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Fade / Fade discussion
« Last post by Daen on October 23, 2022, 11:11:35 PM »
I'm still working out the formatting of how to get full books onto a forum, but for now, reply to this post if you have comments to make (good or bad), on the story.

Hope to hear from you soon,

Threads Part 2 / Threads Part 2 discussion
« Last post by Daen on October 23, 2022, 11:10:56 PM »
I'm still working out the formatting of how to get full books onto a forum, but for now, reply to this post if you have comments to make (good or bad), on the story.

Hope to hear from you soon,

Threads Part 1 / Threads Part 1 Discussion
« Last post by Daen on October 23, 2022, 11:10:16 PM »
I'm still working out the formatting of how to get full books onto a forum, but for now, reply to this post if you have comments to make (good or bad), on the story.

Hope to hear from you soon,

New Releases / Drive Part 23 added, 10/24/22
« Last post by Daen on October 23, 2022, 10:51:57 PM »
Drive Part 23 added, 10/24/22
Drive (ongoing story) / Part 23: Interrogation
« Last post by Daen on October 23, 2022, 10:51:27 PM »
Nearly a full day later, strange qars approached him from the rest of the Arbormass. They spent a few minutes reattaching him to the network, and then he was connected again. To Eli, and to another treqar he didn't recognize.

"Hello, Moss—may I call you that?" The Investigator said immediately.

"Only if I can call you Eli."

Eli sent out a trace of amusement. "Of course. This is Security Apex reth'ihashq'eris. She'll be observing all the interviews and recording them. Try to act like she's not even present, if possible." He hesitated after that introduction. "Again, I'm sorry about all this delay to your work. You understand we have to turn over every root when something like this happens—just to make sure you're all safe."

"I get it," Moss kept his cynicism buried as deeply as he could. The Apex was staying silent as promised, but there was no guarantee it would stay that way. "Besides, it's not like I have anything else to do right now. This beats playing with my qars all day."

"I bet. So, you've had quite the season, haven't you? Snatched up from your home and transplanted to some grove with a bunch of strangers. I've been looking over the reports sent by the Arbormass, and I get the impression you've had to do a lot of adapting since being brought there."

Moss sent out some ambivalence. "I guess. It's different, being surrounded by people who share my interests for once. I've tried to contribute as best I can."

"Oh, you've definitely done that. Your idea for the stone throwers has saved hundreds—perhaps thousands of lives by now! Very impressive. Especially for someone your age. You're the youngest there, right?"

"I am. Char's a few years older than me, and Rax and Tobor are a few years from her. The twins and Aysa are older, but we're all basically the same in our heartwood. Trying to fill the roots of much bolder and smarter treqars."

"Like your friend, Noq? I imagine he'd be quite proud of what you've done."

That soured Moss' sap a bit. "I hope so."

"How do you feel about the trejuns? Especially given what they did to your friend?"

Moss thought back to the only one he'd ever met. "At first I thought Ter was a good guy. Strange, being from so far away, but basically the same as us. I wondered if the rest of his people were like him. When they hit us and vanished like that, I didn't know what to think. Now… all I feel is a cold hatred towards them. To them, we're nothing but vermin to be wiped out. We have to convince them otherwise—by force if necessary. I don't like the idea of building weapons, but I like the idea of dying off entirely even less. I guess what I hate the most is what they're turning us into."

"Us?" What seemed like genuine interest filtered in through the word.

"The Union, I mean. We have our flaws, but at our cores we're a nation made up of other nations. People who used to fight and dominate each other, but eventually started working together to thrive. Now thanks to the trejuns, we're having to fight again."

"Ah, I see." Eli paused, and Moss was sure he was taking down notes, wherever he really was. "So deep down you're a pacifist, and want to go back to those ways when you can?"

"I suppose that's true."

"Is that why you were unwilling to fire on the juns when you had the chance?"

What was he talking about? The last time Moss had seen a jun in person was before the war even started. "I… don't follow."

"According to one of Aysa's reports, when your home grove was under attack, you connected with the thunderers there to protect it. But at the last minute you couldn't bring yourself to fire, and other treqars had to take over."

