Chapter Fourteen: Moebius Transformations
The Kestrel Purlieu, Southern border of the Kestrel Pine Barrens
Apex, 2nd Som Justice, month of Foundations 8178
First day of the Vernal Equinox, also known as ReBirth
Conscious or unconscious, the group had casually surrounded her. Gregoire and the Lamane stood before her, Hereth and Atirian to her right, Zakeriel and Revas to her left. Others milled about behind her, undoubtedly soldiers prepared to answer the order of their Commander. J'reth had not yet dared leave the promenade above, watching from a respectful distance, but present nonetheless. As if wrangling a wild animal, the Commander raised his hands and crooned in a soothing voice, lulling her into complacency and calm.
“Let us speak first, then decisions can be made. They are going no where, can do no harm.”
“No harm?!” Khes snarled.
“Mith'erahsh...” Atirian murmured, repeating the same in her mind as he sensed what she was about to threaten, feared what she would do without right or fair warning.
A hand flew up before his face, fingers sprawled like the legs of a leaping spider. “Shall I show you, share with you the harm that has been done?! What a head bounced on stone feels like? What fangs in your shoulder and a blade in one's gut-- counting the minutes to your death feels like whilst battling an epicyon in the pitch black and snow? The weight of that beast on a small Erahs frame? The weight of a Ganroth holding that same small body over an altar by her hair to stare at hundreds of gouged eyes and severed ears and limbs of brethren and Shae FEELS LIKE? DO YOU NEED FEEL THIS TO KNOW HARM?!”
~Mith'erahsh... be calm.~
“I WILL NOT BE CALM!” She spun on Atirian. “HOW CAN YOU?! You have shared this with Zakeriel and I! HOW ARE BOTH OF YOU SO BLOODY CALM?!”
It was Hereth that stepped forward and dipped a head low to whisper, “because they have not lived with the constant threat of powerlessness from the moment womanhood was thrust upon them. Control was always theirs and the threat of it being taken away is a rare thing.”
Khes' bottom lip quivered as her eyes burned, Hereth's own as well. “If you need to share, share with me, Khes. Words are enough. I already know the rest.”
The Lamane shook his head and grunted under his breath. “On about this bullpish again. Set you straight with a man afterall didn't it? Still complainin--”
The force of Zakeriel's fist into the man's mouth hurtled him back and over the chair behind him. Osian hit the floor with a wail and a groan, then scrambled as the knight stormed around to stand over him. “One more tellorath word out of you and I won't stop. Understand me? I don't care if my father was the bloody god of compassion. You've used it up.” The air seered with a hatred that threatened to set fire to every stick of furniture near them. “Respect every person breathing or lose your right to. Your ears working, old man?”
Terrified, the man bobbed his head, holding his bleeding mouth and flinching as Zakeriel stepped over him and faced the others. His eyes fell on Khes and Hereth, holding the latter's gaze. Pointing over his shoulder, he apologetically stammered, “I'm sorry, did you want to-- ...I probably should have let you do that.”
“No, that was... beautifully done, actually.” Hereth nodded approval. “Doubt it'll stick though.”
Zakeriel shrugged, “daily training keeps me and the boys fit. It will eventually sink in.” He glowered over his shoulder again. As Gregoire lightly pat his shoulder to encourage him to move on, Hereth gave the two a sidelong glance then gestured to the upper ward if Khes wanted to walk with them.
Atirian urged her with more than just words. ~Go on Mith'Erahsh. Let the air ease the heat of your ire. The rest of us can speak with Gregoire and Bazl.~
~I am not just letting this go.~
The upper ward was not used for defense as the lower ward. It faced the cliffs, so what little gardening and the few livestock they kept were here. Yahlin must have insisted upon it being at least a little decorative, primroses and other climbing and flowering plants lined the peristyle. Hereth was clever. It had the intended soothing effect, as did the swallows and finches that playfully weaved about in the rafters and bushes. Still forgetting at times that her hair was gone, Khes hung her head to hide as she had always done since childhood. There was no such security.
“You've a right to be angry,” Hereth emphatically informed her. “Do not let those penis-bearing dolts try to tell you otherwise. Like my brother, they just don't want to look at the damage done by such things, take responsibility for their own complacency.”
In a swift draw and twirl of her dagger, Khes severed a rose from a bush as they passed and sheathed the blade without breaking stride. Hereth sniffed and nodded with an expression of admiration. “I think it is doubly hard on people like us, ones so capable at defending ourselves.”
Brushing the petals of the flower along her cheek, the woman's brow knit. “Atirian insists nothing happened. Aside from her somehow severing our bond, she just knocked me out with her magic. J'reth too. An Old Magic hex that stole my memory. That it was her and Maris everyone saw.”
“Doesn't matter what anyone says though, does it? You don't remember, so you won't ever really know, no matter how much you trust the person who assures you.”
Voice weak and heart pounding, Khes gasped, “yes. Why can't they understand that?”
“They do not understand why we do not simply accept their word. After all, they know best, they are law, they are the pillars of all society. How dare we doubt or question?” Hereth held out a hand and brushed fingers along the cold stone of the walls within which they lived for so long. “No one drugged me or used magic ON me. I used my gift to escape... every bloody chance I got. I would go as far as my ability was able to take me, travel all of Tybraes if I could. Watched the Avali migrate across the Barrens. Walked the streets of Enoa Vale. Climbed the Fangs. Anywhere I could reach.”
“Someone you knew?”
“Someones... men under my brother's employ. Two of them still here.” Hereth's hand recoiled from the wall and they brought them behind their back to clasp tightly. “My meditations were very deep to be able to travel as far as I did. In that vast empty hole of memory, I only know... enough.”
Both fell silent as they meandered the walk until they drew too near where others were working. Stopping, they leaned at the stone rail and Khes stared at the flower she had cut. Tiny insects crawled at the center and the longer she studied it she began to see little knicks, a curled brown edge on a petal. The lovely white blossom looked less and less perfect, less and less beautiful.
