanor. "We have been monitoring your progress with interest, and--"
"If I may, Master." Lennier spoke up, unable to contain his words. "Forgive my impertinance, but I wished to apologize for my behavior tonight at meal time."
Turval dismissed Lennier's apology with a wave of his hand. "That is another matter for another time, Lennier. Tonight, we wish to speak with you about your training. Your experience in diplomacy and as a pilot give you a unique perspective, as does your exposure to the various alien races."
"Yes, Master. It was--"
"Delenn taught you well. However, you did pick up some bad habits...such as interrupting your teachers." This was from Durhan. It was the first time he had ever spoken directly to Lennier, outside of training. Lennier lowered his eyes obediantly, and they all waited for Turval to continue.
The elderly religious suppressed a smile, opting for a more formal tone. "It is our consideration, Lennier, that you should undergo the Mora'Dum."
Lennier's eyes popped up instantly. He began to speak, but caught himself quickly. "Master, if I might ask a question?"
Durhan smirked slightly, but Turval simply nodded assent.
"Thank you. My quarrel with Kalen was minor, simply a cultural difference. While I am ashamed of my actions, I do not feel it warrants something so drastic as the Mora'Dum."
"The purpose of the Mora'Dum is subtle, Lennier," Durhan answered. "Kalen is not your enemy, but you live in fear. It manifests in everything you do, everything you say. In the way you fight."
"In the way you meditate," Turval continued.
"In the way you interact with your fellow trainees," Dupree completed. "Your fear is not with an external enemy, but an internal enemy." She smiled for a moment, chocolate colored eyes warm with understanding. "I know a little bit about that, Lennier. Trust me. The Mora'Dum is important to you. More important than you know."
Lennier took a moment to digest this. His eyes traveled from one knowing gaze to another, trying to understand how he had failed. Turval, small, wizened, a friend of Delenn's who would certainly let her know. Durhan, the greatest fighter of the Anla'shok. And Alison Dupree, a human he had come to know and respect in a remarkably short time. They sat before him like a tribunal--judge, jury, and executioner. Silent. Determined. Vaguely amused. And waiting for his response.
What could he say? "I do not understand," he whispered, eyes low. "But understanding is not required. Only obediance."
He gazed up at the flickering light, a surreal calm taking him deeper into the dark corners of his mind. It was not the first time he had delved this far into his own solitude.
He thought of days gone by, of long conversations into the night. Of Delenn. Of her eyes and smile.
Three days alone. Three days marked only by the quarterly chime of Temple bells. Three days stretched silently into weeks, months, lifetimes.
It did not matter. He had been sent here to meditate, to purify himself for the ordeal ahead. But how could he purify himself when his thoughts would not behave? When his heart kept flying backwards in time, to whisper gentle prayers to a married woman's love?
Lennier closed his eyes gently. It was no use chastising himself. Here, in the dark, alone, he could not lie to himself, or talk himself out of his shame. No matter. It did not matter how long he starved himself, or how many days without contact he survived. He would not be ready.
It wasn't wise to be ready for the Mora'Dum.
The door opened. Lennier did not know how long he had been there; he'd stopped counting at seven days. His eyes, accustomed to the darkness, squinted against the blue-white glow of the opened doorway.
"Come with me, Lennier."
He knew the voice. Female, gentle, commanding.
"No." An outline appeared in the light. "Alison. Turval sent me to get you. It's time for the Mora'Dum."
Lennier blinked hard as a single hand reached out to him. He was too tired to notice her curious expression, too tired to care even if he did. Unsteady, confused, he did the only thing his unconscious mind new how to do.
She led him through the corridors of the Temple, silently, slowly. Lennier struggled to maintain himself. He was tired, disoriented, and weak. Alison Dupree wore only the pristine white robes of the religious caste, her mahogany hair tied neatly at the nape of her neck. She reminded Lennier of someone, but Valen only knew who.
They arrived in minutes at the door to a remote chamber. Lennier had never been to this part of the Temple before. Dupree paused, then nodded to the two acolytes who guarded the door.
