Author Topic: Chapter 44  (Read 1557 times)

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Offline Daen

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Chapter 44
« on: April 11, 2022, 11:41:28 PM »
Chapter 44

Field notes, the 8th of Moraga.

It’s been two days now, since Arico and I came back from the meeting with Halseus—or Cartwright, as I guess I should call him. At least until his true identity comes out.

Naturally Arico refused his terms. He can’t make such a promise to Cartwright, because he’s already sworn to give his life, if necessary, for the movement! Besides, even if the Hauld was willing to release him from that oath, he can’t promise to protect his sister, either. She’s far too powerful and dangerous to be treated as just another Sustained, and she’s already killed on behalf of her father. As much as I want Arico to be safe, I know he’ll never be content to just sit this out. Even if it means risking being lost to the threads.

Jaas shook her head as she massaged her shoulders a little. Her dwelling in the Fishbowl was just a little too small for comfort, but at least it was private enough. She wouldn’t want to broadcast what she was doing here to everyone in the Enclave.

Leaning back, she looked at the table and wall in front of her. Names, dates, and drawn faces covered both surfaces, all intertwined in some kind of pattern which she had yet to figure out. But she would. Finding out what Cartwright was up to had just become her top priority, given what he’d told her.

His divination abilities continued to give her pause. How in the stars had he been able to develop them here, in the city? He wasn’t casting spells—it must be some kind of natural ability. If the Blessed were responsible for putting up the threads, were they also responsible for giving him these… links he used to spy on people? How could they have possibly given him his orders, given that they’d been gone for thousands of years, and he couldn’t be older than a few hundred? There were just too many questions, and he’d made it clear he could only explain so much.

Jaas wished she’d been able to ask him more questions—or at least more pertinent questions—before being escorted away along with Arico, but at least they had their answer. There was a way for Arico to control these new abilities. They just had to find it themselves.

She’d just put pen to paper again when there was an abbreviated knock on the door. With a sigh, Jaas capped the inkwell and headed over to the door. Through the pinhole, she could make out Arico’s features on the other side. He seemed to be alone, so she opened the door. “Hey.” She beckoned him inside.

“Hey, yourself,” he responded. He looked much less tired now, than the last time they’d spoken. Despite the awkwardness of being lashed to someone every time he needed to sleep, he seemed to be adjusting well. Nemith, Tarith, and a few of the other navigators in the Fishbowl had been taking turns protecting him over the past few days.

“Looks like you’re getting a handle on this sleeping-while-navigating thing,” she said quietly, noticing how he looked more rested now.

“Yeah, I think so,” he stretched briefly once inside. “Still, the idea of being lost in the threads terrifies me. Being stuck in that white emptiness, unable to see or hear anyone else? I tried to draw blood in there, once, you know. I brought a knife and tried to nick my finger. Nothing. The knife passed through my hand like it wasn’t there. I mean, of course it did. But imagine that… forever.”

Jaas shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “You don’t know that for sure. Maybe they just died. Or maybe they found their way out of the city entirely. Lem and I are the only ones to examine the city in a long time, and we easily could have missed someone leaving Patchwork.” They both pondered that for a moment, but Arico still looked skeptical.

“Anyway, I don’t have very long,” he said apologetically, looking over the collage of names and faces she’d displayed. “The Hauld is expecting a report from me soon. I just wanted to check on you. Have you had any luck with all… this?” He gestured at the wall.

“Not really,” Jaas admitted sourly. “I’ve assembled every prophecy and every ‘favor’ people have done for Cartwright in exchange for his help over the past few decades. There are a few connections between some of them, but nothing that links them all together. I’m afraid I’m no closer to understanding his true motivations than I was.”

“What do the prophecies have to do with Cartwright?” Arico asked curiously.

Jaas could have slapped her head. He didn’t know ‘Cartwright’ had written the prophecies! He didn’t even know Cartwright wasn’t human! “It’s… just something I’ve been curious about. Ever since I first heard about them,” she said hastily. That was the truth, actually. Just not the whole truth.

Trying to change the subject, she continued as casually as she could. “In fact, about the only thing we know for sure about him is that he wants to protect you and your sister for some reason.”