“Osian believes because you are with Gregoire--”
“That his boys 'fixed' his broken sister.” Hereth lifted their chin. “Blind tello-dkun. Couldn't make him understand it no matter how much Zakeriel makes him bleed. Can't beat ignorance and hatred out of people.”
“That wasn't really about you.”
“I know. He's a good kid, though... and it is nice to have someone speaking up for a change. I get tired of fighting. Gets too easy to just keep my head down. As easy as it is hard.”
Khes set the flower in front of Hereth. “He knows that.”
“Like I said, good kid.”
Heart heavy and tears balancing on the rims of her eyes, but far too stubborn to fall, Khes leaned against Hereth. Their superior height was almost a surrogate for the nurturing of a parent. “What do I do now?”
“Same thing we always do, girl... fight on. Killing that sorceress bitch won't change a damn thing, won't even make you feel better.” Hereth picked up the flower and smelled it. “So many unknowns in the world that are terrifying if we spend too much time thinking about them. Just lump it on that pyre and burn them all.”
Looking down at her, Hereth held her gaze a moment then murmured, “well, he doesn't really know either, does he? And from what I understand, that woman has threatened him with some pretty nasty stuff in the past. Maybe he's a bit less of an enemy, bit more of a commiserating victim?”
“I just...” she gripped the stone ledge and pulled against it, bowing forward as she struggled with her conflicting thoughts.
“Every other tellorath thing we thought we knew was wrong, yeah?” Hereth rubbed her back. “What's the harm in accepting one more? Talk to him. If you were right all along, he's pretty... leave him a mark to remember his mistakes.”
With a gentle pat on her shoulder, the Shae cleared their throat to draw her attention up before starting away. Lifting her head, Khes spotted J'reth leaning against an arch column on the far side of the cloister. Naturally, he had followed them. Making eye contact, she could see he was waiting for permission to approach. Looking away, she swiped at her eyes, then hopped up to sit on the stone banister.
The Venerate took his time, gave her a moment to collect herself and be at peace. Crossing back under the peristyle, he remained by the arch, a good three paces between them. His respectfulness was surprising given her memories of him. Before her capture he had always been in her personal space, as close to her as he could be at every opportunity. When he just stood saying nothing, she looked to him and muttered, “well...?”
“I assumed you would have questions or want to rage at me. I am at your disposal for whatever you need.”
“Don't do that.” Turning away from his gaze, she rest her brow on the column.
His focus had fallen to the primrose leaves and he played with them idly as he spoke. “Everything that has befallen you was because of my family. Aside from Aila, who is also my fault, there is no one else to take the blame for this. By clan traditions it would fall to me to make recompens--”
“Wense clan traditions.” She shook her head. “I was as much a member of that clan as the fleas on the vulpin. Boann only allowed my presence because she was commanded to arrange my birth.”
“My father didn't--”
“Your father had wense-all to do with it.” Khes shook her head. “Boann let him think his visions had significance, or they concocted the story to explain to the clan why she was allowing for me to live. She'd had enough of a fight when my mother was born, she had to have a damned good reason with me and my father didn't stick around to explain it to anyone else.” Waving off the conversation she looked away again and heaved a weary sigh as she watched two finches land on the pathway in front of her.
J'reth came no closer, but he seemed to need a sense of her, switching to Elhia to better understand what she was feeling. ~I do not expect you to dismiss all of the distrust and hatred she cultivated in you toward me over the years, or the betrayal and fear and... after what happened before you disappeared--~
~Voor kidnapped me.~
~Is there any hope you would allow for us to start as strangers? You are very different after all you have endured. I feel, perhaps because of her manipulations, maybe you do not truly know me at all.~ Sapphire eyes fixed on her, hope and desperation spilling from them as tangible as the emotion emanating through his Elhia.
~I love Zakeriel.~
Swallowing back his emotion, J'reth nodded, his eyes lowering with what she could see clearly was shame. ~I know. Once we had an idea where to look for you... I came searching.~ She felt a swelling of misery and a disappointment that fell so deep into sorrow she knew no name for it. ~I always thought I would be the one to teach you of Drhel, to know this with you. I would never have thought a Shae could-- ...I am happy you have such beauty in your life now.~
Emotions once again commondeering the muscles of her lips and glossing her eyes, Khes peeked at him like a youth caught stealing. ~I did not know that was what we...~
~Then it is true and I have no right to interfere in anyway.~ J'reth hung his head, avoiding her gaze. ~I would still seek friendship if that is not an imposition, but... I understand if the wounds are too deep.~
Turning away, he started down the peristyle with a melancholy saunter. Khes watched him for a long while. Looking down to the finches, they had settled in to sharing a bit of something they had found, bread or seed. Sliding off the bannister, she tried not to disturb the birds and strode after him. Touching his elbow, she looked up at him, uncertain, nervous. Trust was something so broken in her life, a porcelain shattered to such fine pieces that reassembled the cracks gaped wide with only dust at her feet. Raising one hand she waited for him, a single tear finally escaping and rolling over her cheek.
~Vah'vahushtu sy, J'reth Ohr. Era'ell?~
~Do not hurt me, J'reth Onr. Understand?~
Meeting her eyes, she could see he was truly seeing the depth of change in them for the first time. He raised his own hand and delicately placed his palm to hers. ~Sy'ell.~
Neither looked away as she expressed the Erahs tradition of trust, a sharing of experience, a pact that gives a small piece of oneself to the other. One day, perhaps she would feel safe enough to share more with him, but for now, she shared only what had happened from the moment she awoke after Voor took her until she and Zakeriel escaped Natan. Not that he had not already stumbled upon their intimacy for himself, but she need not share her experience of it. That would be a cruelty.
The moment the sharing passed, she saw his muscles tense in a lurch to embrace her, but he stopped himself. Boundaries had not been fully established and although the Avali were an affectionate people, as Khes had emphasized, she did not wholly identify as one of his clan. All things considered, as well, such physical affections may not be comfortable. Instead, she held still as his eyes and fingers rose to her severed ear.
