Author Topic: Chapter 13  (Read 4614 times)

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Offline Daen

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Chapter 13
« on: April 08, 2022, 12:01:38 AM »
Chapter 13

Very early the next morning, Jaas sat down just outside one of the Enclave’s larger wooden halls. It was still dark outside, but the dwarves had lit candles for their human guests in the big building, and were using it as a training hall for some of their soldiers. The light was strong enough for her to read and write, at least.

Jaas had seen a few human deformities during her studies. Usually they were the result of magical experimentation before or during pregnancy, but it was rare that children born from such experiments survived. That kind of trial-and-error life magic was illegal in most nations across the world. The magic of shaping life was known as necromancy, and it had always carried a negative stigma, whether it was warranted or not. She’d never seen anything like this, though. Somehow these changes had come about without any magic at all!

The subject appears to have dramatically enhanced musculature in the upper body and torso, she wrote in her informal journal. Like most giants in the outside world, he has a clear spinal curve, which has either been adjusted to over time or causes him no pain. He appears to have much greater than average leg strength as well. At my request he performed a standing vertical jump that would have carried him straight over my head. It was an impressive display.

Jaas absentmindedly stroked the tip of her nose with the quill-feather as she thought.

Human generations take approximately twenty years each. That means the people here have lived this way for at least fifteen generations. Even if the subject did have pureblood giant ancestry, it’s been diluted significantly. He must be some kind of throwback to his heritage. It’s the only explanation that makes sense, given his physical characteristics.

As she watched, Sabra put the dwarven trainees through their paces. For the wrestling matches, Sabra had wrapped his braid around his neck and out of reach of his short opponents. Pretty soon she’d have to get back to her own training as well, but she didn’t want to miss the chance to see him in action.

She’d only ever seen pictures of giants before, but she’d heard almost apocryphal stories about their strength and agility. Not to mention their rather terrific bouts of rage. So far, Sabra had kept his temper, though that could also be by design.

I asked Arico how he knows Sabra isn’t actually working for the Sustained Council, and he seemed quite confident that Sabra’s no spy. Apparently the Council would never employ Sabra, not even in secret, because of his appearance. I guess it makes sense that a society founded on purity of blood would have no tolerance for a half-breed giant. I hope that means we can trust him, but at this point only time will tell.

Jaas paused for a moment, remembering another detail from her brief trip to the Deathwatchers.

When I first saw Durhu, he had a mark on his left shoulder that looked like a brand. Apparently it’s commonplace in some parts of the city to wear such a mark, but I saw nothing like that among the Deathwatchers. The people living in the Fishbowl don’t have any such marks either, that I could see. I’ll have to ask Arico for more details about it at some point.

She smiled slightly as she remembered that she hadn’t noticed any such mark on Arico during the shower incident. As she watched, four of the dwarven trainees charged in at the same time and tried to topple Sabra’s giant form. He managed to swat one of them away, knocking him backwards onto the ground, but the other three grabbed him by the legs and began pushing. Grunting with effort, he tried to pry them free as he slowly but surely lost his balance. He was almost about to fall over when a shrill whistle cut through the air and the dwarves disengaged instantly.

Otrul, her own personal torturer, trotted through the north entrance and had them stand at attention. He spoke with them briefly and then appraised Sabra for a moment. The twisted giant only looked back down with some amusement. The way Sabra was built, he didn’t seem to fear anything.

She couldn’t hear what Otrul said, not at this distance, but he actually smiled at the trainees before heading back up to town. Jaas felt a little jealous at that. He was still training her hard every morning and evening for a few hours each. He was stern and rough with her during combat training, but he never smiled at her. She could sense a certain tension underneath all his military training and civility.

There appears to be a fair amount of hostility towards humans in this patch, despite the humans who’ve lived in the Fishbowl for years now, she concluded in writing. From what Arico has told me, the Sustained and the dwarves in Vasiriah, or Patchwork as they call it, have enjoyed a fragile peace for over a century now. Still, both sides protect their borders fiercely. Dwarves found outside Enclave patches are killed on sight, and with the exception of the people living in the Fishbowl, humans found here aren’t treated much better.

If Arico is going to mount a successful rebellion against the Sustained, he may have more problems getting the patches to accept dwarven support than he’s willing to admit.