"Ta'chu'ma," she said reverently.
The acolytes bowed, then stepped aside, allowing Dupree and Lennier entry into the chamber. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the light. He found himself in a three-walled chamber, big enough for two, maybe three people. A white cloth triangle covered the floor, a single white candle in each corner. In the center of the cloth was an altar, dressed only with a crystal chalice and a small knife. Dupree nodded to the far corner of the cloth, motioning for Lennier to kneel. She herself knelt in the near corner.
"And the third is left for that which we seek," she spoke in Adronato. "Do you accept that which you fear?"
Lennier nodded. He did not have the strength for words. Fortunately, the ritual did not require--
The candles flared, all three simultaneously, drawing him back to the altar before him. Dupree continued to speak quietly, as if not noticing his lack of concentration. "In the days of the past, beyond the time of peace, beyond the time of caste, the Minbari were a barbaric people. Demons plagued the world, and Minbari slew Minbari without thought for soul or honor. It is from these times that we draw the Mora'Dum. It is from these demons that we draw our fear...and our strength." She lowered her eyes slightly. "I offer my services as guide and observer on your journey. My people, too, come from the roots of barbarism. Together, may we find strength from the past." She bowed her head, hands joined before her in an inverted triangle. "Will you honor me, Lennier?"
"Yes," he whispered. "I accept your offer."
With an almost imperceptible smile, she lifted the chalice and handed it to him. Lennier took it, inhaling the steam from the tea it contained. Al'phri leaves, he guessed, with a hint of...some sort of grain. It didn't matter. His stomach growled as he took a long sip, then handed the chalice back to Dupree. She drank the rest of the tea, then blew out the candle nearest to her. "The darkness approaches. And so it begins."
Lennier's head began to swim as the tea hit his blood stream. Dupree did not seem to notice his unsteadiness as she reached over to pick up the knife. The dagger was cut from a single shard of crystal, its blade three-sided, the handle intricately carved in a spiral fashion. She closed her eyes as her hand wrapped around the handle.
"The world is made of a single crystal, formed at the dawn of time. From this crystal, we carve our lives, our dreams, our illusions." Laying the dagger in her upturned palms, she presented it to Lennier. "If you accept this, you will go beyond where I can travel. If you refuse, you surrender to your fears." Her eyes narrowed, focusing hard on Lennier's face. "What is your choice, Lennier?"
With a deep breath, Lennier took the blade from her hands.
And the world as he knew it ceased to exist.
He found himself on a hard, cold stone floor, still clutching the knife in his hand. Dupree, the Temple chamber, the candles, were nowhere to be seen. The dizziness which had threatened to consume him only moments before was gone. Lennier looked down at the knife. It glowed blood-red in his hand, but it was cool. He could feel it pulsing with energy, connecting with his own energy.
"Of course." He knew of certain crystals deep within his planet's crust that had the power to channel mental energy. Delenn kept a set of rings hidden in her quarters on Babylon 5, each cut from a different crystal, each with a different set of properties. This knife must be carved from one of thos---
His heart stopped as the air filled with a deafening, unmistakeable screeching. He looked up to see a sky filled with stars, blacked out by the spider-like silhouettes of a thousand Shadow vessels flying overhead. Without thought, he clutched the knife tightly, only to discover he was holding on to the arm of his White Star chair.
"Full around, Mr. Lennier." It was Ivanova. Disoriented, Lennier tried to follow her orders, but his console flickered wildly before him. Nothing was where it belonged....
"Now, Lenn--it's too late. They're coming in too fast." Ivanova's voice raised half an octave. Lennier strained to see her, to understand what was going on, but nothing made sense. Minbari with blank faces crowded in front of him, blocking off his view, distorting reality. "They're here."
A horrific whine pierced his soul, and Lennier looked up just in time to see a monstrous black cloud descending upon the White Star.
The last voice he heard before the end was Ivanova's. "It's over."