~Nelah can fix this. Aila healed Maris' deformities, Nelah can fix this... their gift is the same.~
Khes shook her head and moved away from his hand. ~What deformities? Maris was always a very handsome man.~ She avoided his gaze as she retorted, not yet willing to share the complexities of that part of her life with him. His hand rose again but Khes hesitated to take it.
~You demanded to know how I could have him amongst us... I never truly explained. Let me do so now.~
Accepting his request, the woman allowed him to show her the assault on their clan, Boann's death, how Aila came to be banished, he was elected to Venerate and Maris came to be with them. As the Eldrhe sharing ebbed away, Khes felt J'reth's other hand swipe at her face. Their fingers were interlocked and she had begun to weep.
~I am sorry,~ he cupped her cheek. ~Was that too much at once?~
Khes shook her head and stood processing it all. That Aila manipulated Maris was no surprise to her. Khes need not even confront them to know exactly what the woman had said and done to convince him. Heal these horrific wounds so you'll be handsome for Khes again. Such a simple manipulation and he would have done anything she wanted. Khes almost felt pity for him. The complexity of those emotions buzzed about inside her again, a hornets' nest in a box, shaken up and not set free.
~You have to stay away from her J'reth. Something about your gifts... none of this is about me. It has all been to manipulate you.~
~The Jasuuk woman claimed Aila wanted me dead.~
~Aila is a necromantis.~
Understanding lit his face as he raked his hands back through his hair. ~She and Maris could have had my body halfway to Lake Moriar before anyone realized...~
~Has she had contact with anyone else?~
The man shook his head. ~Servants maybe, otherwise, certainly no one but the guard that delivers their food everyday and Gregoire was very specific that it be someone different everyday.~
Relieved at this, Khes felt better. Leaning back against the wall, she felt her muscles relaxing finally. Realizing that J'reth was giving her the Elhia equivalent of a massage, she scowled, “stop that. I can relax on my own.”
Turning, he leaned against the wall beside her and nodded as Zakeriel stepped out into the ward looking for her. ~It is unconventional. I will try not to judge. He makes you happy?~
~Did you see mere rutting, J'reth?~
In spite of the pain in his eyes, he managed a small smirk. ~Then I will not insult you with petty threats of harm if he wounds you.~
“Everyone is feeling well...?” The knight approached cautious, eyes shifting from J'reth to Khes with a wary twitch. He plucked the small stick from his lips and lifted his brows in anticipation. Khes could see he had cleaned his knuckles from his earlier altercation.
With a roll of her head, she gave him a delicate smile, then included J'reth in their sending. ~Everyone is fine, Erahtha.~
She felt the small stiffening of the man's muscles, but the inclusion was the most delicate way to bridge a friendship between the two of them and to enforce the connection she and Zakeriel truly shared. Reaching out, she stroked his upper arm before standing to walk to Zakeriel's side.
~I am pleased. Good to see you again, Venerate.~ The two held a long stare, a stand off to test the temperature of the water. J'reth, to his credit, kept the tide warmer than Khes anticipated.
“Sylf'atha fen, Zakeriel, for bringing her back to us. As Venerate... and friend, I owe you a debt.”
Although Khes had expected the usual polite demurring, Zakeriel slipped the stick back between his teeth and smiled. He gave a half bow, bringing his fingertips to his brow, then turned and slid his arm around Khes' waist. She stepped aside and instead took his hand, not indulging his show of possession. Nothing was said, her unspoken, non-verbal chide all that was needed as they went inside.
- - - -
Evening, 2nd Som Justice, month of Foundations 8178
First day of the Vernal Equinox, also known as ReBirth
Scattered about the room as if exhausted with each other's presence, the weary group sat in ponderous silence mulling over the hefty truths Aafon had laid upon them all. Had Khes not entered mid-story and vouched for his word, given what he had shown to her, they might have refused to believe it. Calihl above all others was most despondant. As the young woman sat beside him and took his hand, he reflected on having seen her grow from an infant to an adult with poise and knowledge far exceeding his own. Although a young Elihaet, he was older than Khes when she was born, yet he felt so much her junior and so very lost. A sense of understanding cocooned him as she drew his hand onto her lap. She still felt very much the same.
Paoel hopped toward the center of the room and smacked the floor with a mighty rage. “Motherless. Taoel Gyreck not wrong. Cannot see wrong. Sees all threads... all threads: Motherless.” SMACK. SMACK. The ardent indications of his mood were undeniable.
“Perhaps not wrong, Paoel, just a misinterpretation,” Nelah replied with solemn caution. “Hereth and Bazl have said they have misinterpreted many things--”
“All of our damned history and faith has been a giant misinterpretation,” Gregoire grumbled from the corner.
“Is it really important?” Zakeriel asked, “I am not trying to be cruel, Paoel, but... if Aafon is here now... do we still need all of this prophecy--”
“IS. IMPORTANT.” Paoel strained to force the word as correctly as possible, slamming his tail down as he barked.
Suddenly, Bazl errupted in an echoing chitter of laughter, clicking one's hands together in a slow clap of delight. Everyone turned to him, Paoel's eye bulging in his direction and both Khes and Zakeriel prepared to launch forward to assert that the Saltigue was NOT being disrespectful.
“Bazl? Care to share the jest?” Hereth encouraged, a wary eye on the body language of the room.
“Motherless! One understands!” Gesturing toward Aafon, Bazl was still chuckling. “Aafon Dnar is Motherless.”
Confused the Ganroth shook his head, “no, my stoney friend. My mother was quite lovely.”
Pressing a hand to their brow, Hereth put it together. “No, six men sent through time... MEN.” Aafon only stared at them blankly.
“FATHERS,” Lily supplied for him.
“YES. THIS!” Paoel slammed his tail down in satisfaction at being right, regardless of how it had to be. Hopping toward Bazl, he cocked his head back and forth in agitation, then hissed, “yes. This. Stone man.”
