Author Topic: Part 4, Chapter 55  (Read 1923 times)

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Part 4, Chapter 55
« on: April 12, 2022, 01:39:24 AM »
Part 4: The Truth Within Truths

Chapter 55

They gathered together later that night, all funneling out of the Hideaway in a long line. Even some of the wounded came along with a little help. Jaas was tempted to ask what was going on, but there was such a deep silence in the group that for some reason she felt it was important not to speak.

Arico and Nemith took them all through the threads, to some patch she’d never seen before: a heavily built-up but obviously abandoned city patch. Hopefully abandoned, anyway. They led the way uphill between the dilapidated buildings, navigating by starlight only. The moon was only a sliver now, barely able to show them the way. The lunar cycle and the New Day cycle were off by a pretty wide margin.

It was cold, too. Jaas resisted the urge to shiver, and pulled her travelling robe even tighter around herself. Arico had made sure she had it before they left, and now she knew why.

Up ahead she could make out a mound in the dim light. It looked like a cairn at first, but as they got closer she could tell that it was actually a pyre. From the faint odor she could detect as they formed a circle around it, Jaas guessed that it had been soaked in some combination of pine resin and sulfur. She’d heard of such liquids being used in previous Tumults to burn people alive.

With a scraping noise, Nemith struck a tinder twig and lit up a torch. He spread the flame to a few more torches, and before long they had adequate light to see each other. His features were set as a stone, just like Arico’s. Suddenly Jaas knew what this was. She’d read about the dwarven ceremony as a child, but she’d never seen one for herself. Like most dwarven rituals, it was likely to be short and to the point, but deeply meaningful in the process.

“There are no goti priests left alive to speak at this kind of ceremony,” Arico said suddenly. “I was taught the basics though, and I’ll try to do them justice.” He stepped forward towards the pyre, and pulled his prosthetic hand from his robe’s right-side pocket. In it he was carrying a toy gun, whittled out of wood and very old from the looks of it.

“The Hauld gave me this years ago,” he said with a bittersweet smile. “It was just before Durhu and I moved to Tellek patch. I barely remember the move itself, but this-” he hefted the toy, “-this I remember clearly. Chanul had one just like it, and we played together many times. When I was little, I always looked forward to visiting the Enclave so I could see him again.”

He leaned down and tapped the plate on his prosthetic, dropping the gun onto the pyre. “Ash’ama athor delaiko. Let the ancestors smile upon this gift, and carry it swiftly to those who carry its spirit.”

To his right, Nemith stepped in as well. He was carrying a stout pewter cup. “Otrul gave me this five years ago, when I first visited his dwelling. I couldn’t count the number of drinks we shared over the years. He could always hold his own better than I could, and his cup was even bigger than mine! He…” Nemith trailed off at that, and sighed. “He’d know what to say, better than I ever could.”

Nemith put the cup down on the pyre as well. “Ash’ama athor delaiko. Let the ancestors smile upon this gift, and carry it swiftly to those who carry its spirit.”

Sabra was to his right. He stood up straight to a surprising height in the darkness. It made sense—he probably didn’t get to stand up straight very often, living in dwarven housing and now in the Hideaway. Without a word he reached back caught the end of his hair. It took some minor effort, but it looked like he was removing something from his braid. It was the metal clasp from the tip of his braid. He stared at it for a moment, before speaking in a low voice.

“When dwarven healer lady pulled bullets from Sabra, she had them melted down. Made into this clasp. Like Sabra’s scars, it measures victories won, and harm done. When she gave it to Sabra, it was a shock. Sabra never knew before, just how… alike dwarves could be to Sabra. She understood, even better than Sabra’s sister, what it meant to be a warrior. Even she, who’d never killed anyone or risked her life even once, could understand Sabra.” He tossed the clasp onto the pyre as well. “Ash’ama athor delaiko. Let the ancestors smile upon this gift, and carry it swiftly to those who carry its spirit.”