So Aysa had been aware of the whole thing after all. Moss should have known. "Char is a better shot than me. She had a better chance of protecting my people, and that's what she did. My decision was tactical, not emotional," Moss tried to keep any trace of anger out of his response.

"And if Char had been unavailable, you would have taken the shot?"

"Of course. I don't know if I would have hit, but I couldn't have just stayed rooted and let my people die!"

"What if it had been more than just a few juns on the other end? What if it had been a trejun, being carried by its minions? A warmaster, on his way to kill your friends and family? Could you have done it then?"

Moss hesitated. "I don't know for sure. I think I would have. I'm not a soldier!"

He let out some frustration. "Putting qars in dangerous situations is necessary for our survival, just as putting juns in them is necessary for our enemies. Killing them is sad, but acceptable if necessary. Killing people though? That's not easy, and it shouldn't be—ever! You want to know what drives me? It's a desire to make peoples' lives easier, not to end them."

Eli was silent for a few moments. "I think I understand. Thank you for explaining."

"Are all your other interviews this personal, Investigator?" Moss asked formally.

"Let's talk about your friends here," Eli went on. "You've gotten to know them pretty well by now—even trusted two of them with protecting your family. What do you know about their history?"

"I know you're talking about Char," Moss said impatiently. "You're like most people: viewing only her burns and her profession. You ignore who she is under all that. Yes, I know about the fire at her home grove and about her criminal trial. At worst that was carelessness, not malice. She didn't intend anyone harm. I'm sure you know that."

"Have you bonded with her?"

"No! Even if she was interested in that, I'm not sure I am. And even if we had, what business is it of yours?"

"Is that why you're exchanging gifts? And secret messages, moments after I started this investigation? One of my qars caught sight of an enzyme package being delivered to you yesterday. From its course, the qar was coming from her."

"It was a private message," he said defensively.

"Then where is it? I'd like to confirm that for myself."

"I absorbed it." Moss was starting to feel the drought now, as if this Investigator was turning up the heat and leeching the water out of his very soul.

"After I'd told everyone that their messages were subject to scrutiny? That was a very stupid thing to do, Moss."

"It was innocent, I swear! She was thanking me for lending her one of my qars, and telling me about the good luck charms she hung in my branches. Besides, even if it was something bad, how could she be in contact with the trejuns? We've all been in isolation for weeks now!"

"I have a fanciful story I'd like to tell you," Eli ignored his statements again. "A smart and determined, but somewhat isolated female Combustor lived in a grove not far from here. She was communications controller for her grove, and found that Combustion had been made illegal for the average citizen. She lied to her grove, hiding that fact from them, but deep down she felt resentment for what the Union had done. And against her grove for being willing to go along with it if told.

"Then there was a fire. Maybe an accident; maybe not. It was blamed on her regardless, and she was excommunicated for it. We know the trejuns kept watch on our best and brightest, and they were watching her as well. They contacted her secretly, and convinced her to work for them to overthrow the Union. It probably didn't take much, given her history."

"That's preposterous. Char would never believe them, not after they attacked us without warning!"

"Let me finish. She's recruited by Union agents trying to replace their intellectual losses, and brought to a secret place with others like her. They're tasked with building tools and weapons for the good of the Union. She bides her time, trying to find a way to contact her new friends and tell them where she is."

A sense of grim smugness leaked into the monologue. "One of her young colleagues takes a liking to her. She rebuffs him at first, but that's only a ploy. He's used to being isolated like her, and she eventually uses that to manipulate him. They exchange stories, and gifts, as well as ideas for their work.

"Then his home grove is attacked, and she sees her chance. In the guise of helping him protect his home, she connects to the interroot and contacts the trejuns again. We know they have taps into our communications. The trejuns have been foiled several times by weapons that this team has made, and sent parasites here in a shipment to delay us." Eli sent out a little more satisfaction. "It's not a very subtle story, but it is plausible. Wouldn't you agree?"

"I'm not some sap," Moss protested, "and she's no traitor. Besides, Lens was connected at the same time she was. Even if she did contact the enemy, he would have known right away! Unless you're saying that Lens—a career soldier and military advisor to the Union—is a traitor too!"