Bazl reached out and gently pat the top of his head. “Well done, Son of Taoel. The Fire Keepers should be quite proud.”
“Yyyyeeeessss.” The Tōk sneered, still angry at everyone's dismissal, then he galloped to a corner near a window and sat to pout. Nelah rose and walked to him to offer comfort, although not a Jace, she had become surprisingly more nurturing than when the group had first gathered.
“So we are back to prophecies,” Zakeriel also pouted, casting an apologetic look Khes' direction.
Bazl waved one's hands with a disgusted buzzing sound. “Prophecies are foolish notions of primitives worshipping the sun.”
“Or ancient mages?” Hereth coughed, folding their arms with a sharp look that warned the Saltigue to be careful with such insults.
“Of course, apologies. What one means to say is, these words written were not prophecies of things inevitable. Jyotishr of long ago recorded their visions as Hereth and Bazl and Taoel recorded their visions. As Paoel said, in these visions there are many possibilities, many paths the future can take. Over time, some become brighter and brighter... as if one adds more torches to the side of a road. Still not inevitable, only most probable.” The Ontaxa gestured toward the skrying pool. “One takes these as prophecy because one's ancestors told one this was faith, religion, infallible, unquestionable.”
“The Ontax have no such things,” Aafon explained, looking over to the young Shae. “Their society is based on knowledge. If they have a question they seek an attainable answer. Faith requires that you accept an answer without proof and stop asking questions. The ontax would never agree to that. An answer only leads one to more questions.”
Studying the man with a stern scowl, Zakeriel crossed his arms. “So you're just reasserting that we're all gullible and stupid, then? Just... doubling down on that, ay?”
“Not at all. There was religion in my day too, just different ones.” Shrugging his shoulders, the Ganroth sat back and smirked, “Just trying to help you understand, Sir Téos... that's all.”
Pacing forward, mind turning in long slow circles as he pondered through all this, Gregoire rolled his hand in the air before him. “So all of you Jyotishr seeing possible futures... taking into account that Jaa was able to trap this Uvall creature in the vault underground--”
“Why again was it not just thrown in the fissure?” Pelleas asked. “Would the volcanic gases not have... steamed it to death?”
Bobbing his head, Aafon smiled, “the fizzure was just a canyon eight thousand years ago. Throwing it in the bottom would have just been a big pit. The Daiyu Ylin erupted maybe fifteen hundred years after the Felling, as you call it. That was the first rupture that broke the fissure wider and cracked open the steam vents, all those lovely gases that smell. What has awakened the Uvall from its hibernation seems to be the recent eruption prior to the Ganroth uprising when the blue magma flooded the fizzure.”
“Why would the magma make a difference?” Atirian pondered aloud. “I recall Massafera speaking of it as the 'Blood of the Old Gods' so it had to have some significance.”
“Massafera?” Gregoire glanced back at him, but Atirian shook his head and looked away.
Raising a hand with one finger extended, Bazl posited, “perhaps the magma is of little importance, but the sulferic gasses. The lava flow ceased their release, or at least, significantly slowed them. Perhaps it is not addition but subtraction that is the key to the Uvall's awakening.”
“Does it matter?! How do we kill it?” Nelah blurted, a shine of her fierceness cutting through the sobriety of the room.
“It does matter, Nelah,” Bazl faced her with a patient nod. “If it is a means to do it harm.”
“How might that work, Bazl?” The Commander began to plan tactically. “If the vents are sealed, can we even test if it was the sulf--”
The door burst open with a gust of wind, or so they initially thought until most were wavering with mild nausea. Khes and Aafon stared toward the center of the room and the Erahs'Jasuuk who had arrived to take centerstage. Tossing back his hood, he cocked a grin.
“Sorry I am late. Quite a distance, Ejade.” He shrugged and smirked at Aafon, “two days, still not bad, eh?”
The Ganroth rose and strode over to give the man a solid hug. Vulgar chortles were exhanged as everyone else was forgotten, including Khes who stood and stared. Atirian and Zakeriel took cautious steps closer to her, a few others looking between them and sly enough to piece things together although not entirely aware of the weight to this arrival. From the corner where she sat, Taliss looked over at her. ~You need to leave?~
~No. Thank you, Mith'erahsh.~
The reunited time travelers finally quieted with Aafon clearing his throat and stepping back to gesture with a hand toward Khes. Lifting a hand, Nel scratched below one eye as he looked her over. “Well, no denying this one's mine is there? Even tattooed my name on your face.” He stepped forward and looked at her hair and ear. “I imagine we have some tales to share.”
“Assume a lot of liberties even now, don't you?”
Nel chuckled and glanced at Aafon before looking back to her. “More than just look like Lihaan. Can sense the fire all around you though...” His eyes shifted to Atirian first, then Zakeriel. At this he gave pause, but nodded, showing no disapproval, not that she would have cared if he did. A tension like a sensing of a great bonfire erupting behind him creased a line between his snowy brows. He turned to glance toward the far corner where J'reth sat. After a moment they flitted over Nelah and Taliss, though far less interested in her female friends. “Quite a bouquet you have gathered, sy'eerahsash.”
“You do not get to claim 'daughter' with me.”
“You wear my blade.”
Swift as a blink, belt and all pelted the top of his boots. “And Revas has your bow. I will make him a new one. Take it.”
Inclining his head, he studied her, the mirth fading, although no animosity replaced it, merely curiosity. Only the faintest whisper of his Elhia brushed near her and Khes snarled, “don't you dare.”
The man raised his hands in respect of her wishes. “Can we at least talk somewhere perhaps with fewer people readying to stab me in the back? Feel free to bring your...” he chuckled again, “esh...entourage.”
Eyes narrowing at him, Khes' sneer quivered as she looked between him and Aafon. “I do not think either of the Havashatr of History have a right to criticize those with whom I chose to bond.”
Both men raised their brows at her insult, but only Nel put a hand to his breast and spoke with genuine regret. “Khes... I meant to imply no such thing. Please, let us speak.”