And so it went on, one after another. Endu and the boys were next, and they stepped forward together, according to dwarven tradition. She left a box on the pyre, unopened, and didn’t say what was in it, exactly. Jaas remembered seeing the box in the dwelling Alzhi shared with them when he wasn’t on duty. Obviously it carried significant meaning to him.

Nemith’s family was after them, and then Taen, and so on and so forth. Since she was on Arico’s left side, Jaas realized she would be last. With a concerned breath, she also realized she had nothing to place on the pyre!

Arico must have seen the change in her stance. Before she could even begin to panic, he leaned over. “Check your pockets,” he whispered. She did so, and smiled with relief. So that was the real reason Arico had insisted she take this travelling robe. As usual, he thought of everything.

When it was finally her turn, Jaas stepped forward and pulled out the wooden coin, holding it up for the others. “When I first met the Hauld, he called me ‘the pebble in the pond’, because of all the ripples I was causing. I could tell, right from the start, that we would get along. We had a lot in common, and could talk for hours. Still, I don’t think I ever really had his respect, not until he gave me this.” She sighed, thinking back to those days. “When I finished my basic combat training, and Otrul brought me to see him, I knew I’d finally earned a place in the Enclave. This coin was my badge of accomplishment.” Once again that feeling of loss, which she’d been avoiding for more than a day, crashed in on her all at once. Feeling sick to her stomach, Jaas placed the coin down next to the other offerings. “Ash’ama athor delaiko. Let the ancestors smile upon this gift, and carry it swiftly to those who carry its spirit.”

“Pesali athor gehe’nos tavak,” Arico said somberly after she’d stepped back into the circle. “We give thanks to the ancestors for letting us know their children.”

They all bowed their heads for a moment, and then Arico nodded to Nemith. He touched his torch to the edge, and the flames spread rapidly in a circle, and then up into the center of the pyre. The blaze sent out a wave of heat, as if the dwarves themselves were reaching out of the fire to embrace them all.


Just as he’d predicted, the Fishbowl patch appeared to be completely abandoned the next morning when they arrived. Arico kept a watchful eye all the same, though. There could still be enemy soldiers hiding somewhere inside the Fishbowl itself, waiting to ambush anyone looking for survivors. Fortunately they didn’t have far to go. Endu’s dwelling was near the top of the Bowl. It was larger than his, naturally, having been meant for a family of four.

That thought was painful as well. He’d seen the look on the boys’ faces when Nemith had told them about Alzhi, and then again at the ceremony last night. Endu’s expression had been deadpan as usual, but even she’d shown signs of strain when she’d heard the news. Her husband and the love of her life was gone. Even a stone could cry at that.

“Can we talk now?” Jaas cut into his thoughts as they made their way uphill. “You know, about maybe coming up with a plan that doesn’t involve wholesale slaughter and massive risk?”

She was carrying four large canteens strung around her neck for Codi, and he had four more around his own neck. Assuming the others were able to relocate safely into the Sustained patches, they’d provide more for him before he ran out again.

“This is the plan, Jaas. The Hauld left his orders, and I have no intention of disobeying them,” Arico responded shortly. All of a sudden he was starting to regret bringing her along. He could have gotten almost anyone to help him with this, after all. He sped up a little.

“You’re really comfortable with this?” She insisted, easily keeping pace with him. Her endurance training in action, no doubt. “You’re fine with just demolishing a whole building and killing dozens of people? I suppose that’s not really an issue, as long as your friends get out, right? By the gods, even your sister will be fine! She might even be able to watch from the manor as you slaughter her father and consort at the same time!”

Arico growled. “I don’t want to hurt the Clarion. He’s a good man—one of the few people who’s actually earned the trust of the people instead of just inheriting it. But he is sworn to the Council, and I can’t spare him without letting them escape!”