"Would he have known, though? He was busy aiming your new weapons. Can you say with certainty that she couldn't have gotten a message out if she wanted?"

It was a ridiculous notion. Char wouldn't ally herself with those genocidal maniacs. Not only was it evil, it was stupid, and Char was anything but a fool. Could she have done it? Possibly. But she hadn't, and that was that.

Still, Moss remembered her reaction to the first time the trejuns had destroyed a Union grove: she'd analyzed the weapon itself, not the fact that people had died. Also, that communications root appeared unbidden in his mind again. Maybe she hadn't needed to use the interroot at all.

"Has Char ever done anything that seemed innocent at the time, but now could be seen as suspicious?"

"No," Moss said stubbornly. He had no way of knowing if Grace's memory was accurate, and Char had been right about the Streek Fire composition.

"Has she ever expressed concerns about the work you're doing there?"

"Professional concerns only. What kind of fuel or powder mixture is best; that sort of thing."

"Has she ever delayed or hindered your work in any way?"


"Even when her own fuel mixture ended up blasting your prototype cart off into the middle of nowhere?"

"That was an accident!"

"Yes, the accidents do seem to pile up around her, don't they? All of these suspicious events form a pattern of behavior that's impossible to ignore. At some point Moss, you're going to stop being an innocent victim here, and start being an accessory. Are you sure you want that to happen? You know the Union's punishment for treason."

Execution. Usually it was done slowly, with qars removing chunks of root piece by piece, as the victim slowly lost all ability to think or feel. It hadn't been done in five years now, but Moss had heard about the last time.

This was the person who had helped him move around on the ground instead of being stuck in it! This was the person who had protected his home and family, distant though he was from them. To even suspect her was an insult to her, and a mark of shame on him!

Enough was enough. Moss issued some quick orders to Grace and Prudence, and then launched into his own monologue. "I have a fanciful story of my own," he said angrily, not caring that it showed.

"The trejuns kill off our best and brightest, but miss a twigful of youngsters. They're hauled off to some secret location, and the trejuns don't really care at first. Then this group starts coming up with effective defenses, and the trejuns suddenly start caring a lot more. One of their agents—probably some Voidsouled idiot they bribed—impersonates a member of the Security Center to try and find out where these thinkers are. He hears that this group is being sent resources. Large amounts of metal that—”

Anger mixed with consternation in waves coming at Moss. "Now wait just a minute," Eli interrupted. "How could this 'agent' have known about the metal shipments unless he really was working for the Security Center?"

"Let me finish. He infests one of the qar groups heading out with tarka worms, knowing that this 'Arbormass' will be delayed. Then he uses that infestation as an excuse to investigate us remotely. He lies about being from the capital so he can sound more authoritative than he really is; and we know this much for certain, because one of us is from grove Heirach!

"He can't find out where we are, but he can delay us even further. He can split us up, and interrogate us individually. He can lie about us to each other, and get us to be suspicious and afraid, and totally unable to keep up our work. All on the orders of his trejun masters."

Moss paused a moment there, letting the accusation sink in. "It's not a very subtle story either, but it's just as Void-damned plausible! We're done here."

He signaled Grace and Prudence, and the two of them cut the connection, plunging him into isolation again.
New Releases / Drive Part 22 added, 10/17/22
« Last post by Daen on October 16, 2022, 11:31:04 PM »
Drive Part 22 added, 10/17/22
Drive (ongoing story) / Part 22: Quarantine
« Last post by Daen on October 16, 2022, 11:30:33 PM »
Purging everyone of the worms was going to take a long time, it seemed. Moss was denied the use of his qars, even though they'd been found clean. He spent the time in the network with the others, idling and playing visual games through enzyme interaction. Maintaining a game of ajed in this virtual space wasn't easy because there were so many details to keep track of, but there were simpler games of strategy they could try.

There had been a tarka-worm infestation in Noq's grove a few years back, and he'd written about it in a few of his letters. Some of his neighbors had been carrying the worms for weeks without knowing it, and became deathly ill. If left untended long enough, they could chew through an entire ring of the bark, girdling the treqar and sentencing them to death. As such it was an important but not urgent problem here.