~Hear him out, Mith'erahsh.~
By the flick of Nel's eyes, Khes could tell that Atirian had allowed him to hear as well. The touch of their minds would tell him more than just simple words. She could see in his eyes he already understood who Atirian was in full- not some pretty faced tumble she kept around, a spare lover.
Saying nothing she turned and left the room. The upper ward was not far. If nothing else perhaps she could throw him from the battlement there and watch him tumble down the cliffs. She knew it was residual childhood angers dancing about in her mind, but she let it have its run, let it tire itself out so perhaps she would be calmer, more reasoned when they sat to speak. Already today she was weary of speaking.
The sun was cracking the sky, spilling the blood of unknown deities across the heavens in peaches and golds. Seated upon one of Yahlin's fancy garden benches, she stared at the colors and tried to find joy in the vibrance there. Atirian lowered to the grass a few feet away within her vision but at a distance. Somehow he had convinced Zakeriel to stay behind. That was a trick she would have to see repeated, unless the man knocked him out and left him with Gregoire in binds.
Wise enough to maintain a respectful space, Nel found a small stool on the peristyle and carried it over. Seated on this, he undid the clasp of his cloak and removed it, draping it over his lap. After a moment he held the Alces blade out to her. “There is no need to throw away a perfectly good dagger. Besides, was it not Lihaan who gave it to you? Not me.”
Bitter at this truth, she took the blade back, but set it beside her, not looking at him. The man seemed content that progress had been made. “Aafon told me that he showed you everything... the full extent of my time with Lihaan. I should feel violated by that but, I suppose it was only fair that you have something to know of me, be it through Lihaan's eyes, even if it was regretably so late.”
“Regrettably late,” she chuckled with closed eyes, fighting back her emotion. “The worst part of this is... I at least had my mother for a time. Atirian... not only did Renen not stay but he impregnated a child who died giving birth to him. So his life is my life and mine his. Do either of you even care the damage you have left behind you? You honestly think a few trinkets and a simple apology in the dirt makes it all forgivable?” One hand rubbed at the ritual tattoo around her eye, then she lifted her gaze to his. “That you can arrive with your witty banter and your dashing smile and be the legend we have all worshiped and I will just... accept that, accept you?”
“No. Of course not.” Leaning forward he lowered his voice, “we are-- I am detached because I had to be... as you will have to be. I was not cruel to Lihaan, and you cannot say she did not care for me--”
“But did you care at all for her?” Khes spat at him. “I do not care what manipulations you would put on her feelings. Your intentions, the moment you lied about your intentions it made what you did wrong. It was not violent but you damn well know it was wrong!”
Turning her head toward Atirian, she fought back tears as he soothed her. ~Mith'erahsh... you cannot convince him of this. He is a soldier with a mission, perverse as that goal may be.~
~Oh no, I can convince him.~
Although she need not touch him, it only made the bond stronger and easier. Khes reached out and gripped his hands, the closest flesh within reach and with one vicious, angry push she thrust every experience she endured in Maris' hands through to him. The elder Alces lurched back with a horrified gasp, nearly falling from the stool. Bolting to his feet, Atirian neared to see that he was alright. Nel held out a hand to ward him off as Khes glowered at him without mercy.
When he met her eyes, shaken and disoriented, she very pointedly whispered, “a person can love the taste of the poison that is killing them. So you've no damn right to tell me that it is all fine and well and good because Lihaan loved you.”
“Sy'eerahsash... sylf'alla fen...”
Shaking her head, she stood up. “No the person you owe your apologies to died in my arms a true hero. I aspire to her greatness, not yours. I suppose since all our faith is lies, I cannot tell you to seek her in ReBirth to beg forgiveness. Your death will just be cold and empty.” Picking up the Alces blade and running her fingers over the mark of her mother's name on the sheath she murmured, “but I am not troubled by this.”
Glancing at Atirian, her lashes fluttered beneath the disappointment of his gaze. ~I am sorry... I tried.~
He let her leave but remained to speak with Nel alone. There was no aspect of her he did not know and could not illuminate for the intruding man who dared call her “daughter.” Khes needed more time to process the anger she had not even realized she was carrying inside her. The moment she stepped inside, she was met by Zakeriel and a new wave of emotion sprung up within her, a fresh fount that was also a surprise. Burying her face in his chest the woman crumpled her shoulders and let out a heart-rending sob.
- - - -
2nd Som Justice, month of Foundations 8178
First day of the Vernal Equinox, also known as ReBirth
“I have no proof of it.” Hands gestured in a weak sign of defeat as Nelah looked between Bazl and Hereth. “I can only tell you... it is my intuition.”
Angered at the acusation, Hereth scowled from a distance. “That is quite an accusation on intuition alone. The punishments among your own people are harsh, mine... so much worse.”
“She is just learning still. All this can be undone, corrected.” Looking to Bazl with a plea, Nelah urged, “please. If I am right, she can not possibly have practiced long enough to have...”
A bony had rose to silence them both as a soft knock rattled the door. “Come.”
Brisa peered inside before she entered and closed the door with a sharp click. “You have told them?”
“Aye. I suppose you are going to tell me you saw some ridiculousness, or are you here with no more than feelings as well?” The Shae snuffed in her direction.
With a shake of her head, Brisa wrung her hands then noted, “I think, by now, my sister's reputation is well established, but... I am not certain one can understand the danger of her manipulation skills unless they have been witnessed or experienced. They can be so subtle.”
“Eleri would be a perfect victim for her,” Nelah interjected.
“A wounded bird, batted about by two scrappy vulpins...” Brisa held Hereth's gaze. “She need only offer a weapon of protection.”
Bazl bobbed one's head in understanding. “Yes, one knows of young Stavrou's gift.”
Hands raised, Nelah held them as if to conjure something. “First she would offer mere lessons in this.”
“Yes,” Aila's sister asserted with a note of recollection. “Then, she would offer faster, easier methods. Ones that cause no taxing.”
