Chapter 16.

Sitting now at the ceremonial fire, Trok wondered once again if he would be able to reach the minds of the Others at all. He also worried whether or not he would be able to lead them through the black void he always encountered when using the special root that made such mind-joining spiritual journeys possible, and then safely back to their own minds again. He had questioned Ayla in depth regarding her extraordinary experience with Mog-Ur One-Eye, and had been convinced that it was at least possible that he might be able to reach into the minds of these Others, if only in a more limited way. What he would have given to share the experience this Ayla did - - to travel back to the birth of the Clan of the Cave Bear with the Clan's greatest and most powerful mog-ur, and then beyond that and back in time to the very beginnings of life itself in the sea. What an amazing journey that must have been!

Realizing that his purposes here were much more limited and immediate, he drank a mouthful from the ceremonial bowl and passed it on to Guban. Guban drank, as did each of the others sitting around the fire. They all heard the chanting begin on the other side of the hide curtains separating the six of them from the people doing the chanting. Trok understood that the chanting was a custom of the Others when they embarked upon spiritual journeys, but he felt that it was a mostly useless gesture. One either had the strength to guide other minds upon these ceremonial quests, or one did not. But it did no harm, and his only request had been that the chanters not be in a position to actually witness the ceremony. It was bad enough that women and Others were present; he didn t need a whole mob of Others looking on as well.

Ayla began experiencing the now somewhat familiar sensations associated with the use of the sacred Clan root. The feeling of traveling without moving; of colors rushing past; and the incredibly real impression of falling, falling towards a bright light that she suddenly burst through were all reasonably manageable given her past history of using the root with Creb and Mamut. Once she reached the black void, however, her familiar dread returned. She never felt so lost, alone, and terrified as when she was floating weightless, without any means to move her spirit or otherwise control that inky darkness. She could hear, in the muffled distance, the chants of the Zelandonii onlookers, and that provided a point of reference, but she was still unable to use that point to move either towards or away from it - - the sounds were simply a part of the void. At random intervals she felt what may have been the vibrations of the spirits of some of the other participants in the ceremony, but she could not identify anyone. She felt only varying degrees of terror emanating from them, with no way to communicate with or even attempt to comfort them.

After drifting for some unknown period of tim - - she felt no passage of time whatsoever, only an endless now - - she suddenly perceived the spirit of Trok reaching out towards her. Although he was not in her mind the way that Creb had been during her experience with him, Trok was a more tangible presence within her than Mamut had been. She did, however, begin to re-experience the familiar sensation of her mind being gently probed by the Clan man. But Trok's probing seemed to be merely observational, as if he were somehow looking into her mind from a distance rather than being actually inside her head as she had felt with Creb. She tried mentally calling out: "Trok, can you hear me? I can feel you nearby but only vaguely. Please come closer if you can." She felt an intensification of his probing in response, and began to experience a vivid sequence of recent memories, almost as if she herself was only an observer of her own memories. She suddenly realized that she was, in fact, observing her own memories from another perspective because a part of her spirit had actually shifted into Trok's mind!

Trok immediately felt that his probing of Ayla's memories had turned into a two-way pathway. He immediately distanced his spirit from Ayla's and ousted her from his mind, but was shaken to his core. How had this woman of the Others done something that he had only previously experienced by melding his mind with the spirits of other experienced and powerful mog-urs? How much of his own mind, spirit, and purpose did Ayla perceive before he was able to sever the connection? In the short time he had been in close contact with her, he had discovered that Ayla was, indeed, exactly whom she presented herself to be - - a woman of the Others who was nonetheless also Clan. He sensed her sympathies for Guban and Yorga; her love for her mate Jondalar; her astonishing love for her animals; and her genuine desire for Clan and Others to co-exist peacefully. He had not been able to probe more deeply in the short time he was connected to her, but he sensed that Ayla carried dark secrets from deeper in her past that involved the Clan. He resolved to return to her spirit later, but in the meantime Trok resolved to keep only a tenuous connection between his spirit and Ayla's while he moved on to probing the other participants in the ceremony.

Ayla's mind was whirling from the sensations she had absorbed during her brief contact with Trok's spirit. She had experienced a somewhat similar melding with Creb's spirit when he had guided her all the way back to their common roots in the life-giving waters of the oceans, but Creb had remained firmly in control during the entire journey. She saw only as much of his mind as he permitted, and she had not had the sensation of actually seeing Creb's mind the way she had momentarily glimpsed into Trok's. When Trok cast her spirit away from his own, she initially experienced her familiar fear, but two things steadied her: First, she continued to feel a distant connection to Trok; and two, she felt that she had somehow come away with some of Trok's past experiences with the Clan root. The details escaped her for the moment, but she felt, given time and meditation on her part, that she just might be able to use her experience with Trok to help her negotiate the black void in the future. For the moment, though, she returned to floating in the void as Trok moved on to other minds.