“What about the example you’d be setting, then?” Jaas stepped in front of him. “For months now, you’ve been telling both stra’tchi and Sustained alike that one day they can live in peace. That they’re strong enough to stand up to the Council and win their freedom. They might have to fight at some point, but only in self-defense! If you carry out this… assassination, you’re proving that everything you have said—and what I’ve said as well—is a lie!”

“That’s because it was!” He snapped angrily. “I was wrong, Jaas! There never was a peaceful solution here. The Council was never going to just let the stra’tchi go free, any more than the dwarves were going to obey the Pact forever. Eventually one side or another would take action, and we’d have a city-wide Tumult on our hands. I was just telling myself that we could do this peacefully, but deep down I knew this was inevitable.”

Jaas took a deep breath, refusing to back away despite his anger. In a strange way, Arico could respect that, even if it showed more stubbornness than common sense on her part. “This isn’t just about following the Hauld’s orders though, is it?” She asked suspiciously. “I’ve seen you deal with disaster before, remember? When Tellek was poisoned, you were upset. You were angry, and you were beside yourself with worry about any possible survivors!”

She was quiet for another few moments, apparently thinking it over. “It was the same when the Beast attacks started all over the city. When you lost your hands, you lied to me and said it was all fine, but at least you spoke to Chanul and the Hauld about it! This time is different, though. Now you sound as if you’re just lost. As if none of this matters to you anymore. That’s not the Arico I know!”

“Then maybe you don’t know me as well as you thought, Jaas,” he answered tiredly. “Just leave it alone, please. It’s none of your concern how I behave, not anymore.”

“Isn’t it? We’re partners, remember,” she said sharply. “We’ve been working together for months, side by side, for the same goals. As your partner, I can’t just let this go. I’m going to keep on yapping at you until you open up; you know that.” He could hear the wry humor in her voice at that last bit, but ignored it.

She sighed. “Trying to save Durhu and the Hauld I get—that’s exactly what you’d want to do. But why do I also get the feeling that you don’t plan on coming back from the Spire? That you’re just gonna let that building fall on you and be done with it?”

“Because you’re perceptive,” he growled back at her.

That shut her up, if only for a moment. When she started up again, it was in a much softer voice. “What happened to you back at the keep, Arico? Or was it something earlier, from your mission where you found Alzhi’s body? What did they do to you?”

“It’s not what they did, Jaas!” He bit out, stopping and turning to face her. “It’s what I did! I killed them all. I just… cut them down where they stood!”

Thankfully they were still out of sight of the top of the Fishbowl. If there were enemies around, that’s where they’d be waiting. Arico didn’t want to have any deep, feelings-based discussions and dodge Ascendants at the same time. He didn’t want to talk at all, really, but Jaas was just as stubborn as she claimed.

“You mean those Ascendants who were holding me hostage?” Jaas asked. “You did what you had to back there. You saved my life—again, and you did give them a warning beforehand. What else could you have done?”

Arico shook his head. “It wasn’t them. This was earlier, before we got back here to the Fishbowl.” He closed his eyes, and could still see the dust billowing out from the collapsed tunnel. “The keep had just been destroyed. Like, seconds before. We were about to come here to rescue the Fishbowlers, but we were confronted by an enemy patrol. That’s when I did it. I used the threads as a weapon, Jaas! I pulled them right through my enemies, and cut six of them down in an instant. Only their navigator survived, and Sabra took him down almost as easily.”

He hesitantly looked her in the eyes again. He was half expecting her to be shocked or disgusted. Perhaps now she would see the monster that he saw in the mirror, but she didn’t flinch or look away. She only cocked her head to the side a bit. “They were under the Council’s orders, right? They were trying to kill you. It’s the same situation. You took lives in order to save lives.”

The same situation. Arico could only laugh cynically. “They were no threat to us anymore, Jaas! They had all fired already, and even if they’d tried to reload, it would have taken a few seconds. I could have easily gotten us all out of there, but I chose to massacre them first!”