For a moment, Jaas realized the gravity of what she was writing. She was writing in Patali, but if the Sustained had any way of reading it, this document might be dangerous to Arico. Reluctantly, she inked over the last two paragraphs and wrote them again in Uatoni script. There. If anyone here could translate that, she’d eat the whole parchment.

Jaas felt rather than heard the heavy footfalls approaching. With an audible thump, Sabra sat down on the grass next to her. “Pretty lady doesn’t like what she wrote?”

She gave him a questioning look, and he pointed one twisted finger at the part she’d inked out. “Oh. No, I liked it well enough. I just had to write it in a different language.”

Sabra grunted. “Sabra thinks pretty lady wrote about him. Covered it up to hide it, eh?” He gave her a sideways glance. Jaas sat still for a moment. It was unlikely at best that he could read Patali, which meant that he was reading her. And doing it pretty well, too. There was more to Sabra than it seemed.

She opened her mouth to respond but he continued before she got the chance. “Sabra thinks the dwarves could be good fighters. Tough, and low to the ground.” He began absently scratching at the ground with a stick. “Sustained guards are used to fighting humans. Same size. Sabra is too tall, and dwarves too short. Ascendants won’t know how to fight us.”

“I’m no expert in war, Sabra, but I think you’re right. Still, there are a lot more of them than there are of us.”

“Us?” Sabra’s lip twitched. “Pretty lady wants to fight too? Maybe cut open a few soldiers, write down what she sees inside?”

She gave him a wry look. “I’m a scholar, not a butcher.” Despite his simplistic language and hulking form, he was easy to talk to. Dimly Jaas remembered lessons she’d been taught as a child about not judging people by their appearances.

Sabra just laughed and shrugged. “Sabra scared the whole Deathwatch patch, all alone. Scares dwarves, too. Numbers mean little.” He paused, still scratching at the ground between his feet. “Fear means a lot more.”

Jaas was about to ask more about that, but her eyes caught on the ground first. “Sabra, what’s that?”

He had drawn a symbol into the ground: a spiral shape that wrapped around itself as it got bigger. It took her a moment to recognize what it was, through the crude drawing. A thorn branch.

Her surprise must have shown because Sabra gave her a curious look. “Pretty lady knows this mark?”

“It’s the mark of Bregos Thorne,” she said quietly. “And of his followers.”

He only shook his head. “Sabra doesn’t know anything about that. It’s just something Sabra saw on a wall, years ago. What does it mean?”

Jaas had to think back to her attainment lessons as a child. “Back before the Threading, Bregos Thorne was a popular minister here in Vasiriah. He spoke out against one of the Emperors—Selvos the Fourth, I think it was. The grandfather of the Emperor who died during the Threading.

“Selvos couldn’t publicly denounce Bregos because he was loved by the common people. He couldn’t risk turning him into a martyr. It’s rumored that the Emperor tried to have him discredited in several ways, with false witnesses and trumped-up charges. As an official punishment for these invented crimes, he had Thorne and his entire family exiled.

“That mark you drew,” she pointed at the ground, “was his mark. It came to be a symbol of freedom and justice, and of opposition to authority.”

“Sabra never knew,” he said quietly, smoothing the dirt out and erasing the mark. Before long though, he shook his head and looked back up. “But Sabra doesn’t care, either. It’s just a mark, and it means nothing.”

Jaas gave him a curious glance. He was looking back at the sparring dwarves again, his eyes following their movements intently. She decided he was trying to avoid the subject. Clearly he knew more about Bregos and his followers (who had come to call themselves Thornes) than he was letting on. Normally confrontation would be one of the last things on her mind, but Jaas had been direct with him back in the Deathwatch patch, and he hadn’t crushed her like a grape in response. “If you tell me where you first saw that Thorne mark, I promise I’ll write more about you.”

Sabra only smirked at that. “Pretty lady has honey-tongue. Sabra likes that, but Sabra knows better.” He wiped sweat from his nose. “Pretty lady only has eyes for little man.”

Little man? Right, that was Sabra’s name for Arico. “No I don’t,” she protested. “We work together, that’s all.” Belatedly, she realized he’d succeeded in changing the subject on her.

Sabra’s disturbing chuckle came back a little louder. “Little man is good man. Sees far ahead. Sabra hopes he can fight like he can talk. Or pretty lady won’t have him around to stare at for much longer.”