“How can a young mage turn away an offer of powerful means of protection that cause her no harm either?” Nelah's large eyes held Hereth's. “How many of us, wounded deeply, would not wish to carry such a weapon?”
Dropping their eyes away, Hereth exhaled in sorrow. “You said it is like an addiction.”
As Brisa moved to speak, Nelah held a hand out. “If she has not engaged too often, it would be no more than a youth having had a few tastes of fenim, perhaps a drop of golden oil in their tea.”
“And if she has practiced with the desperation of a child routinely beaten by a beast of a father?” Brows quivered for fear of the truth.
Brisa stepped forward, hands clasped tight at her waist. “Both Nelah and I have learned to temper our past. We can bring her through the worst of it and teach her properly. Train her as she should have been.”
“Without the old magics.”
Turning eyes to Bazl, Hereth fixed a stare on the Saltigue. “You've remained rather quiet, Rag'n'Bone.”
“Mmm. Yes.” The Ontaxa nodded, fingertips clicked in thought. “It is a mistake, one thinking the Old Magics are the addiction. This magic itself is no more an addiction than your own.”
“Khes has said Atirian feels an addiction to his gift. He is the only Ndorinr we know.” Nelah's challenge was not a strong one, but the other's turned curious eyes to Bazl.
A soft clicking laugh rose. “Atirian's urges and pleasure do not derive from his gift. One's addiction, as it were, is from that which he does with it. One believes it stems from the gathering of life essence. Yes, certainly this is euphoric in some ways, but Master Vaeth's skills were foster in unfortunate ways. Reward, in training, is a powerful imprint upon a young mind. Entangle pleasure with pain, even other's pain...”
“Oh... oh, I see.” Brisa lowered her head. She nodded with a recognition and understanding that unsettled Nelah.
“What of my own, then. No one trained me.”
Bazl's fingertips clicked in thought. “One does not know enough to understand. Perhaps if we speak more.”
“What about Eleri?!” The impatient tension vibrated the energy of the room. Hereth's stature was tall, even beside Bazl, although shorter, they felt imposing in their rage.
Extending a calming hand, Bazl inclined one's head with a murmur. “Young Stavrou has no access to Aila for now. Haste would be prudent, however. Bring Eleri to Bazl in the morning. All come, as well.”
“I will also bring Revas,” Nelah informed them. “She is very fond of him. I think his presence will put her at ease.”
Shaking their head, Hereth fretted. “He might only embarrass her. If she feels she is in trouble, having him here--”
“Will help her feel safer and less likely to lash out,” Nelah reasserted. “She spoke to me about him. I believe there is far more than mere friendship, Lt. Commander. What I have seen of their interactions, I trust Revas will put her at ease in spite of any embarrassments.”
“Settled it is. Go now, please. One is weary, yet has much still to tend to.”
Genuflecting, Brisa gasped, “of course, Saltigue.”
The sense of disappointed betrayal emanated from Hereth as they walked past Nelah. She wanted to comfort them, to offer some small word on why Eleri spoke to her of Revas, not to her ommer. No adequate words came to mind. It was best to just leave it lie.
- - - -
Long After Nightfall, 2nd Som Justice, month of Foundations 8178
First day of the Vernal Equinox, also known as ReBirth
Creeping the hall, Eleri's hair hung loose over one side of her face. So long as neither parents saw her, she could leave it down without reprimand. Wearing a dress through the halls was still far too dangerous, but, Aila had taught her ways to feel pretty without needing a skirt. The Shae have 'antiquted and perverse notions of womanhood' she had explained. Aila was very smart, much smarter than Yahlin, and definitely a better woman. Even in the cellar, unbathed, sleeping in straw Aila was still more graceful and lovely than Eleri's mother had ever been, and more caring.
Peeking about a corner she saw Revas. He was sitting with the newcomers and drinking cider. They were telling stories by the fire. Although they had talked often since she fumbled her way through an introduction during the feast, Eleri was still shy about being with him around other people. When she hissed to him, he tried to wave her over. With a shake of her head, she waved for him to come to her. Setting his mug down, he jogged over and took her hand. “Your parents are both gone, probably sleeping. Come sit with us. No one here will be cruel. Nel and Aafon have such amazing tales.”
“I am not comfortabl--”
“Nonsense.” He tugged her toward the room.
Eleri pulled him back into the shadowed hall. “Revas, I just want to be alone with you, while we can.”
The young man grinned and leaned in to kiss her when a loud chortle echoed down the hall, “oh ho! Young Revas has a secret affair! And who is this one, then?” Sagging shoulders and apologetic look, Revas nodded his head toward the group signifying that she may as well surrender now. Holding her hand firmly, he walked her out into the hearth room, into the firelight. Dhon spoke again, this time with less amusement and more admiration, “taking fire in your hands, ay boy? Lamane's own sireling, eh?”
“Oh, not the Lamane's...” With a mutter, Aafon squinted and eyed the girl. “The Laam's perhaps. Nel... look at that girl's face.”
Eleri blushed and hid behind her hair, hugging closer to Revas. She whispered to him, “Osian is not my father. He doesn't like it, knowing he was cuckolded... so, please make them stop.”
“This is Eleri. She's a bit shy, so... maybe everyone can just go back to the story now?” Revas urged, squeezing her hand in comfort, although Aafon and Nel were still staring. He gave them both a warning glare.
“Does Eleri have any stories, maybe any special talents?” Aafon chirped in interest.
Peeking at him from under the swath of auburn hair, she could tell he was fishing for something. Uncomfortable, she just shook her head. “Father says I'm not much use for nothing.”
“Father sounds like a right, prig,” Aafon snorted then tipped his mug toward Nel, “and Khes gave you a mouthful of pish, eh?”
Glowering as he stroked her hand, Revas changed the subject again. “J'reth, maybe you could sing that song... the one that you sang to calm everyone when we were migrating here. I think Eleri would like it.”
