Author Topic: Chapter 2  (Read 13032 times)

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Offline Daen

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Chapter 2
« on: April 08, 2022, 02:04:31 AM »
Chapter 2

Grey skies and still air seemed to permeate his skin as Arico slowly made his way south. From this side of the cabin, he could see the city walls about a league to the north, beyond the village. Beyond that was the illusion of open sky, and beyond that, the mountains. The aqueduct system ran through the village like the veins in some kind of massive beast, and Tellek’s ‘heart’ was exemplified by the large factory building right in the middle. Thankfully it wasn’t in use right now, and hopefully wouldn’t be ever again.

A few wisps of smoke rose from the nearby houses, including one on the southern edge of the village. His friends would be there. Balter and Veles were probably behind their house right now, honing their Ona skills. Endu was their mother, and she would no doubt find some chore or another for them when they came back inside.

He’d never planned on trusting any of them with his secret. Balter had seen Arico navigate once, and then spied on him for weeks as he came and went through the threads. Of course he told his brother, and it wasn’t long before their mother heard as well. Mercifully though, the news had never spread past the three of them. Well, them, D’tor and Durhu, that was. When Endu finally confronted him with what she knew, Arico had been terrified.

He’d grown up with them. What little time he’d had away from the farm, and his training, had been spent with them. He’d shared meals with them countless times; spent many a night at their house, and they at his. And still, if they had told the local magistrate or any of the other Sustained, he would have been taken away, probably to his death.

Arico remembered telling his father that they knew. The old man had shown his usual quiet resolve, and calmly told him that there was nothing they could do but wait and see. Still, Arico remembered the flash of fear in his old man’s eyes. Durhu had been afraid, and that was a rare thing to see.

Endu had taken him aside the very next day. “I’m giving you my trust, so that you can return it,” she’d said to him, and then explained what she meant. Learning that his ‘friends’ outside Tellek patch were her friends too, had been stunning, to say the least.

Nearly two years had gone by, and the three of them had remained true and loyal to Arico. Endu did ask him to pick up some medicines and herbs from other patches from time to time, but that was no problem. Sometimes he even took the boys along for the ride. It required careful planning to make sure the magistrate wouldn’t find out, but it did work. Today was nothing special, though. Arico shouldered his mostly empty pack and continued resolutely towards the nearest border.

Anyone who lived in Patchwork knew where each of the threads existed. A great many threads were marked with red paint on the ground as a warning to small children. Some had used markings in blood instead, especially the deep city patches. He did his best to steer clear of those. The doors and walls of buildings built on threadlines and marked with symbols in blood had often been used just after the Threading as human slaughterhouses or mass graves. When he caught a glimpse inside those structures, the images took a long time to pass from his mind.

Finally, he was at the border. By habit Arico looked to the west, down the edge of the threads. D’tor’s house was down there in the distance. He hesitated briefly, and turned towards her house. It only took a few minutes before he was at the fence surrounding D’tor’s farm. He climbed it easily, and then knocked on her door. He heard her faint voice answer—not from inside, but from the other side of the house—so he walked around to get a better look.

D’tor’s dark hair glistened in the sun as she looked up at him from her garden. It was small—mostly fenced in to keep it safe from the livestock. Wiping her brow, she stood up and let go of the hoe. “Hey.” She squinted up at him, and he realized the sunlight was right in her eyes.

“Hey yourself,” he replied, moving to block the sun. “Sorry to just drop in like this, but I wanted to see how your newest project was faring.” He glanced down at the uneven rows in the garden, complete with un-tilled sections of earth and lots of stones. “Yup. That’s pretty much what I expected to see.”

She gave him a mocking glare. “Don’t start with me, Arico. You know I’m not used to this gardening thing. Besides, you’re one to talk. You’ve got one animal on your farm, and she’s really more of a pet than livestock!”

Arico chuckled. “Fair enough.” Something caught his eye, and he turned to see a large white mark painted on the wall of her home. “This is new.”

D’tor grimaced. “One of the kids from the village painted it last night. I think it was supposed to be a warning, but I heard him moving around out here and got up to see what was going on. I scared him off mid-stroke, so now it just looks like a child’s scribbling.”