Jaas shook her head. Of course he was wrong, but maybe he had other insights to share. “And what else does the ever-observant Sabra have to say about ‘little man’? Does he ‘have eyes’ for anyone?”

“Sabra is sorry. Little man sees everyone at once, not pretty lady alone. Sabra saw only duty and worry in little man’s eyes.” His tone suddenly quieted down. “And Sabra hears little man coming this way right now.”

She heard more footsteps from behind them, and a hand brushed against Jaas’ shoulder. “There’s something you need to see,” Arico told her with a strange tone in his voice.


Jaas recognized Tellek patch almost immediately on arrival. They weren’t far away from where Arico had lain not too long ago, bleeding and dying on the grass. She couldn’t tell it from looking at his face though. There was no anger or even pain. It was as if it had never happened.

Except for the bloodstains on the grass, of course. Suddenly she realized that without rain here in Patchwork, evidence of violent crimes was probably much harder to cover up. Arico silently led the way to his old home, abandoned now for about a week. Once inside, he peered out the window intently. Obviously waiting for something or someone.

Sure enough, before long they could see people gathering in the village downhill. All of them were dressed in white, and they surrounded a large cart with cattle yoked to it. If anyone was speaking, it was far too quiet to hear at this distance. As one, it seemed the entire town began moving uphill towards the threads near where they’d arrived. Or rather towards the corner where two threads would meet.

Suddenly she was aware that Arico wasn’t at her side. He was rifling through drawers, looking for clothes. “You’re about the same height as Durhu.” He tossed a white cloak to her. “Put that on. We need to go with them.”

Jaas complied, and could see him doing the same with a slightly longer cloak and hood. Come to think of it, she hadn’t seen Durhu since before her trip to the Deathwatchers. He was definitely around here somewhere, though. Chanul had mentioned that Durhu and Arico shared a house in the Fishbowl, but that they were almost never there. Between the Fishbowl, this cabin, and their little Hideaway, it was really no wonder.

They exited the cabin together and quietly joined with the crowd, as they kept moving towards where two of the threads would meet. Uphill, as she realized. The crowd seemed to be following a sort of aqueduct system that climbed the gentle slope away from the village. There was a familiar-looking tower at the tallest point of the village, right at the south end. It took Jaas a moment to recognize it: it was virtually identical to the strange wooden tower she’d seen just after arriving in the city. Whatever it was for, the aqueduct line went right through it before branching out into many smaller aqueducts. The stone rows passed right by nearly every house before spreading out into the farmland that covered most of the patch.

Jaas had seen similar infrastructure in the dwarven patches, but it hadn’t been nearly so elaborate. Obviously this had been a major undertaking. She wondered if other patches were set up the same way.

Also upon closer inspection, she could see that most of the people in the crowd didn’t look well. There were tell-tale signs of illness and malnutrition. From skin stretched tight over peoples’ bones, to sunken facial features, to the occasional coughing fit. Jaas tried to keep her face hidden as she observed the others. In a village this small, she’d be recognized pretty easily as being an outsider.

Jaas allowed herself a brief moment of doubt. What was Arico thinking, bringing her along? It was a significant risk, with no reward she could discern. At least it was still mostly dark out. The sky in the east had just started to get lighter, so she had that much helping her stay hidden.

Before long the crowd came to a stop along with the cart. It was loaded—overloaded, really—with food. Jaas was no farmer, but she could identify mostly greens—lettuce, beans, peas, por’hesh peppers, and a few bags of peanuts. More cattle and goats were being led behind the cart as well. And still more carts were also approaching from the village: all of them full to the brim with crops. It must have taken them months to grow and harvest it all. They seemed to have plenty of food. Why were they apparently on the edge of starvation?

At the corner of the threads, built right up against both sides, was a small brick building with one closed door. Everyone waited in silence for a few moments, keeping a respectful distance from the threads. Despite that Jaas could see two young men, perhaps in their teens, eyeing Arico. He gave them a brief nod and they looked back at the brick structure, whispering to each other. An older woman standing behind them put her hands on their shoulders, quieting them. It was Endu, the healer who had put needle and thread to Arico’s side.