At the sound of the Venerate's name, Eleri looked over to the man. She remembered him from the library. Aila spoke of him frequently, of his cruelty and evil. She had also warned her of how beautiful the guise of such evil could be. She did not know that he was anymore beautiful than any other Erahs until he started singing. A choir unto himself, Eleri felt she heard a group singing in unison and though she did not understand the words she felt emotions that were not hers that seemed to come from him. Unable to look away she was mesmerised by the aria and by the glow of him. He shimmered as he sang, the way Aila shimmered. The girl wondered what magic it was he had that allowed him to entrance her so thoroughly. She wished she had it, so she could bewitch Revas the same way. Although Aila warned he was evil, perhaps he would teach her. It could not hurt to gain something from him before she killed him for Aila. After all, Aila said she was not quite ready yet. Powerful enough by far, but not quick enough.
The song came to an end and the girl brought her hands up before her to show appreciation. “It was so lovely,” she murmured. “I wish I could do that.”
J'reth bowed, touching his brow in genuflect to her, then took his seat again. As he did, Lily turned to her with a smile. “Eleri is such a pretty name. My name is Lily.” She held her hand out to brush knuckles. Hesitant at first, she eventually met the woman's gesture, then pulled back sharply as a set of day old bruises showed on her arm. Lily's eyes went to them, but she did not address it. “My son was about your age. Maybe a few years younger. I suspect you would have had much in common. His father was not very kind either.”
“I'm not sure the reasons are all the same,” Eleri barely breathed and ducked her head. Keeping it low as she could under her hair, she rubbed her arm and dispelled the bruises on her arm. She tried to remember if there were any others. As the woman sought out her gaze, Eleri made sure to stop using her gift, so the glow of her eyes did not show.
Leaning forward, Lily rest a gentle hand on her knee and whispered, “far more alike than you think, wildflower.”
Hiding beneath her hair again, Eleri whispered, “I should... probably go. If mother or father were to see me here...”
Dhon let out a loud guffaw, “after the way Zak laid him out today?! Hardly. Man won't be saying much of anything for a while, if his jaw rightly works at all now.”
Lifting her head, the girl looked about at them all laughing. Revas leaned over and relayed the event to her. “For Ommer Hereth?” she gasped. “Really?” Revas chuckled and nodded. “Father will... be...” Terror filled the girl's face and her hands began to shake.
“Eleri, what is it?” Lily noticed first and took her hand, smoothing one of her own toward where the bruises had been, a silent indication that she could tell her, that Lily already understood.
Recoiling from her, Eleri stood. “NO. You don't understand! None of you understand.”
Stepping over and around Revas and the furniture, she started away in an emotional flurry, rapidly swiping her hair from her face as she pulled a leather tie from her belt to hold it back. Revas reached to stop her and she shoved him away as she stormed for the hallway.
Lily called after her, “Eleri, sweetheart...”
“MACSON! All of you... call me Macson.” Taking to a run, the girl disappeared down the hall in tears and ran as fast as she could for the cellar. So practiced at the spell now, even in tears and at a run she could perform the hand gesture. The guard collapsed in a slump to the floor barely having a chance to notice she was coming at him. Opening the door, she pulled him inside with her, but was far too emotional to remember to lock the door. Taking his keys she ran down the stairs and snatched the lantern from the wall.
“Aila! Aila!!” she sobbed as she ran the aisle and dropped to her knees on the stones.
“Blessed Quirifen, Eleri what's wrong?!”
Having learned the Elhia from the woman, she grasped her hands through the bars and sobbed as she conveyed what they had told her upstairs and what this would mean for her, how the beatings would come and the abuse would worsen every opportunity that arose.
“I... I can't. I can't endure any more. He will kill me all because that knight humiliated him. Please Aila, you must come out now. You must free us both NOW!”
“Shhh... it will be alright darling. Open the gate there...” she gestured to the keys on the ground beside her. Hands shaking, she lifted them then began to try each key to find the right one.
“Ladies, we have a problem,” Maris murmured from the adjacent cell.
Lifting her head, the look upon Revas' face stopped her heart. The girl's hands shook harder and she dropped the keys. Stooping to grab them, she gasped, “Revas, just go... please.”
“No... what are you doing?”
~She'll make everything better for me. She's been kind and loves me... and she is going to fix everything.~
Shocked that she could send, Revas reeled a moment, then shook his head and carefully moved forward. ~No, Eleri... you don't understand who she is. Whatever she promised you was a lie. Aila is a viper. She will only use you and--~
“Little Revas... how is sweet sister Khes?” Aila crooned with a smile. “Recovering from her ordeal I hope... or... is she still missing?”
“SHUT UP VALAHSH!” Revas snarled. “We should have killed you in the woods.”
~You see their cruelty, Eleri? Did I not tell you?~
The girl shook, clutching the keys to her chest, battling with what she felt and what Aila told her. ~Not Revas. He's not cruel.~
~OH YES. Even he.~
Lips trembling, she shook her head caught in the emotional gambit. Aila gestured for the keys as Revas moved toward her again. ~Eleri... I would never hurt you. I care for you, just as you are.~
Footsteps sounded from the hall above and Eleri's eyes snapped wide. Aila leapt at the opportunity, ~you see. Already he betrayed you. Called for the others. Do as I taught you!~
In her panic, Eleri flung out a hand and Revas fell back to the floor as if struck by a crossbow bolt. He cried out in agonizing pain, hands going to his head as he curled into a fetal position. Desperately, Eleri turned back to the cell and unlocked it. Aila rushed out and stepped past her, raising her own hand toward Revas.
“NO! Don't kill him! PLEASE!”
Aila's glower chilled her as ice water, but the woman granted her that wish. The girl ran toward Maris' cell and unlocked it as the group of soldiers led by J'reth and Dhon filed down the stairs. Aila's hand rose again, Dhon's eyes bulged and he grasped at J'reth before falling to his knees and to the floor. The man behind him did the same before J'reth roared, “STOP!”
The woman jarred as if punched in the gut and gaped at him, then smiled. “Finally grew into your gift, brother? Learned the true power of a Jyotishr?”