“All right, let’s start there.” Arico crossed his arms and started pacing slowly. “A Sustained lord with supremely powerful divination abilities and a close friendship with house Fisher is betrayed and nearly killed. However, while he does break off all communication with my father, he still wants to protect my father’s children. Why?”

“You’re both powerful navigators, both skilled in fighting. You also have abilities no one else in the city seems to have. You can pull the threads to yourself, if only for a moment, and your sister can track people through them. Was he trying to recruit the two of you to serve him? Was it a form of revenge against your father?” Jaas hazarded.

Arico shook his head with a grunt. “I’m not a very good fighter, Jaas, and I doubt this is about vengeance. If he wanted revenge, he could have taken it himself with his abilities. It’s gotta be something else. Why would he want to protect me, of all people? He had to know I’m trying to overthrow the Sustained power structure itself. For all we know, he’s spying on us right now!”

That was a creepy feeling. Jaas had been suppressing it for a while know, but she knew for a fact that everything her eyes were seeing was being viewed by Halseus as well. There really was no privacy from him. Or at least none she’d discovered yet. “If he wants to protect you, then why did he refuse to help? You’re at much greater risk of being lost to the threads right now than you are from being killed by the Ascendants. If he really had your best interests at heart, wouldn’t it be safer to teach you to control your abilities, regardless of whatever else you were doing?”

“Maybe,” Arico said softly. “I’ve been thinking back about when I woke up inside the threads. At first I thought it was my dream-friend Odjes warning me to wake up, but now I’m not so sure. You said Cartwright could communicate using the sha’haln. I think it’s more likely he was the one who warned me. He could have done it to protect me, or to convince me to seek him out, or both!”

“I’ve been thinking too,” Jaas said, feeling excitement rising up in her gut as they puzzled this out together. “Remember back just before your first jump into the threads? Heartbane took us completely by surprise. If we hadn’t heard that rock fall, and stopped, that first crossbow bolt would have gone right into your heart! That’s too much of a coincidence.”

She shook her head. “We’re just not that lucky. I think Cartwright, or someone working for him, was there yesterday. I think he made that noise to keep her from surprising us. That way he could protect you, without anyone even knowing it!”

“It made it an even fight,” Arico breathed. Then he grimaced. “Well, more even. I was no match for her, even with the warning.”

“Cartwright must have known you would try to escape!” Jaas continued. “He was trying to protect you both. He knew that if you won that fight, you’d spare her, but if she won it, she’d kill you. He did the only thing he could to give you both a chance at surviving. Or the only thing he could do without revealing himself, anyway.”

“This is all just guesswork, though,” Arico reminded her. “We don’t know any of this for sure. It could have just been old stonework crumbling.”

“It’s possible,” she admitted, and rubbed her eyes. “Maybe I just need some sleep. These pictures and names and dates are all flowing together by now. It’s not really a collage anymore. It looks more like a painting if you’re tired enough.”

“Go to bed, then,” Arico ordered with a smile. “After my report, I’ll do the same. We’ve still got a lot of preparations to do before the Aquunsaya and the Twin Suns, and I don’t want to be falling asleep for that.”

Jaas had heard of the Aquunsaya. It was a Sustained celebration only, based in the river itself. Every year most of the Sustained houses would set aside their differences and spend a day swimming or sitting on the shore. She didn’t recognize the other one, though. “What are the Twin Suns? I think I’ve heard the name somewhere, but I don’t remember when.” Jaas abruptly yawned, and covered her mouth.

“It’s like the New Day celebrations, but it’s only twice a year instead of four times,” Arico said, yawning as well. “Every six months for a short time, there are two suns visible in the sky for a few minutes. Our sun… and the real one from the Outside.”

“What?” Jaas exclaimed, her jaw dropping. “Wait… you can see the real sun? Through the threads??”

“That’s right,” Arico said, sounding confused. “It shows up at noon, right overhead, along with the image of the sun we’re all used to.”

“Why didn’t you tell me earlier?” Jaas demanded. “This could be huge!”