He felt his gut twist again, as if he was back there, but was only now thinking about what he was doing, and why. Back then all he’d been feeling was horror and rage. Now all he could feel was remorse. “I always believed that I was special, you know? I believed that Aquun had chosen me for some great purpose in life. At first I thought it was because of my bloodline and my position with the Hauld. I could use the advantages of my birth and my upbringing to honor Aquun and to help the people of this city. It seemed fitting; Aquun is the giver of all life, after all. She provided us with the Waters in the first place!”

Jaas looked a little uncomfortable, as she always did when the people here spoke of Aquun, but she didn’t interrupt. Apparently she could sense just how important this was to him.

Arico shook his head. “She gave me these abilities, Jaas. Aquun blessed me with the power to preserve life. The very first time I used it, when Heartbane attacked, I saved you! Later, on top of that water tower, I saved the whole city, and all it cost me was my hands! But now… I’ve used her gift to kill people! I’ve defiled my purpose, and her gift to me.”

He’d never really been at ease talking about himself or his emotions, but Arico still felt the need to keep on speaking. “The worst part was how easy it was.” He looked back at her, and her damn sympathetic eyes. “Did you ever see the Hauld’s grass-cutting machine? It was pretty simple: the motion of the wheels spun the blades.” Jaas nodded, looking a little confused.

“Killing those men was just as easy as cutting that grass, Jaas! I just mowed them down, like they were just blades of grass in my way!”

He gripped his head tightly, as if he could somehow keep his thoughts and feelings from leaking out. “It shouldn’t be easy to kill people, Jaas! It should take effort, and time. You shouldn’t just be able to point at a bunch of people and kill them all in just a few seconds!”

Arico could still hear it. That sickening noise they’d made as they’d come apart. What Sabra had done to the navigator afterwards had barely even registered. At least that had needed a good aim and some force behind the throw!

“If I can save the Hauld and Durhu, great, but I deserve to die either way,” he said dully. “I’m a murderer, and I belong with the Shemra.” With a grunt he turned away again, and sat down in the tallgrass. Jaas followed his example after a moment.

At first she didn’t seem to have anything to say, but before long she slowly reached out and touched his face, turning him to face her. “I don’t know if this ability of yours is a divine gift or not, Arico. I’ve never really put much thought into it. I do think I understand now what’s really bothering you.”

She shook her head. “Some experiences… are so far beyond normal that they change who you are. Afterwards, you know how you should feel, but you just can’t. You know who you should be, but you aren’t. At first I thought that experience was the destruction of the keep, but now I know it’s what you did, rather than what was done to you. You know that you’re different now, and you think that you’ve become some kind of monster, but you’re wrong! Durhu and the Hauld raised a good person; trust me. You can’t let that one moment—that one mistake—wipe out everything they tried to teach you! No matter what you or the Hauld intended, you can’t guarantee every outcome. There’s always an element of chance, and you’ve just drawn a low card. This is just the first time your principles have truly been put to the test, that’s all.”

Arico let out another cynical grunt. “You don’t know how this feels. You couldn’t possibly understand.”

“But I do.”

Jaas sighed and looked up at the sky. “Two days ago at about this time I was in my dwelling, using a knife to cut up vegetables for dinner. Then just a few hours later I was using that very same knife to stab an Ascendant in the neck! I remember feeling the same terror and rage during the attack that you must have felt. I remember the noise he made when he fell, and the look in his eyes, and I remember how it felt to watch him bleed to death on the floor! Sure, he totally deserved it; he was trying to-” She paused for a moment.

“It doesn’t matter. The feeling was the same. I never thought I could kill someone, even in self-defense, but it turns out I could—and it was easy, too. I can still see his face when I close my eyes… and that’s something I will have to live with for the rest of my days.”

Arico felt a surge of shame that for once had nothing to do with his own killings. He’d known something had happened to her, from the blood on her face and neck, but he’d been so focused on himself that he hadn’t spared even a moment to think about what she might be going through. So much for being a considerate and aware leader.