The waiting was made all the worse because of the resources which were piling up outside. Stacks of iron, steel, copper conducting wire and aluminum were still being hauled in by the qars, and Moss was itching to put them to use. Now that his articulator limb had been proven viable, Tobor had presented his new design for the 'internal combustion ingenious machine' as he called it. It would burn the fuel slowly, as Char had insisted, and cause four cylinders to rise and fall in sequence. That motion would turn the wheels in a much more controlled fashion than the trip Char had taken Moss on. With this, if it worked, treqars would also be able to slow down or speed up at will!

But they couldn't test it—not stuck here like this! Moss tried to commiserate with Char as well, but she was being aloof for some reason. Perhaps she'd had enough group time for now, and was relaxing on her own for a while. Moss hoped it was that, and not a relapse into her earlier isolationist anger.

Suddenly a new presence appeared in the network, and a ripple of surprise came from everyone. Even Aysa. The new person spoke quietly with her for a few moments, and then she addressed the rest. "Everyone, this is Investigator tar'helikais'trath. He's been sent here on the authority of the Chancellor. Please give him your full cooperation." Aysa's frustration was clear, but so was her determination to go along with this despite that.

"Call me Eli," the newcomer introduced himself. "I must say, it's a pleasure to meet such a brilliant group. You've made quite an impression on us here in grove Heirach, with your amazing defensive inventions. I regret having to distract you from your work, limited though it has to be right now. Hopefully we can all get this sorted out before the decontamination process is complete and you'll be able to get back to work uninterrupted."

Moss felt a surge of fear from Char. It was brief—probably only noticeable by him because he knew her the best—but definitely there. She was probably reliving her own crime and trial right now, and the Investigator's arrival had triggered it.

Moss also got a faint trace of disbelief from Tobor, and he agreed. This 'Eli' wasn't in Heirach, for sure. Tobor had lived there, and told Moss there was no way to isolate a private network from there to here in real time. Even with the new copper wire conductors in the interroot. The Investigator was much closer: probably in grove Thaan, the closest connection to the Arbormass.

"What exactly are you investigating?" Rax asked bluntly, not bothering to hide his hostility.

Eli's flattering emanations faded away, leaving an emptiness of emotion behind. "The Security Center has uncovered evidence that this infestation was not an accident. We believe that infected qars were sent to your location on purpose, to delay or destroy your work. Given the nature of the work you do in the Arbormass, it's likely that trejuns are responsible. I've been tasked with digging up any security leaks, intentional or otherwise, that might have happened there."

His pronouncement was stunning to everyone. The idea that any of them might have betrayed the Arbormass, even by accident, was inconceivable! Or it was to Moss anyway. From the feelings he was getting in the network, at least one or two of the others wasn't as surprised as he was. "Are… we going to evacuate? I mean if they know we're here, we need to move, don't we?" Moss spoke with difficulty. Evacuating wouldn't save the twins or Aysa. None of them were small enough to move anywhere!

Eli sent out a negative. "You have sufficient thunderers at the Arbormass to defend yourselves if the Consensus sends an attack your way. The qars I've sent you have been trained in reloading them if necessary. Besides, we don't know for sure if your location has been compromised. It's possible the Consensus only heard about the resource allocation and hoped to get the qars where they needed to go." His aura changed, becoming sharper. "At any rate, I'll be interviewing each of you in private, possibly more than once. During the investigation you will have no access to the interroot or local network. Your qars will remain in contact with your trunk at all times, and any enzyme messages you have in your possession will be subject to my scrutiny. Any attempt to subvert these restrictions will not be tolerated."

This guy made the Sergeant back in grove Praska actually sound reasonable! Moss sent out farewells to his friends, before his connection went dark. He was alone, just as he had been back home.

At least he had his qars now. They might not be able to work at the moment, but he was glad for the company. Grace had been working with Char for several days now, lending her experience with construction and design for some secret project she was working on with the twins.