He shrugged, looking even more confused. “I… didn’t think it was important. It’s just another celebration. There’s no day-long festivities or anything. It only lasts a few minutes.”

“Not important?” Jaas said sharply, as she pulled out her pack and dumped it on the table. She began rifling through notes as quickly as she could, about her early observations of the threads. “Don’t you know what this means? If you can see the actual sun and not just an image of it, that means the threads have a limit after all!”

Arico shook his head uncomprehendingly. “I don’t understand.” Jaas took a deep breath. Of course this meant nothing to him. He hadn’t studied the threads from the outside like she had.

She thought back over her initial research as she tried to explain. “When the Threading first happened, people tried to figure out a way around or through the newly-formed barriers. Some of the original Sustained mages from that time dug deep underground trying to find a way under, or used magic to fly high up in the air to get over it! Even after months of trying, no matter how high up or deep down they went, they didn’t find an end. They thought that meant the barriers had no end, and just kept on going vertically, up and down, forever. But if the sun can shine through them, even just twice a year, that means you could theoretically fly over the city!”

She laughed excitedly. “Don’t you see? If the threads have an upper limit, then it’s just a matter of finding it! My superiors back at the Academy could probably do it.” She paused for a moment, thinking about the details. “I guess they’d have to research a whole new set of spells for protection, though. It gets pretty cold the higher up you go, and the air gets too thin to breathe eventually.” She grabbed for the inkwell and a piece of paper. “I have to tell Lem. If he can find a way over the city, he might be able to drop supplies down for us or something. There could be other ways he could help, too!”

“I’ll… leave you to it,” Arico said, not quite disguising his bemusement. “Good luck. Just don’t forget to sleep eventually, all right? We’re starting up our visits to the stra’tchi patches again tomorrow, and I’ll need you to be available for more questions.”

“I won’t forget, I promise,” Jaas said distractedly. She barely noticed him leave.


Sopping wet, Untos sloshed his way down the darkened halls to the Sanctum. He stripped off his bandages as he went. There was no need to disguise himself here. Other acolytes nodded to him as he passed them.

There was a clothesline strung up just outside the Sanctum’s northern entrance. Untos carefully draped the cloth over it, again and again until it was all just above the ground. Drops of water splashed down in a line, into the gap below. A gap created by the water itself. Even water could cut stone, if it had enough time. They had time aplenty down here.

There were no torches this deep underground, but that wasn’t an issue for anyone here. Like the dwarves, they could all see in the dark without effort. As could the other denizens of the cavern—not that Untos had seen any of them in years. They stayed in their part of the cavern, and the acolytes stayed here, as part of their long-standing agreement. That was, when he and the other acolytes weren’t shooting up to the surface to look after Halseus’ ‘daughter’ Belaya.

From time to time Untos still wondered how that was possible. Belaya had cared for Halseus as best she could for years now. Even though he didn’t eat or drink. Though he was allegedly well past his prime (at least in human terms), he showed no signs of slowing down. His voice was different. Far more so than could be explained by a burned throat.

How could she possibly think that Halseus was her father? Somehow deep down she had to know the truth. Even so, she looked after him. Still spoke on his behalf to navigators who came calling. Still sent messages for him in places he couldn’t go. By all appearances, she had convinced herself he was her father.

Untos supposed it did make a sick sort of sense. Her father had been taken away from her in a horrible way: beaten down by his best friend, and then burned to death. Halseus knew everything about her—everything she’d ever shared with her old man. Through the links he knew her behavior patterns, her responses. Even her favorite tune to hum while she was working. He could simulate her father almost exactly in those respects, and Belaya loved him for it. Enough to convince herself that her father was still alive, apparently.

Untos stopped just outside the Sanctum’s threshold, and submitted to a routine security sweep from inside before the door finally opened. He shook his head anyway, though. He was head of security for this entire place, and even he didn’t see any point to these sweeps. The humans didn’t even know they existed, and neither did the dwarves. If anyone else approached, Halseus’ links would warn them all long before anyone could get close enough to harm them.