“I also know why you want to end it all, Arico,” she went on implacably. “I felt the same way, back when they were escorting me towards the threads. I planned on throwing myself into the threads before anyone could stop me. I told myself it was for good reasons: so the Council couldn’t learn what I know, and use it against the stra’tchi and the movement. I almost convinced myself it would be a noble end, just like you’re trying to convince yourself now! But we both know the truth. What we’re experiencing is guilt, plain and simple. We don’t like what we did, and what it says about us, and we want to escape that feeling any way we can!”

Jaas grabbed his chin again, and looked him in the eyes. “I got over that impulse, and I’m just a cowardly scholar from Satacha. You’re the gods-blessed leader of a whole revolutionary movement! If I can deal with this crisis of self, then so can you!”

Arico had to admit she was right about his guilt. Perhaps not about the source of that guilt, though.

Now that she’d forced him to confront his actions, he could see them more clearly. He could envision the scene again, in his mind’s eye. It was almost like the recreation Jaas had made for him, which had helped him unlock Aquun’s gift.

What had he been feeling back there? When he’d been facing seven enemies, guns drawn, what had been in his heart? When he’d stopped their shots, and saw them gape in disbelief, why had he gone further?

He had been horrified, yes, and enraged at the Ascendants for attacking the Enclave and killing so many. There was more to it, though. He hadn’t slaughtered those men out of anger, or a desire for retribution. Now he could tell… he’d done it tactically. For the same reason he’d come back later, to thread their bodies and hide what he’d done to the gate itself. For the same reason he’d also gone to where Jaas had been rescued, and filled in those holes as best he could. Those men had seen what he could do, and he had to make sure they couldn’t tell their superiors.

A sick feeling formed in the pit of his stomach that had nothing to do with guilt. Seven men dead—no, thirteen, counting the guards who’d been holding Jaas—simply because they’d seen too much. Perhaps he had more in common with his enemies than he’d thought.

“You’re anything but cowardly, Jaas,” Arico told her faintly, trying not to dwell on that. “And you’re right, at least about some of what you said. I’m sorry I didn’t consider your situation as I should have. I had no idea you’d been through so much.” He slowly got back up from the ground—a surprisingly difficult task without hands. “I promise I’ll think about what you’ve said,” he continued sincerely, “but for now we’ve got work to do. Codi might be dangerous again, but if he tries anything I can get us to safety.”


“Why is this potion so important, anyway?” Jaas inquired from behind him, as they made their way back up the circular ramp on the inside of the Fishbowl. So far they’d seen no sign of enemies, and while there were ladders that were available to shorten the journey up, Arico wasn’t at all comfortable enough with his prosthetics to risk climbing one.

Codi had been glad to see them, and he was looking better himself. He claimed that Alya had been looking after him, but that she was out at the moment, naturally. Arico had promised that he or someone else would be back within a few days with more supplies, before he and Jaas had taken their leave. At least the poor man seemed all right for now.

“It was meant to be a surprise, actually,” he said apologetically as they continued their long, circular climb. “For you.”

Before she could ask, he changed the subject slightly. “Jaas, you’re the closest thing to an expert on the threads aside from Cartwright himself. You used magic to fool the threads into thinking you were an animal. That’s how you got through the outer threads at all—because fish and other underwater animals don’t get threaded like everything else. Tell me, what would happen if someone submerged a dead body in the Waters and tried to send it out of the city?”

“I suppose… it would make it through just fine,” she answered slowly, her brow furrowing a bit. “As long as it was entirely submerged and didn’t touch anything else on the way through, it would arrive intact. Just like the letters Lem and I send each other.”

“Well, this potion was Lem’s idea, actually. He agreed to help us test it when it was ready. I convinced him and Endu to keep it secret from you, in case it didn’t work. I didn’t want to get your hopes up.”