"It's over, Mr. Lennier. You can stand up."
Lennier found himself wrapped in a ball, shivering. The room was dark, and he was huddled in the center of a single oval of light. In the time it took to steady himself, the voice spoke once more.
"That was fun. Much more interesting than the last time we met." A human male stepped out of the shadows, just barely crossing into the light.
"Morden." Lennier grasped the crystal, which had shaped itself into a fighting pike. In a moment, he was on his feet, pike extended and poised for defense.
Morden smiled, holding up a slate grey mug. "I brought my own coffee this time. You really should bone up on your hospitality, Mr. Lennier." Morden laughed quietly at his own joke, then frowned when Lennier did not join him. "Put that thing down. I'm not here to fight you. I wasn't here to fight you the last time."
Slowly, Lennier lowered his stance, retracting the pike with a wary glare. "Why are you here?"
Morden, half-way into a sip of coffee, sputtered. "You're kidding, right?" At Lennier's stony response, he shook his head. "You really are hard-headed, kid. Look. I tried to help you out at the Day of the Dead. You came looking for wisdom, but you wouldn't take it. Now, you're undergoing the Mora'Dum, to face your fears." Morden's gaze darkened in a grim parody of humor. "Well, who else could bring you closer to your fears than me?"
"If you have something to do, do it and be done."
"Don't worry. You'll be scared. But I doubt you'll find what you need, Mr. Lennier." He stepped back, edging into the darkness. "Your enemy cannot be fought with a fighting pike." His heels clicked on the cold, stone floor as he disappeared into the darkness. "Though you're welcome to try."
"You may proceed."
Lennier looked through the blackness, uncertain where the voice originated. It was Durhan, of course. Not the real Durhan, but the Durhan he feared, the Durhan who held his future firmly in those aged, but powerful hands.
Lennier extended his pike once more, noting that it glowed a bright crimson color in his hand. The crystal which formed the pike, which had formed the knife as well, was his link, a conduit between the outer reality and this world his mind--
He felt a hard crunch to the gut that doubled him over in pain. Durhan stood over him, pike poised with lethal accuracy. "Did you come here to fight or to dream?"
Lennier chose his words carefully. Symbols never asked direct questions. "I came to learn."
Durhan reached out a single hand, pulling Lennier to his feet effortlessly. "To learn to fight, I hope." His grin was decidedly humorless. "Again."
This time, Lennier did not allow himself to be distracted. He circled Durhan, poised, careful. A voice in his mind tried to rationalize this situation. It was a dream, symbolic. Durhan was not really there and could not really harm him.
Another swift blow to the legs sent him sprawling. So much for that theory. Lennier dragged himself to a standing position without waiting for Durhan's command. It was hopeless, the rational voice in him stated. He would never have the skill to fight Durhan.
Fear serves your enemy, Lennier reminded himself.
"And anger comforts the dead," Durhan completed the sentence for him. He laughed at Lennier's look of shock. He resumed the sparring, playing with Lennier, not really trying. As Lennier struggled to match the Master blow for blow, merely keeping up without hope of attack, Durhan continued almost conversationally. "You were right, Lennier. It is hopeless. You are not fighting Durhan. You are fighting your image of Durhan. I am created by you, part of you. I know your thoughts. I know your weaknesses. I've counteracted your strategies long before they're even formed in your mind."
"If that is true," Lennier panted as he narrowly ducked a swinging blow to the head, "I should be able to stop you."
Durhan laughed, stepping back into the shadows. "You cannot stop the truth, Lennier."
And then there was silence. Lennier's glance darted through the shadows, trying to anticipate the Master's next blow. Grey images seemed to be everywhere, watching, threatening, slipping in and out of focus. Lennier loosened his muscles, urging himself to relax, to prepare.
The blow came from nowhere, from behind him, from above him. Lennier responded without thought, from instinct alone, meeting metal for metal the pike which had come that close to crushing his skull. Holding the attack at stalemate for only a moment, Lennier turned to face his opponent.