Once inside though, he slowed his pace. Something was going on. The usual guards were there of course, standing at attention in the halls, but there were dozens more acolytes between them, talking quietly in the darkness. Lights flashed up ahead, at the Sanctum’s center core, but the acolytes were keeping their distance. Fearing the worst, Untos hurried inside.

Halseus was there, sitting cross-legged on the floor. He was scribbling something on a piece of paper on the ground. The source of the light was in front of him, but he clearly wasn’t paying attention to it.

It was a portal of sorts, available nowhere else in existence but here. Instead of allowing travel, it allowed people to see the links for themselves. Right now, the images swirling forth from it clearly indicated a dwarf’s viewpoint. The perspective moved through the hallways of the dwarven keep, and shifted slightly each time the dwarf nodded to another of his kind. Halseus was capable of monitoring every link in the city at once, but it was through this portal that he showed others what he was seeing.

Untos noticed Diesh and Trias standing in one of the far corners, and made his way towards them. “What’s going on here?” He was Halseus’ second in command. He should have been the first person to be aware of any problems, but he’d been out on patrol. That itself was a mark of shame, but Untos ignored that for now. He could berate himself later.

“We’ve got a situation in the Enclave,” Diesh said tentatively. “It seems Jaas is up to something.” Untos felt a chill that had nothing to do with the dampness still clinging to him. He gestured for Diesh to continue.

They shared a brief glance, and Trias spoke for him. “Well, it started out normal enough. She found out about the Twin Suns, and wanted to see if she could use them in some way. Something about flying over the city, I think. Then about an hour and a half ago she wrote a pair of letters and sealed them up. The first was to her Outside friend Lem, explaining the Twin Suns. Like I said, it was all pretty normal for her. But the second letter… we don’t know.”

Untos cocked his head slightly. “What do you mean you don’t know? Halseus is linked to her. He should know everything she does, as she does it!”

“That’s just it, sir. She wrote the second letter blindfolded. Boss-man can’t see what she’s doing if she’s not using her eyes!”

“Why would she do that?”

“Could you be quiet over there, please?” Halseus said irritably, “I’m trying to concentrate.”

Untos apologized quietly, and herded the others a bit further away. “Explain,” he ordered in an undertone.

Trias and Diesh looked at each other again. “Well, Halseus told her what he could do, right? She knows that he can see everything she sees. We think—and Halseus agreed before you got here—that the only reason for writing blindfolded is to keep us from seeing it! She doesn’t want us to know what she’s up to!” Diesh’s voice underscored the anxiety he was obviously feeling.

That didn’t bode well. Untos turned to the portal and connected to it. The images immediately shifted again as he tapped into the other links. Faces blurred past each other as he shifted through nearby people one after the other. He was nowhere near as good at this as Halseus was, but he knew the basics.

There. Jaas’ link. He reversed the image, going back in time to her writing the letters. Sure enough the link went completely dark, for maybe ten minutes. It was strange, seeing blackness that he couldn’t see through.

Then the light was back. The letter was already sealed, and she was addressing it. To Lem as well, apparently. She added a note at the end of the address though, instructing Lem to open that letter last for some reason.

“This isn’t so bad,” he rationalized to himself. “Halseus may not be able to see what she wrote, but he can feel what she felt as she wrote it. He should be able to duplicate the letter himself, even if it takes just as long as she did writing it.”

“That’s what he’s doing right now,” Trias pointed down at him as he scribbled away. “I can’t tell you how hard it was to get some parchment and ink down here without getting them both soaking wet.”

“I can imagine,” Untos said understandingly. He turned away from them for a moment. He knew it had been a mistake for Halseus to tell her anything about the links. He’d tried to talk him out of it, but to no avail. Halseus was determined to find out about the Outside g’laam. And to be fair, he had been in a wonderful mood for the past few days, since finding out how many there really were out there.

Still, it had opened the door for this situation. None of this would have been possible if they’d just kept Jaas in the dark like Untos had wanted! At least she didn’t know the full extent of the links, though. She thought they were just visual, but through the links Halseus could also hear, taste, and even feel what she felt. Since she couldn’t block out sensation from her hands and arms while she’d been writing… whatever that letter was, Halseus could duplicate it.