The man's eyes glowed as hers glowed, but only one of them was able to exert the influence of their ability. “You are not leaving this cellar alive Aila.”
“You are wrong, erahnn.” Her grin was devious and Eleri could see that J'reth was too focused on her that he did not see Revas trying to warn him of her.
Balling her fists, the girl let out a howling scream and J'reth and the remaining guards crumpled to the ground. Aila gasped a startled laugh and clasped her hands, “darling that was magnificent!”
Turning then, she pointed to J'reth. “Maris... we need him. And we must hurry. I assume there is a key on there to the outer doors as well?” She swept over to Eleri and took the key ring to find it on her own.
Scurrying to Revas, Eleri crouched over him crying. ~I didn't want to hurt you.~
Touching his brow, she made the pain stop, knocking him unconscious like the others, then, when Maris and Aila were occupied, she crept over to Dhon and put a hand to his chest. She could not bring them all back but--
Terrified she would be punished, the girl ran after her mentor. Aila threw open the outer door and with no effort downed the two guards nearest who took notice. Like masters of the palas, Aila and Maris took three vnesh from the lower ward stalls, threw J'reth over one and indicated for Eleri to follow.
~Now is the time to chose, darling. These cruel people who will hold you responsible for everyone in that cellar... or us, the ones who have truly cared for you, who have allowed you and helped you to be who you truly are.~
“ELERI!? ELERI!?” Hereth's voice cried across the ward. Aila gestured toward the vnesh in the stalls and held her violet gaze waiting for the young, alienated girl to decide which she would choose.
- - - -
The Viridian Cattedrale, The Viridian Enclave, Western Tybraes
Long After Nightfall, 2nd Som Justice, month of Foundations 8178
First day of the Vernal Equinox, also known as ReBirth
So much pain and death in one powerful wave. Crashing down upon her with force and rage it felt as she imagined the giant waves fishermen told tales about might feel. Waves that crushed skiffs and shanties. Waves that swept people out into the indigo sea. Fire hotter than the Firetides burned in her chest but her skin was colder than the ice of Renewal. The juxtoposition itself stirred pain and she was thrashing though the men she channeled lay still and slipping away. Their essence sucked from the core of them to the Avali standing only paces below them, haggard, unwashed and thinly fed, yet somehow stronger than every soldier there.
Only the two Shae beside her still stood, a youth and a man, and one Avali still lived though his pain was agonizing. Yaffeta suffered it, unending. Her screams-- his screams-- filled the halls of the Cattedrale as she thrashed in her bed praying to the void where no gods remained to answer. The boy's physical pain was so great, his emotional pain had no strength to register. All of these emotions flooded Yaffeta, however, the betrayal and fear, his worry for the girl, his terror that the others he had yet to learn were dead would kill her, his fear of the woman and hatred for the man.
Choose. Choose. Choose.
No. The chaos, the confusion. As pain ebbed, the black of unconsciousness and death claiming the others, fears of persecution, or abuse, of hatred flooded her with such vehemence, Yaffeta cowered in the recesses of her mind. The pain of memories arose, bruised muscles, a broken arm, the shaming, so much shame. Tears streamed her face and Yaffeta felt the large hands gripping her and shaking, screaming at her.
Choose. Choose. Choose.
Jolting into a whirlwind, hurtled through the hot winds of a desert, her skin was pelted by the winds of a sandstorm, she flew past this, further, faster, toward another storm, an abstract storm. Screaming and terror on a scale beyond that within which she had just been battered. The shrieks and howls of children, women, men, animals... and an unnatural horror pierced her spirit. Thrust to the seering, hard-packed reg of the Inere Raine Shadows, Yaffeta could feel the rising heat, smell the baking blood spilt and hear the feet and hooves trampling as they fled.
Spinning to seek their source, she was surrounded by the kicked up dust of the panicked Haesh as they fled their homes and warriors hurled missiles from the trebuchets protecting the village from the mesas above. The mud bombs filled with shrapnel crashed down around her, some set aflame with oil catching empty huts on fire, though the Erahs no longer seemed to care. What horror could possibly--
An old man, fallen and howling for help. His leg was twisted. Yaffeta ran for him before realizing she could not help. Screaming, she bellowed her will into the ears and minds of all nearest to her reach. A warrior turned back and ran for him. Tossing him like a sack of so much unwanted weight on his shoulder, the man ran as the vines lashed out from the dust, from seemingly no where. They both toppled to the ground as tossed die, rolling over and over. The unnatural shriek pierced through the desert and Yaffeta met its pitch as the thresher of the Uvall's bladed maw emerged through the dust to surge over them. Lilac blood sprayed the sand and the hut walls as both old man and warrior screamed.
The blow to Yaffeta's face was shocking, painful and very real. Daunet straddled her and back-handed her after the inital smack before shaking her.
Gasping awake with a mortified scream, the girl spasmed then grasped hold of the woman. “I killed them! It was my fault! I killed them both!!”
Too stunned to know what to do, Daunet just held her and looked to Aio with worry. The young man was slumped on the bed, panicked and sweating himself having been trying to awaken Yaffeta for some time. Quiet and gentle he rubbed her back. “It was just a dream, Ntoma... no one is dead...”
“They are all dead. The Shae... the Haesh... everyone... everyone is dead...” she sobbed into Daunet's chest.
Glancing over her shoulder to the Falenoth guarding the Malvud's door, Daunet murmured, “seek out Vess-Hetaar. Tell her I need to speak to her in the war room.” Seeing Aio's worried expression she whispered, “have you ever known her to 'just have dreams'?”
Delicate as she could, the woman handed Yaffeta over to Aio. “When she is calm enough, get me more to work with... I'll have Kita-Adeil make her a tonic.” As she stood, Aio nodded and gathered Yaffeta in his arms, soothing her with humming and rocking as he had always done. And as she had always done, she curled onto his lap and hugged to him seeking safety from the horrors in her mind.
- - - -