There was another figure in a white cloak who gave them a curious glance as well. A woman by her build, but a very short one: dwarf-short in fact. Jaas was careful to keep her face hidden just to be safe.

That made no sense. From what Jaas had heard back in the Enclave, dwarves were killed on sight if they were found outside their own territory. And while these people did seem uncomfortable with this woman, they at least tolerated her. She stayed on the periphery of the group, but kept quiet just like everyone else.

Jaas could hear the crowd parting behind her. She and Arico followed their example, bowing their heads like the rest, as another figure in white hobbled his way uphill. Unlike everyone else this man wore no hood, and his clothes were highlighted with blue tones on the seams. He was walking with a cane, occasionally supported by a younger man wearing leather armor and one of those strange metal clubs on his belt.

The elderly man (she assumed he was this patch’s magistrate) moved up to the threads before turning around to face the crowd. His leather-clad guard stepped back a respectful distance and bowed his head.

Jaas had learned that the magistrate in each patch was a Sustained, put there to relay news from the other patches, preach to the people in his patch every week, and settle minor disputes. He was also the only person in most patches who knew how to read and write. Yet another skill that was denied these people.

From what Durhu had told her, a magistrate position was a lifetime appointment: something of a dubious honor for any Sustained unfortunate enough to merit it. As such, the magistrate was almost never a navigator. His guard was supposed to be one, though, in case he ever needed to call for help. Apparently the Sustained had originally posted navigators in every patch not under their direct control, but had eventually decided it was not worth it to tie up over four hundred navigators with keeping track of the peasants they cared so little about. As a result this guard was almost certainly not a navigator either.

Almost as if summoned by her thoughts, a navigator suddenly stepped out of the threads to the left of the red brick building. Jaas opened her mouth in surprise. It was Alzhi!

He was wearing red and gold, like his earlier Sustained outfit. Instead of a wheel insignia on his chest, though, this time he wore a fish with golden scales. It seemed that the Sustained Houses used their navigators and guards interchangeably. Or perhaps the Lord Ascendant decided who went where.

Another man followed Alzhi, holding his hand, and more followed. They were five in all, before they let go of each other’s hands. Everyone but him wore white just like the villagers, but with blue undertones on their cloaks and insignia matching the magistrate’s robes. The last newcomer was just a little girl, only a few years old. She wore pure white and looked terrified, still gripping the hand of the priest next to her.

“Tellek’s penet, and his acolytes,” Arico identified them with a whisper, and Jaas nodded. She wondered what the girl’s role was, though.

One of the priests (the penet, she supposed) shared a nod with the magistrate before he stepped out in front of the crowd. “Blessings of Aquun be upon you,” he said in a loud but somber tone. “Be this day rewarded for the faith and service you do unto the Guardian Spirit. Be this day uplifted by the sacred bond you share. And be this day sanctified by prayer and devotion to Her. Let us pray.”

Simultaneously, Arico and everyone else all lowered their heads and began speaking. Jaas hastily followed their example. “Aquun’s grace is within us,” they all said together. “Aquun’s might protects us. Aquun’s wisdom inspires us. Glory be to the Guardian Spirit.”

Almost before the prayer was complete, two of the villagers were already unhitching the first cart, and then pushing it up towards the threads. Once it was at the edge, they hastily backed away and returned to the crowd. With a bored expression on his face, Alzhi stepped close to the cart and extended his head and left arm into the threads. From her perspective they just disappeared, as if he was now just a headless man with a stump for an arm.

Jaas suspected he was looking for the other side—some exit point at some other barrier within Sustained territory. Sure enough before long he pulled his head back out and looked to the cart, but he kept his arm inside. With his other hand, Alzhi began touching the food objects one at a time. Each one vanished as soon as he touched it: a wrapped bundle of celery here, a bag of green beans there. Soon the entire cart was empty and the villagers were removing it, replacing it with the next one.

This must be ‘tribute’ that Tellek patch offered to the Sustained. The Deathwatchers sold their fighters, and this patch gave crops instead. Each offered what it had in exchange for what it needed. It made sense in theory, but not if people were starving! How much of their harvest did these people have to give? And how often?

Jaas glanced over at Arico, and could see the bitterness in his expression. He was a believer in this ‘Aquun’—Jaas could tell that much from their interactions, but Arico was definitely unhappy with this taxation. He’d been raised with these people. It explained a lot about why he was willing to risk so much for them. They were being exploited in a cruel and calculated way, and he saw it clearly.