While floating in the black void was still terrifying to Ayla, she had been there twice before and returned, therefore she attempted to control her fears and concentrate on anything she might be able to learn. She felt Trok's mind within her own, not really guiding and controlling her spirit as Creb had done, but Trok still felt much more present than Mamut's spirit had been during her spiritual journey with him. That helped her to control herself in this strangest of places. While Trok's mind was preoccupied with reaching out to and guiding all of the other participant's spirits during this ceremony, and in probing Jondalar's mind in particular, he was less aware of what was happening in Ayla's mind. She began to dream...or perhaps it was a vision.

At first Ayla became aware of the distant sound of a baby's cry. As she focused upon that sound, it grew and the darkness of the void began to recede just a bit. As she moved in the direction of the cries, she suddenly saw that she was standing outdoors, somewhere far away from any fires, torches or other sources of light. As she looked up into the nighttime sky, she observed the star that would someday come to be known as Mars shining a brilliant red. She had often wondered about this strange red star, and the other, whiter stars that moved about in the sky in such strange defiance of all the other stars that were permanently affixed to their one and only position in the heavens. What perplexed her in this vision, however, was that the baby's cries she had heard before now seemed to be coming directly from the red star. As she stood, watched and listened, she began to hear more babies crying. The nighttime sky of her vision began to fade as the cries became louder and louder.

Ayla suddenly found herself standing inside the blackness of a cold, dark cave. The red star had turned into the dying red embers of a small fire that had almost extinguished itself. She found herself surrounded by several bodies of dead Clan females and children. The only ones left alive were the babies, and they were all crying out for warmth, and comfort, and food. She walked out of the cave and saw, to her horror, that the ground outside was littered with the bodies of dozens, then hundreds, then uncountable thousands of Clan women and children. The cries of numberless Clan babies continued to grow until she was almost deafened, then suddenly stopped. She became aware that the figure of a Clan man was approaching her. He seemed to be moving quite slowly himself, but was approaching her very rapidly. Moments later, Creb, the great one-eyed, crippled Clan Mog-ur who had raised her from childhood stood before her. Ayla could see that Creb, too, was horrified by the scene before them, and he had a strangely mixed look of both extreme anger and great pity upon his grizzled brow.

"Creb, what happened? Who killed all of these people? Who would do such an terrible thing to these women and children?" Creb leaned heavily on his staff and peered at her. She could see that he was trying to control his anger as he spoke his next words. He spoke softly, and Ayla was surprised to realize that he was actually speaking to her, and not using his typical one-armed Clan gestures. But his words froze her heart. "Ayla, my daughter, you are responsible for all of this." As soon as his words hit her she found herself back in the black void, screaming in horror and denial. She knew that she would not, could not, ever do such a thing to even a single Clan woman or child.

Even as she struggled to reconcile what she had just been shown with what she knew about herself, she realized that another figure was approaching her, this time right there in the black void with her. She knew instantly that it was her other father-figure, the old Mamut of the Lion Camp. She moved towards him in the darkness and cried out for his help and comfort. "Mamut, tell me it isn't true; tell me Creb is wrong." "Ayla, my child, calm yourself and listen, for my time here with you is very short." Ayla felt his words inside of her more than she actually heard them, and they had the effect of immediately calming her and focusing her attention upon the ancient shaman. "Creb spoke the truth to you, although he phrased it more directly than I would have done. But then, it is his Clan peoples that are heading towards oblivion, not mine." Ayla felt her world begin to crash around her once again, but Mamut continued to speak and that provided her with an anchor to hold onto. "You will not, of course, actually go out and kill Clan women and children. But your mere existence, the mere fact that you have lived your life the way you were meant to as ordained by the Mother herself, will lead to the inevitable end of the Clan peoples everywhere. This was part of your destiny from the very beginning. Even Creb knows this, which is why he does not rage at you. But Ayla, you must also know that even as your life in this world comes as the very footsteps of doom for the Clan, you are also the Clan's one and only hope for survival. Take what comfort you can in that, for I cannot tell you more."

Ayla was devastated. How could she live with herself knowing that she had somehow doomed the people she first loved, the Clan, to this hideous fate? And if the Clan's women and children are fated to die, how could she be their only hope for survival? She recalled Jondalar's oft-stated observation that Those Who Serve speak with shadows on their tongues. But Mamut was not done with her quite yet. "Ayla...Ayla, you must pay careful attention to me for a bit longer. You will have need of great strength in the coming days, weeks and months. You cannot allow the visions you've had here today weaken your will to live, or divert you from the Mother's path for you. You will continue to be tested, almost beyond your ability to withstand. Remember that your totem is the Cave Lion, and that great lessons can be learned from hard testing. You must endure, and endure, and endure. Your life walks a knife's edge. Do not give up on this world, the Mother, or your own life. And remember always that you have been, and will continue to be, loved by many, most especially by the Mother of All who holds your destiny in her hands.

Suddenly Mamut was gone and she felt herself being pulled through the void and back towards the light. She heard chanting and saw firelight, then found herself back in her body. She quickly looked around at the other participants in the ceremony sitting or lying around the fire and realized that everybody seemed to have come back to themselves. Then she turned to Jondalar and discovered to her horror that he was lying beside her still, stiff and cold.