Most of them came back without incident, but Fortitude noted some strange objects hanging from Moss' upper branches. He hadn't even been aware of them until Fortitude's reports. Had they been placed by his Investigator overseer's qars? What were they, even?

Grace also brought back an enzyme package from Char. Apparently Eli was busy conducting someone else's interview, so he hurriedly connected it and listened to the message.

"Hey, Moss. Sorry about the rough ride the other day. I'm still working on controls, but I'm getting better at moving people smoothly. I promise the next ride will go better.

"I had a few of my qars put those charms in your branches, for good luck. Don't worry, they're supposed to be connected to each other like that. I'm making more for the rest, but I wanted you to have the first ones. As a thank you only," she specified, including a burst of professionalism, "for lending me Grace. She really is impressive. I've lost so many qars to flame or explosion over the years, I never really got used to having one old enough to know what she was doing.

"At any rate I hope your decontamination goes smoothly. Mine should be short: the worms don't like burnt bark nearly as much, I guess. Talk to you later."

That was it. This message must have been recorded before the Investigator had shown up. Feeling slightly encouraged, Moss absorbed the message entirely, recycling the enzymes. It wasn't relevant to the investigation, and he didn't like the idea of some stranger poring over his private communications.

Over the next few hours while waiting for his turn, Moss did an interrogation of his own, on Grace. Qars only thought in images and impressions, not words, so it was hard to get a feel for how Char was feeling or doing based on Grace's experiences over the last few days.

Grace only gave the impression of being mildly contemptuous of the qars she'd seen over there, probably because of their limited experience. When asked about what they were doing, the images she responded with were confusing. There were flashes of conversation between Lens and Char, none of which Grace could understand. There was also a massive tube being built on the far side of her trunk.

It looked like a thunderer, but it was at least fifty times as large! What was she planning on doing—launching a full-grown treqar into the air? After a moment's thought, Moss realized it made sense. Eventually the Union would have to take the fight to the enemy, and that meant building weapons capable of destroying trejuns from a distance. She was just thinking ahead, that was all.

In the final images before Grace had been brought home, she'd seen these protective charms being hung up in Moss' branches. Grace had a definite sense of safety and protection associated with them, even if Moss didn't believe in those things himself. According to almost everyone else in the Union, everything happened according to the will of the Core. If they lived a thousand years, or if they burned to death tomorrow, it was all preordained, and no number of special superstitious charms could change that. He decided to keep wearing them anyway. If only to please Char.

One of those final images was really weird, though. It showed a communication root disappearing into the ground. Not sinking in, but being pulled away. Based on how recent the image was in Grace's mind, it had happened mere moments after the Investigator shown up in the network.

Moss let Grace go back to the others, pondering the image. She might be misremembering, or he might be misinterpreting her memories. Despite centuries of symbiosis, qars weren't truly sentient, and therefore incapable of modifying their communication on purpose.

Had that root been connected to Char? If so it should have shown up on the network. He and everyone else would have been aware of whoever was on the other end of it. Unless… Char was keeping it secret. And if that was the case, it made sense she'd want to hide it if someone like Eli sent qars to snoop around.

Troubled, Moss tried to focus on his designs instead.
New Releases / New Fanfiction Short Story (Destiny) added, 10/10/22
« Last post by Daen on October 10, 2022, 03:15:35 AM »
New Fanfiction Short Story (Destiny) added, 10/10/22
Destiny (See) / Read this first.
« Last post by Daen on October 10, 2022, 03:14:38 AM »
This story is set in the universe of See, about three hundred years into the future. Everyone is born blind, and lives their entire lives in darkness, except for a few people in recent years, who are born with sight.

If you've seen the show, this story takes place in an entirely different part of the world. As much as I love the characters in See, and the Stargate Atlantis reunion it's apparently hosting, I chose not to use those characters myself. Enjoy!

Oh, and as usual, here's the downloadable version if you don't want to go through it piece by piece.
Destiny (See) / Jack 1
« Last post by Daen on October 10, 2022, 03:05:15 AM »
Part 1: Jack

I heard the screams first.