Untos gazed at the portal again. She’d written both letters with her right hand, which by now had mostly healed from her encounter with Heartbane. Another incident he’d wanted Halseus to stay out of, but one he’d insisted on handling personally. In order to write intelligibly with her right, she must have kept the paper very steady with her left. Even so, it was probably going to be barely readable.

It took another few minutes before Halseus finally stopped scribbling on the ground. “Here it is,” he said gravely, lifting the letter duplicate up so they could all read it together. He held it steady as the portal continued to broadcast her perspective in the background.

Dearest Lem, Untos read silently to himself.

I wanted you to read this letter last because it’s the most important one I’ll ever write. It’s not just instructions for you, but also a farewell. As well as a confession.

I’ve sent you update after update these past few months. I’ve told you how the situation is worsening here in the city. After Tellek patch was poisoned, things have really gone downhill. Now with Beast attacks cropping up all over stra’tchi territory… it’s just getting too much. I have to stop the fighting. This bloodshed has to end, and soon!

My first impulse was to turn myself in to the Council. As an Outsider I would have a better chance of reasoning with them than anyone in the city. Even though I’m not the real Harbinger, they still think I am! I might be able to use that as leverage to force some kind of peace settlement. I don’t think that would succeed, though. I’m not privy to any of the Hauld’s battle plans. I could hurt the movement, yes, but there’s no way I could stop it. Besides, there’s nothing I could do to stop the Council either. The fighting would continue. That leaves me with only one other option to stop all this horror. It’s almost unthinkable, but I must consider all alternatives. No matter how extreme.

Arico is the key to all of this. The Hauld plans on using him for his bloodline—to put him in place of the Council once they’ve been overthrown. The Council in turn hates his guts. It’s understandable, after what he did during the Laentana. I heard that the man he humiliated—the High Penet—was executed for his crimes. As horrible as it is to even consider… I have to kill Arico.

I know what you’re thinking right now, Lem. No, I haven’t lost my mind, though sometimes I feel like I have. There’s so much madness surrounding me—so much death. I can’t let it continue, not if I can do something to stop it.

Consider the results first, before anything else. Without Arico, the Hauld won’t be able to convince any stra’tchi to join his cause. They already distrust dwarves, and Alzhi can’t possibly take his place. He’s a well-known commander in the Ascendants; the stra’tchi villagers will never listen to him. Without Arico the Hauld will have nothing to put in place of the Council. Just chaos and violence.

And without Arico, the Council will lose its most visible enemy. The dwarves’ involvement in this fight has been completely invisible so far. The Council can’t attack them without proof they’ve broken their Pact. Alzhi will continue to spy on them, but he’s not high enough in station to be any real threat to them. The balance will be restored once Arico is dead.

In truth, I think that neither the Hauld nor Arico knew when they got started, just how awful revolutions can be. Just how many innocent people get slaughtered. They also didn’t know how many people are willing to live with things as they are without any revolution. I have to do this for their sake if not for anyone else’s.

As for how to do it, I’ve decided the best way is poison. Despite all my training, I’d be no match for him in a fight anyway. I’m having dinner with him tonight to discuss the new lists of names from my research notes to present to the stra’tchi. I stole an appropriate poison from Endu’s lab earlier. It’s painless, and fast acting. He’ll be dead before dessert.

Of course the Hauld will execute me for doing this. Probably painfully. He likes Arico, in addition to just using him. But it’ll be worth it all the same, if it can save hundreds or thousands of lives.

That’s why I’m writing to you now, Lem. I want you to know what happened, and why. These letters will go out tonight, before anyone knows what I’ve done, and I’m including all of my research notes as well. That way you can continue your studies of the threads if you want. Or you can just take them to the Imbued. I imagine you’ll get your teaching position immediately, if you do that. It’s up to you.

Thank you, Inelem, for being such a good friend. I knew there was something special about you, right from the start, and I’m so glad you stuck with me all this time. Still, to all things there is a season, and now it’s time to say goodbye.

So farewell, dear friend. May your days be ever brighter.

« Last Edit: April 12, 2022, 12:58:51 AM by Daen »