“I’m sorry.” Arico said softly. “I’m headed to market to pick up some supplies,” he put in casually. “D’you want me to bring back something to cover this up?”

She shook her head. “I’m good for now, thanks. Besides, I’m expecting company, and I don’t want the house smelling of paint on top of its usual smells.”

Arico grinned. “Well, greet him for me when he gets here.”

“I’ll be sure not to do that,” D’tor responded sarcastically. “Since neither of you is supposed to know about the other. I almost feel like I’m being unfaithful, actually,” she added with a thoughtful tone to her voice.

“Bah.” Arico waved a hand as he made his way back to the fence. “I’m no threat to him. Even though you do look ravishing, all covered in sweat and dirt like that.”

She grabbed a rake from the side of the house and leveled it at him. “Get going, or I’ll leave a few marks in your rump even you can’t laugh away!”

Chuckling, he raised his hands in surrender and headed back up the hill.

Arico had seen his fair share of malformed people, mostly from other patches around the city. Some had an extra finger, others a particularly large birthmark. One had even had a split along his face—not a scar from battle, but a cleft jaw that he’d carried from birth. The Shemra had done their work cruelly to many people, and especially to D’tor.

D’tor was a dwarf. Not a full dwarf like the others though; she’d been born to human parents. Because of her short stature, D’tor’s farm was right on one of this patch’s corners, where two threads met. It was an inhospitable place to grow crops, which was why she focused mostly on her livestock. It was dangerous, too. One slip on the edge of her farm, and D’tor would be gone forever. She was as far from the village as she could be, though not by choice. Her only interaction with her neighbors was at the Ritual of Waters, and that was because it was required by law. The graffiti on her house was unfortunately something to be expected.

He’d found D’tor to be a thoughtful and kind person despite being exiled to the edge of the patch. She was filled with wisdom and understanding, and that made her all the more impressive. In her place, Arico was sure he would have felt nothing but hatred and bitterness.

It was strange. D’tor was an outcast—a pariah. But it was that very status that freed her, too. Anyone who lived with the rest of the villagers would be subject to a great deal of scrutiny. Any suitors visiting them—such as D’tor’s mystery man—would have to introduce himself to lots of people, and be constantly living up to the community’s expectations. D’tor and her friend didn’t have to put up with any of that, and Arico found he sometimes envied her for that freedom.

It was also strange, even after all the time they’d known each other, that he could speak so openly with D’tor. The fact that he could leave Tellek patch whenever he wanted was a closely guarded secret, but he trusted her to keep her mouth shut. Besides, who would believe her if she told anyone? To them she was just a dwarf, after all. As far as most of the city was concerned, she deserved to be in exile.

-.-

The deep red sun had just dipped past the wall, and the crowd was finally assembled. Arico’s shopping trip hadn’t taken long, and he’d returned home in plenty of time. Now he stood with his friends just outside Hallo’s house. Durhu was inside next to Hallo’s bed exchanging words. Hallo was one of the few people who understood handtalk, but no one seemed to mind. At least the magistrate wasn’t attending—no one liked having that overbearing windbag around.

A soft murmur rippled through the crowd, and Arico looked back to see newcomers approaching. It was Ta’anu and four others moving in step with him. He nodded to Arico, then stepped inside and embraced Durhu briefly. He shook hands with Hallo as well.

Arico didn’t know much about Ta’anu, really. Just that he’d been born here, in Tellek patch, and was now mayor of some other patch on the other side of the city. His father had died years ago, but he still came to Tellek from time to time to visit with his mother. Arico thought he would have really liked Ta’anu if he’d come around more often. As it was, he was just a distant figure—more like a silhouette than an actual friend.

Ta’anu was rich, though. He was possibly the wealthiest stra’tchi alive, which explained how he could afford five Transit Passes for himself and his friends, or more likely, his bodyguards. They stood a comfortable distance from him, but kept eyes on both him and the nearby houses. No, they were definitely not here to pay their respects. Most stra’tchi never knew their birth parents, because of the Ritual of Rejoining. Ta’anu had been able to bribe someone to find out that his mother was here in Tellek patch.