I was still a good distance out from Tennant, having been sent to fill up a small basket with whichetty, which was now forgotten. From the number of people I could hear, this wasn’t anything like a wild dog attack or any kind of prank gone wrong. This was serious.

Dropping my basket, I hefted my cane and hurried back as best I could. Before long I ran into the hard-packed road, and things got easier. From there all I had to do was lift my cane until it touched the guidelines, and follow them home. As I approached, I could taste the metallic tang of blood on the air. Someone had been hurt.

I heard barking as well, from one of the larger dogs on a leash near the home. I thought I recognized Brute, and turned towards him. “Dale? Are you there?” I asked quietly.

Brute immediately quieted, whimpering slightly, and I lowered my hands towards him. His master was nowhere nearby. “Is anyone there?”

“Jack! Serpent’s Praise; you’re safe!” I heard the snapping of fingers to my right, and then a hand gripped mine.

It was Runia, another youth in the village about a year older than me. Her grip was painfully tight. “What happened here? Where’s Dale?”

“I don’t know. Soldiers came- at least a score of them! They broke down doors and… killed people. They were looking for the mulkurr. They were gone as quickly as they came.”

I froze in place. Mama! In another instant I was off, heedless of obstacles, my cane bouncing off of anything and everything in the way. If they were after mama, I had to know if they’d found her. Runia called after me, but I didn’t respond. All that mattered was getting home.

The front door was broken, just as she’d said. Gingerly, I felt around for the broken wood and then stepped over the fragments. At least I couldn’t hear any screams from in here, though there was a muffled noise in the back. We had no pets, and our animals were over with everyone else’s, on the other side of town. It was a person making the noise.

It was sobbing, but the breaths were too shallow to be mama’s. As I passed through the back door, I could hear it coming from over by the well. When I snapped my fingers to announce myself, it stopped right away. “Who’s there?”

Dale’s voice. He was all right, and I nearly wilted with relief. “It’s Jack,” I responded reassuringly, and reached out to find his hands. They were wet with tears. “Are you hurt?”

“I’m fine,” the younger boy said tremulously. “I hid in here, like I was told.”

That grabbed my attention right away. “Told? Did mama tell you?”

“Yeah. She said to hide, and that she would find others and bring them here too.”

That was all I needed to hear from him. She was alive, or had been when the attack had started, but Dale had no idea where she was now. Giving his hands a reassuring squeeze, I straightened up again and went back outside. She had to be somewhere.

The noise was dying down a little now, but I could still hear moans of pain from some places. I heard Runia comforting her injured uncle, a good man who had thrilled the whole village with tunes from his pipe. Finally, I heard people saying ‘mulkurr’, and focused on that.

Mama was outside the shrine it seemed, on the ground with half a dozen people gathering around her. From the scent, her chief student Machin was there too. He always liked to smell of lemon. I pushed my way through the group slowly because I was so small, and finally reached her side. She wasn’t moving!

“Stay back,” Machin ordered curtly, but he relented once he realized it was me. “Fine, just stay put for now. I need to check her injuries.”

In addition to being the mulkurr, mama was also Tennant’s healer. She taught four or five students her craft, but Machin was the oldest and most skilled so far. I gripped mama’s hand, as I heard him check her breathing and pulse. I could feel her heartbeat too, through her wrist. At least it was strong.

Finally Machin sat back up and grunted. “She’s been beaten, and I can feel bruises on her face and neck. She’s legbroke too, but I can set that. What worries me is the wound to her side. I don’t think she’s rib-broke, but the cut is deep. The soldiers must have thought they’d killed her, and moved on. Don’t you all have somewhere else to be??” He snapped at the others who had gathered around.

They seemed to collectively hold their breaths at that, and he sighed. “Sorry. I know you’re all worried about the mulkurr, but you can’t help her right now. If you want to be useful, gather all the wounded together in the mugincoble. It’s the only building big enough for everyone to be housed safely. Make sure they’re not moved too fast, and people aren’t putting weight on injured legs, that kind of thing. Then… move the dead out to the stables. We can arrange,” his voice trembled a little at that. “We’ll mourn for them in a ceremony later. Right now we need to focus on the living. Now go!”