If anything, she looked even more confused. “Get my hopes up about what? What does the potion do?”

Despite the circumstances, Arico smiled slightly. “It’s a very powerful sleeping tonic. So powerful that it mimics death itself. Hopefully, it’ll be strong enough to fool the threads, just like your spell did when you first arrived.”

Jaas was silent for a while, apparently working it out. “You mean someone would drink it, and then basically go into a coma,” she said slowly, looking up again with a slow smile. “And then you’d push them underwater and out of the city? It sounds crazy… but that might just work!”

As usual, she went into her teaching mode as she thought through it aloud. “I’ve always surmised that the threads filter out people from animals by the fact that we can think in higher orders. If your potion is powerful enough to suppress even dreams, theoretically it could allow someone to leave. But you’d have to be very careful about the dosage. Too little and it might not be close enough to death to fool the threads. Too much, and you might just kill the person drinking it! There would also have to be someone on the other side to grab the subject quickly, or they would risk drowning. Plus someone on this side to weigh the subject down and make sure they get through without floating to the surface! There are a lot of variables to consider.”

Suddenly she reached out to stop him. “Endu said it wasn’t tested, though. Who did you have in mind to take the first dose? Me?”

Arico tried to spread his hands placatingly, before remembering. “Not exactly. Lem recommended that I find people who are dying, and therefore have little to lose, and offer the potion to them first. If they make it through, he can find magicians on the Outside who could heal them, and if they don’t… well at least their deaths could help us fine-tune the potion, and might help others in the future. We didn’t have time for any of those tests before the Enclave was destroyed, but I still want you to have the option, in case you need it.”

She only gave him a skeptical look, and Arico sighed. “Look, I knew you’d eventually want to present your findings to your superiors—in person. Unlike me, you actually do have a life outside of the city, and you’d probably want to get back to it at some point. Before the Enclave fell, I could be selfish and keep you close. Not only because you were valuable to the movement, but because I could protect you in turn. Even after I lost my hands, nothing changed because I could still use the threads to protect you. Unfortunately now that the dwarves are all gone, you no longer have a safe haven. You’re one of the most recognizable people in Patchwork, and no matter how we disguise you or where we hide you, chances are the Council will find you sooner rather than later. This potion may be your only chance at survival.”

He was laying it on a bit heavy, he knew, but somehow Arico was sure she could handle it. Jaas had learned to deal with life-or-death situations the hard way.

Strangely, Jaas wasn’t looking grim or determined as he had thought. She was giving him a strange little smile instead. Abruptly, she coughed and shook her head. “Uh… the Imbued can’t actually heal people, Arico. It’s kind of a long story, but those ‘magicians’ you mean would have to be from somewhere else than the Academy itself. I know a few places to look for them, though,” she paused and looked a bit surprised. “And I guess Lem does too, from the sound of it.”

“He’s very smart, Jaas,” Arico reminded her, still wondering about the abrupt change in subject. “I suppose he spent so much time in your shadow that you might have missed that.”

“Maybe so,” she admitted.

They’d arrived at Endu’s dwelling. Just like his own, it was a mess because they’d had to leave so quickly. Or possibly because she’d lived with two teenagers. Once again, Arico wondered how she’d gotten out in time. Maybe she’d been taking a walk like Sabra when the attack began, found one of the navigators escaping the attack, and left with them?

Jaas pulled out the list of ingredients, and began rummaging through Endu’s stores. Arico turned around, and vial after vial clinked into his backpack as she sorted through them. It wasn’t long before he realized she was bringing along much more than the list required, though.

“Jaas, what’s with the overpacking here?” He inquired casually. “We don’t need nearly this much.”

“Yes we do, if we want more than one potion,” her muffled voice filtered out through the cabinet as she leaned in further. “Because if this stuff works, you’re coming with me.”
« Last Edit: April 12, 2022, 03:50:47 AM by Daen »