John Sheridan stared him straight in the eye.
"You can't stop the truth, Lennier."
The reality of the situation hit Lennier like an avalanche. The moment between realization and action seemed to last an eternity...an eternity in which Lennier and Sheridan stood locked together in combat, face to face, eye to eye, soul to soul. And when that eternity finally melted into the necessity for movement, Lennier did the only thing he could.
He retracted his pike and pulled back. "I will not fight you," he said, slowly and precisely.
In the past, curiosity had led Lennier to study Sheridan--his moods, his attitudes, his expressions. Sheridan stood before him with the same determined look he'd normally reserved for the Shadows. "You're already fighting me. Let's just end it here, okay?" He took a step towards Lennier, pike extended for battle. "Clean. Not like what you tried to do to me on Babylon 5."
Lennier stepped backwards, not meeting the challenge. "I tried nothing on--"
"You got in the way." The pike sliced neatly through the air just centimeters away from Lennier's midsection. "You tried to usurp my position with Delenn."
"No." Lennier ducked, narrowly missing another attack from Sheridan's pike. "I left. I did not--"
"Yeah, you forced her to choose between her husband and her best friend. You punished her." Another blow. This one sent Lennier to his knees. Still, he did not defend himself. "You knew she couldn't be what you wanted her to be, so you punished her for it. You wanted her to choose. You wanted her to suffer."
"That is not true. I left because--"
"Because you wanted my wife. And you couldn't deal with it." Sheridan abandoned the pike, backhanding Lennier with all of his might.
And something in Lennier snapped. Perhaps it was the coarse words, the insinuation that Lennier suffered from the same base, carnal drives as humans. Perhaps he'd just gotten tired. Either way, it stopped here.
He caught Sheridan's hand on the upswing, pulling hard at an angle to flip his opponent over his shoulder. A quick roll, and he was on his feet, pike extended just in time to stop Sheridan's retaliatory blow. "You do not understand," he growled, taking the offensive for the first time. "You think every need is sexual, every desire is physical."
"You swore you would be at her side till the end. She needed you, and you abandoned her." Sheridan gasped as Lennier's pike struck him hard to the midsection. "You say it's a noble love, Lennier. But you're jealous." Another blow. "Of me." Sheridan crumpled to his knees as Lennier took the advantage. "Of us...." He choked, a small stream of blood coming to the corner of his mouth as he collapsed. "Admit it."
Lennier held his blow. One more, and this man would be dead. His breath came hard, furious in his chest, a maelstrom of anger and guilt and shame. A movement in the shadows distracted him from the kill. He looked up.
It was Delenn. She cast a sad, silent gaze towards the grisly tableau--her husband about to be killed by the hand of her best friend. A tear traced the path down her cheek as she whispered a single word.
It cut like a blade through his brain. Lennier's vision went white, blind and primal. The pike came down with crushing force, splintering Sheridan's skull in a single blow. He half-heard Delenn's scream as a freezing wind overcame him, howling in his ears and forcing him to look away from the kill.
When the blast died away, he turned back in horror to what he had done. Sheridan's body was gone. All that remained was Delenn, frozen solid in the center of a single white light. Her eyes opened in shock, hands lifted as if to shield herself.
Lennier ran to the still, cold form, his heart racing in his chest. He placed his hands on the ice, trying to touch through to her face, to her hair. But all he could feel was the cold smooth surface against his hands.
Lennier began to weep, choking hard against the tears at first, then abandoning himself to them. What had he done? Who was he to make this choice?
The tears fell against the frozen statue, melting the ice where it touched. As his breathing slowed, Lennier noticed the ice was becoming fluid in places. He pressed his hands there, breathing warm air to melt the ice, frantically trying to speed the process in any way he could.
A hand reached through the ice, meeting his. Lennier touched the hand, warming it between his own. As if in a dream, a form emerged. She stepped forward, leaving Delenn frozen behind her as she sank to the floor at Lennier's feet.