At his sharp words, the crowd dispersed, most of them going back to their homes, and tending to their family and neighbors. I ignored him, as my only remaining family was right here. “Machin? Is mama going to be all right?”

His hesitation was only for a split-second, but it was enough. “Your mother is strong, like any mulkurr. She’ll recover in time. Now go, and let me tend to her.” He didn’t know that for sure. I could tell. I stood and stepped away, but I felt for sure I was about to be orphaned in the next few minutes.

Papa had died two years ago, from a fall outside the village. I remembered him teaching me so many things, from how to tie a good knot, to building and lighting a firepit, to scenting predators and possible food on the wind. When I had broken my leg at ten, he had carried me home, and sang a battle song from the ancestors, while mama set it and put it in a splint. He had always been my rock, and then he was suddenly, terribly, just gone.

I couldn’t lose mama, too. Quietly, so as not to disturb Machin as he worked, I made my way around him and into the shrine.

Whoever had attacked mama had apparently been in here, too. All of the icons that I touched had been smashed, and the knots hanging from the walls had been torn down. If whoever had done this had stayed, they probably would have burned the whole shrine to the ground. They’d even tried to move the altar itself, but it was solid stone, so the best they’d been able to do was clear off all of the adornments. It was now a stone mound in front of the placemat.

Wollunka would hear my prayers even without the symbols and trappings of the normal shrine. He was the great spirit, after all. In reverence, I knelt in front of the altar and began reciting the prayer. We all learned it as children, though some of us kept to the faith more closely than others. Shamefully, I realized I had not been as diligent as I could have been with prayers.

My voice froze in my throat, as I heard a noise. A strange hissing noise, so faint it could barely be heard, had just come from the altar itself! I pressed trembling hands against the stone, and could feel a faint crack in it. The noise had come from inside.

I was alone in here- I’d been sure of it! I would have heard any other breaths as surely as I could hear my own, which meant I was actually hearing from the beyond! Not just a sense, as some of my people had said, of getting a message from Wollunka, but actually hearing a physical noise! The hissing couldn’t be an ordinary snake, either. It had to be Wollunka’s Great Serpent, speaking to me!

A great terror gripped me for a moment, but then it was gone just as fast. If Wollunka himself was willing to speak to me, I wasn’t about to waste the opportunity. “Great spirit?” I asked, bowing as I remembered that bowing was what my ancestors had done. “Is that you?”

The voice came again, this time much louder and clearer than before. A woman’s voice. “Who’s there?”

I quickly rummaged through everything I could remember about Wollunka. Sure, he’d always been referred to as a ‘he’, but in the lore, he had always been a great serpent. Not a man, or a woman. “Great spirit?” I echoed my earlier question. “It’s just me. Jack, of the Tennants. Please, can you help me? My mother is gravely hurt. I fear she may die!”

There was a long silence. “I’m not the great spirit, Jack,” the woman’s voice finally responded. “My name is Sarah. I’m- I guess you could say a servant of Wollunka.”

Well, it wasn’t what I’d hoped for, but it wasn’t nothing either. “I can’t hear your breath or feel your warmth. That means you’re a spirit, too. Can you help me?”

“Perhaps. Are you the mulkurr’s son? Is she the woman injured?”

“Yes!” I hesitated. I supposed it made sense that a lesser spirit, a servant of Wollunka, would know exactly who I was and who my mother was. “Her face and neck are bruised, and they stabbed her in the side as well. Machin is tending to her.”

“Yes, I’ve heard of Machin,” the voice said contemplatively, from the crack in the stone. “He’s been studying with your mother for a year or so now, yes?”

“That’s right. He says she’ll recover, but… I fear he’s lying.”

Sarah, in whatever spirit realm she called home, was silent for another span. “Was the shrine despoiled as well?”

I felt around for some of the debris. “Yes. They were looking for something, I think. Either way they’re gone now.”

“Torgan soldiers, probably,” Sarah responded, and there was no mistaking the grimness in her voice, even through the strange hissing that continued every time she spoke. “Jack, I need you to go out to the well. Feel around for anything that isn’t usually there, and then come back and kneel in front of the altar again.”