Once all of the carts had been emptied and hauled away, and the livestock had been transported through the threads as well, Alzhi moved over to the aqueduct line. Once again he extended his head inside for a few seconds, looking for another exit point. When he’d found it, he reached down to where the stone met the threads and water began gushing out from where his hand touched them.

It was a lot of water, too, sloshing its way loudly and chaotically downhill towards the village. The aqueduct itself seemed to have been designed to take in a lot of water at once, especially here at the top of the hill. Jaas imagined the river’s water level lowering slightly, wherever Alzhi’s other hand was. Some of the villagers even knelt by the aqueduct to get a drink immediately, not waiting for later. They must have been parched as well. But then, rain never fell here. That meant they had to irrigate their crops themselves. No wonder they had such an extensive aqueduct system!

Once the flow of water reached the village, it stopped. At first, Jaas thought there was some kind of blockage in the aqueduct itself, but no one seemed all that concerned. Then she realized the water was pouring into the strange building she’d seen earlier. Apparently it was some kind of reservoir, which made sense. She assumed this ritual didn’t take place too often: perhaps once every two or three months. If that was true, they’d need to store a lot of water at once. After a few minutes the building seemed to fill up completely and the water continued on into the village and towards the fields.

It seemed that navigators, once they were connected to two different points in two different patches, could transfer matter from one point to the other with just a thought. There seemed to be limits to how much they could transport, though. Jaas thought back to the lesson Arico had given her outside the Hideaway. Alzhi could only move a certain volume through the threads at a time, based on how strong a navigator he was. Weight apparently wasn’t a factor, because water was very heavy, and he was basically a massive hose at the moment.

That meant the magic of the threads must be conductive, from touch. Just as a spark jumping from a carpet to a hand, or lightning passing between clouds. Jaas again wished she had ink and parchment to take all of this down while it was still fresh in her mind.

She shivered at the implications. Such power was virtually unassailable within Patchwork. And having a monopoly on navigators meant that the Sustained were practically invincible. If any patch rebelled against them, the Sustained Council could merely deny them water, and before long they would all be dead. Arico and the dwarves must have come up with one hell of a plan, to think they could overthrow that.

Alzhi eventually moved away from the threads, ending the torrent of water downhill. For some reason the crowd didn’t leave, though. They all moved back into position in front of the penet, and stayed quiet. Jaas was careful to move with them, following Arico’s example.

Another of the blue and white-robed priests, the one holding the little girl’s hand, stepped forward and began speaking. “On this day we commit a daughter of Aquun, Pelo, to her new home. May her new family protect her from the Shemra’s many voices, and give her the love and compassion she will need to rise into Aquun’s eternal grace.”

He looked down at the crowd. “Who stands before us with open arms and love in their hearts?”

Two of the crowd stepped forward: a man and a woman. “Grent and Yela,” the man said solemnly. “We stand in willingness.” The priest looked back at Alzhi and nodded. Belatedly, Jaas noticed that Alzhi had his arm inside the threads again. Arico gripped her hand briefly in warning.

Suddenly Alzhi pulled a red-hot branding iron out of the threads and pressed its end against the girl’s left shoulder. She shrieked in pain, almost covering the sound of sizzling flesh, and Jaas gasped. She started forward, but Arico tightened his grip on her arm and held her back. “You can’t help her!” He whispered harshly into her ear. A few others had made noises as well, throughout the crowd, but no one moved to stop it.

The girl was still screaming and struggled for a few seconds, held in place by the priest. By now the crowd stood perfectly still, unmoving. From their faces, some of them could have been watching the grass grow!

By the time Alzhi pulled the iron away, there was an ugly black-and-red welt on the girl’s skin. She kept screaming after it was gone, before suddenly going limp in the priest’s arms. For a moment Jaas thought she was dead, but could faintly hear the child’s ragged breathing.

“Accept into your hearts this child and be blessed in turn,” the priest concluded his speech, and placed the child in Yela’s arms. As one all the priests joined hands again and Alzhi reached back into the threads, disappearing along with them.
« Last Edit: April 08, 2022, 01:52:36 AM by Daen »