"Mi'shan," she said reverently in a language far older than the castes themselves. Lennier struggled momentarily with the translation, then swallowed hard. It meant "master."
Lennier, stunned, wrenched his eyes from Delenn, lowering himself to look at the naked, shivering Minbari at his feet. He lifted her chin to get a better view, then stopped.
She looked up at him with frightened eyes, a heady mixture of grace and animal chilling her gaze. It was Delenn.
For a long moment, Lennier could do nothing but stare at her. She knelt before him, lithe and wary, more animal than Minbari. Suddenly remembering himself, he removed his cloak and covered her with it. She grasped it at the center of her chest, curling her fist into the thick brown material. Lennier watched in fascination as she sniffed deeply.
"Bri'tas ah," she murmered. "Lho meah zhe damra."
Lennier knelt also, for a moment unable to do more than just look at her. The dialect she spoke was primitive, predating the formation of the caste system by several hundred years, he guessed.
"Ma'zhe tu?" she asked.
He shook his head. "I'm sorry. I--I don't understand your language. Only a few words," he added.
The primitive Delenn looked down slightly, closing her eyes tightly in concentration. "Forgive me, Master," she murmured in perfect Adronato. "I did not mean to displease you."
"No, you haven't disp--why do you call me Master?"
She looked up at him as if he were crazed. "From blood I was formed, by blood I shall be set free."
"I don't understand."
She pointed up to the frozen statue of Delenn. "You created me...from her blood. I shall be beside you until my own blood freezes."
At the mention of Delenn, he looked back at his own destructive handiwork. This wasn't what he wanted.
"Master," she pleaded. "She is not for you. She was created for him. When he died, so did she."
"No. There must be some way--"
"There is no way. Please, Master. Forget her." She reached up to draw his gaze back to her. "From blood I was formed," she repeated.
Lennier shook away her hand, annoyed. She whimpered slightly, reaching again for him. "By blood I shall be set free." Her touch was insistant, her tone increasingly desparate.
Angry, Lennier caught her wrist in his. A flash of green distracted him, pulling his vision away from the other Delenn.
Around the primitive woman's wrist twisted a dark green tattoo, interlocking circles which marked her position as...
"Zha'treh," Lennier whispered.
Delenn lowered her head. "Zha'treh."
Lennier dropped her hand in disgust. Zha'treh. Chattel. A concubine won in the heat of battle. The Warrior caste had abandoned the practice of claiming zha'treh almost two hundred years before the arrival of Valen. They thought it barbaric.
The religious caste had never even entertained such customs.
"Master," she whispered. "Have I displeased you?"
Lennier stood up, turning away from her. The pike lay in his hand like a smoldering ember. This was not why he had come here. This couldn't be. With a roar of anger and despair, he threw the pike at the frozen Delenn, shattering it into a thousand pieces.
He found himself in the Temple chamber, with Alison. The crystal knife lay on the floor between them. The second of the candles had blown out.
"Are you okay?"
Lennier said nothing, fixing his stare on the single remaining candle.
Dupree leaned over to put a hand on his shoulder, but he jerked away from her touch. Still silent.
"You need to go back. Whatever it was you saw, whatever it was you did, you have to continue."
"Lennier, listen to me. I know this is hard. I went through the Mora'Dum myself, two years ago. It was--"
"You know nothing," he snapped. His voice echoed loudly in the small chamber. Startled, he lowered his voice. "It isn't working. I am supposed to face my fears. But it is just...hallucination."
She smiled at him in the flickering candlelight. "Best definition of fear I've heard in a long time," she whispered. Picking up the knife, she offered it to him. "I'll be here. But you have to do this on your own."
Lennier held his breath for a long moment, hoping there would be another way around this. Despite his anger, his humiliation, he knew she was right. There was no other way. To quit now would be to dishonor his training. He would be forced fromFthe Anla'shok. He could not return to Delenn. He would disgrace himself, his family, and his clan.
No. There was only one way out of this fire.
Through it. He took the knife, and began again.
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