“Yes, spirit,” I said obediently.

As I felt my way out to the well, my mind spun. The Torgan Republic was a nation to our east- a very harsh one from what I remembered. Papa had taken me on several trades over the years, and sometimes we’d gone into Torgan villages. Their Governors had once been peaceful, he’d said, but the most recent one was a man named Sterling. He was rumored to be sadistic and brutal, with both his subjects and his enemies.

The Torgans didn’t share our faith in Wollunka, and they didn’t much care about us, either. If anything, they thought of us dismissively, as primitives. The one thing that kept us mostly safe from Torgan power was that we… really didn’t have anything worth taking. The Munga people had always been poor, because we lived on harsh lands on the edge of the wastes. We had a few sturdy villages, but not many crops to plant or animals to farm for wool or meat. They simply had no reason to turn their wrath against us.

The well was Tennant’s greatest asset. Dug long before the Great Fall, it was the reason our town could exist here, so far from the Springs or the river to the east. It was a remnant of the ancestors, left behind by them for us to use. I had heard tales of people digging wells in other towns to the east and beyond, but it was very difficult and time-consuming. We were fortunate to have inherited one. My cane tapped against something new, and solid, next to the water source. I tentatively reached out, and my hands brushed against… another altar. This one made of metal, and apparently bolted into the ground. Atop it, from what I could feel, was a human skull, or at least the shape of one made out of iron.

It was a shape I’d felt only once before, during one of my trips into Torgan territory with my father. A similar altar had been in the center of that town. The skull was a copy, it was said, of the very first Torgan Governor, who had carved the Republic out of the ashes of the Great Fall. His skull had probably turned to dust by now, but replicas of it had no doubt been placed everywhere.

As soon as I knelt again inside our own shrine, the hissing voice spoke again. “Well?”

I described the skull altar, and Sarah gave an audible sigh. “Tennant has been marked; it seems. The Torgans have claimed your territory as their own. Don’t try to remove the skull symbol. If they come back and find that it’s gone, they’ll punish you even more severely.”

I wanted to ask why the Torgans had attacked us, after having ignored us for so very long, but my mother’s situation was still at the front of my mind. Before I could ask about her again, Sarah seemed to sense my question. “I’ve talked about it with the, uh, Wollunka, and we’ve decided to help. Do you know about your mother’s herb garden? About where she keeps her potions and tonics?”

“Yes. I even help her brew them from time to time.”

“Good. Machin can handle her bruises and other injuries, but she needs a special powder to protect her side while it heals. He wouldn’t know about it yet. You need to go and get it from her stores, and then apply it to her injury. Our generosity is not without price, however. As soon as your mother is treated, you are to return to the shrine and we’ll tell you what we need you to do in return.”

I’d been ready to give up my own life in exchange, and if that’s what they required, I was willing. Something told me they had something else in mind, though. “Which powder do I use?” I asked, thinking of the huge number of clay pots, containing dried leaves, powders, and liquids in nearly equal measure.

“You won’t recognize the word, but I’ll spell it out for you.” She gave the word, which I did not know, and I thanked her and left again. Mama had labeled all of her jars with carvings in the clay, and I knew what to feel for now.

Convincing Machin to let me help would be a pointless exercise, but thankfully he’d done all he could for the moment. Mama had been moved into the mugincoble along with all the other wounded. I tiptoed my way between them until I came across her. She was alone for the moment, and I acted quickly. As Sarah had instructed, I carefully removed the poultice that was already in place, and sprinkled the powder into the wound. I winced, despite the fact that mama had made no noise, at how painful this would have been had she been awake. After making sure it was spread evenly, I put the poultice back where it had been, and made sure the straps would keep it in place, even if mama were to suddenly move.

There; it was done. I could smell lemons again, meaning Machin was coming back. He asked me what I was doing here, but I just said I’d come to sit with my mother. Fortunately the powder, whatever it was, seemed to be odorless.

As soon as I could extricate myself from the building, I wandered the streets for a bit. Mama was alive, for the time being, and Machin seemed to think she was doing better. Now, it was my turn to pay whatever price the spirits had in mind for me.
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