The people inside the house carefully lifted Hallo up and onto the litter, and then hoisted it up to shoulder height and maneuvered outside. The ritual was starting. Durhu and Ta’anu were among the four carrying him, though Ta’anu had to crouch a bit to keep Hallo level.

It was quiet for once in the village. Unlike most rituals in the city, this one had nothing to do with Aquun, the Sustained, or the magistrate. That made it a nearly silent affair from start to finish. No one spoke as the entire group, several dozen at least, moved slowly uphill following the aqueduct line. It was a gentle incline and they took their time, lest Hallo fall off of the litter. That would be a sight, Arico reflected with dark humor—their honored one rolling down the hill like a loose wheel, being chased by his friends and family.

And then it was finally time. Next to the threads, they lowered him into the oversized bathtub. He floated there, hands on both sides, and smiled up at everyone. His intent was clear: this was to be a beautiful moment, as well as a sorrowful one.

“I’m ready,” Hallo said softly, squeezing Durhu’s hand one last time, and closed his eyes.

As one, the four of them reached out and submerged Hallo, holding him under the Waters. He was peaceful for a few moments, and then the struggle started. Some in the crowd turned away in grief or horror, unable to witness it, but Arico stood firm. The struggling was instinct, and no matter how much Hallo wanted this, he couldn’t overcome his instincts completely.

At least it was over quickly. His struggles subsided, but his friends kept him under, just to be sure. It wasn’t just part of the ritual, but a common sense measure, as some people had recovered even after the ritual.

Over the distant wall, the last rays of sunlight had faded away.

-.-

There. It was all in place.

Jaas leaned back on her heels and wiped at her forehead. At least she wouldn’t have to worry about being dirty or sweaty once she was underway; the river would take care of that. Night had fallen while they’d been setting up their monitoring devices, and the stars were just starting to peek out in the fading light.

“Are you sure you want to go ahead with this, Jaas?” Inelem’s voice betrayed a tremble as he eyed the massive black wall behind her. “It’s not too late to back out. No one knows what you’re planning, so no one will care if you don’t go through with it.”

Jaas gave him a reassuring smile. “I’ll be fine, Lem. I know what I’m doing.”

Grimacing at the temperature, she waded down into the river and let the cold waters flow past her. Lem followed without hesitation—he was used to getting wet, after all. “It’s a risk, to be sure, but one I’m willing to take.” She paused at that. “Besides, this is the only way I’ll be able to test my theory.”

Jaas closed her eyes again, enjoying the sound of insects chirping in the field, the feel of the cold water rushing past her. She breathed a sigh of contentment. Whatever came next, whatever hardships or trials she was about to face, at least she had moments like these to remember. “This’ll be worth it, Lem. Trust me.”

“Even if it kills you?” Lem objected harshly.

Jaas looked back at him. “Yes, even then.” She extended an arm to him, and he dutifully helped her with the pack. She staggered a bit under its weight at first, but adjusted quickly. Depending on how far she would have to go, it might be a problem to bring so much. It couldn’t be helped, though. She’d sooner cut off an arm and leave that behind before abandoning any of her materials.

“Remember, give me three days. If you don’t hear from me by dusk on the third day, I want you to leave, and don’t come back. I’ve made arrangements with my brother if that happens.”

Lem set his jaw in an almost funny attempt to show courage, and nodded. Jaas wrapped her arms around his midsection briefly, both as a reassurance and a farewell. Blinking back tears—and feeling a bit of surprise at that—she turned away from him and began wading deeper.

The cold permeated her light clothing, seeming to sink right into her bones, but she clenched her teeth and kept on until she was treading water. She wasn’t the best swimmer, but this trip hopefully wouldn’t require much skill in the water.

“The spell only lasts for a few seconds. It’s important that you don’t resist it,” Lem said as he waded his way back onto the shore.

“I haven’t forgotten,” she answered wryly. Slowly, she turned to face the blackness again. Even at night, it stood out from the starlight. A void that not even the stars could shine through.

Jaas took a deep breath. “All right. Go ahead.”

Inelem spoke a word, and she felt herself sinking into the river as her mind went blank.
« Last Edit: April 11, 2022, 10:27:10 AM by Daen »