Author Topic: Chapter 41  (Read 9790 times)

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Offline Daen

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Chapter 41
« on: April 12, 2022, 01:42:16 AM »
Chapter 41

Endu rounded the corner in one of the lower levels of the Fishbowl, and came to a stop, staring up. Despite the dimness, she could see a protrusion at the top of the large tunnel. Whatever it was, it was moving.

“Who’s there?” She challenged quietly, taking a step back and drawing her matchlock. It wasn’t loaded, but whoever was up ahead might not know that.

Ahead, the shadow attached to the ceiling twitched, and then dropped down onto the floor. Endu pulled a torch from a nearby sconce and stepped closer. It was Sabra. He got up slowly and stretched as best he could within the passage. “Sorry, brown-eyes. Sabra was hiding, and hoping not to be noticed.”

Endu set the torch back with some relief. The giant was starting to be a more familiar sight in the Fishbowl, but then he was usually a lot more obvious. “Why were you hiding up there? You’re not usually so elusive.”

Sabra grunted. “That’s the problem. Sabra needs to learn to be more sneaky. Sabra’s been beaten twice in a row! First by a child—by Veles-” he corrected himself grudgingly, “and then by skull-face!”

So that was what was bothering him. “Well, my son prepared for the, uh, battlefield before he challenged you. And from what I’ve heard, Heartbane agreed to fight unarmed, and then pulled a dagger. They both sort of cheated, don’t you think?”

“Exactly! Sabra has never had to be sneaky to win before. Outside the Deathwatch patch, things aren’t so simple anymore. Sabra needs to learn how to cheat like they did!” Heaving himself up again, Sabra gripped what were apparently handholds he’d carved in the rock ceiling and nodded to her. Obligingly, Endu backed up the passage again and looked in his direction.

“I can see… something at the top of the passage, Sabra. You’re not completely hidden. If I didn’t live here, I might think you were just more rock, though.”

A growl came up the passage. “Not good enough. Sabra needs to do better.”

Endu resisted the urge to shake her head as she walked under him and continued down the passage. Someone of Sabra’s size would never be able to hide very well. He’d have to find another way to be sneaky.

-.-

Storytime had come and gone, but Brin was still there. His head was resting on Ta’anu’s chest; he was asleep in such a way that only a child can be. He was curled up on the couch, just like he used to when he still slept in a crib, and Ta’anu was content to stay still so as not to wake him. Brin was approaching his third birthday. In just a few months, he’d be taken away and branded. There wouldn’t be many more peaceful moments like this, and Ta’anu didn’t want to waste any time with his son. Though if all went according to plan, Brin might not be taken away at all.

There was a quiet knock on the door. Given how late it was, Ta’anu looked up with suspicion, and shared a glance with his wife across the room. “I’ll get it,” Ifey said softly, and made her way to the door.

Me’denna greeted her from the night air outside. He was sweating despite the cool evening, and looked out of breath. If Ifey was surprised, she didn’t show it. She only welcomed him inside, and then gently picked up Brin off of Ta’anu’s chest and carried him out of the room. Ifey wasn’t a Thorne like the two of them, but she knew enough to give them some privacy. Good woman.

Me’denna took a moment to catch his breath, and then straightened in respect as Ta’anu rose. “Sir. I think we’ve found it.”

Ta’anu just stood there for a moment. “You think you found it?” He gave his subordinate a wearied look. “This isn’t a guessing game, Me’denna. Tell me what you know.”

Me’denna looked down with a grimace. “Yessir. Tre’cah and I were in the threads, looking for the fields like you said, when we caught sight of a wagon train and a pair of Ascendants on the edge of…” He trailed off. “I don’t remember the patch name. I can show you on the map.” He shucked his pack and reached into it for the vellum rolled up inside.

“That’s all right,” Ta’anu said firmly. “What happened then?”

“Right. Uh, Tre’cah had this idea. See, the carts were empty, and they were headed to the threads. So Tre’cah hid and then just as they went into the threads, he jumped in back of one of the carts!”

Before Ta’anu could respond, Me’denna continued excitedly. “See, that way he went along for the ride! They took him straight to another patch, an’ he jumped right back out and into the threads!”

Ta’anu took a deep breath. He had half a dozen navigators under his command, all of whom had been searching almost day and night since Tellek patch had been wiped out. Actually since even before the Briar meeting where he’d gotten permission to go searching! Unfortunately, his navigators weren’t the highly trained Ascendant soldiers he’d seen in Sustained patches. They weren’t even the disciplined but less powerful House Guards that each Sustained family kept in service. No, his navigators were little more than excited amateurs. As evidenced by their sheer recklessness!

“Was he seen?” Ta’anu asked with some strained patience.

“He didn’t think so, boss. Uh, sir.” Me’denna amended quickly. “His shape inside the threads is a tiny beetle. So he figured he could go along for the ride and not be noticed.”

Well, at least he’d shown that much sense. In an effort to mold his men, navigators and otherwise, into a more efficient fighting force, Ta’anu had put military rules in place to govern them. They were still learning, though.

“He came straight back to me and told me where they went,” Me’denna continued. “A wide open patch with big fields, but he said he ain’t seen any crops like what they got growin’ there!” That was certainly promising. Still, it was a big risk. If either of those Ascendants had been alert, they might have killed Tre’cah or worse, captured him.

Ta’anu would have to have words with Tre’cah later on. After he’d confirmed their findings, naturally. If word got back to the other Thornes that Ta’anu’s men had been taking such risks, they wouldn’t hesitate to reprimand him. In fact, they’d probably remove him from power altogether. When it came to their secrecy, they did not mess around. They might even send the giant after him, though Ta’anu doubted it. As much as he secretly wanted to test his skills against the hulking monstrosity, he didn’t think much of his chances against it.

Me’denna was still standing at his approximation of attention. “I take it Tre’cah is back at his home by now?” Ta’anu asked wearily, and Me’denna nodded sharply. “Good. Go home and get some sleep. I’ll contact the others and get their blessing. Tomorrow night, just before dusk, I want you to gather everyone here, ready for a fight.”

Me’denna saluted, accurately for once, and dashed out. He was clearly too riled up to get much sleep, but he would do as he was told. Unlike Tre’cah, anyway. Despite this near miss, Ta’anu was encouraged. Based on the description, it sounded like Tre’cah’s gamble had paid off.

Ta’anu spoke to Ifey briefly, telling her he’d be gone for a few hours. He kissed the sleeping Brin on the forehead, and went out to call another Briar meeting. This one, he was sure, would be much more heavily attended.

-.-

The voice was faint but persistent in Arico’s ear. Mumbling to himself, he turned over in bed. “Wake up, Arico. You have to wake up, right now! You’re in danger, Arico!”

The voice was getting louder, or perhaps more desperate as it pierced the fog in his mind and he begrudgingly pushed his way into consciousness. Only to gasp in surprise. He was in the threads!

The white streams of light passed through him and around him, and the empty space spread out in every direction. Frantically, Arico opened a window as quickly as he could. It was dark, but he could see stars through it. He exhaled noisily and felt his heart thumping in his chest. Even though neither his heart nor his breath were real in here, his shock and fear currently certainly were.

How in the Shemras’ dark hearts had he gotten here? He’d gone to sleep in the quarters he shared with Durhu inside the Fishbowl. They were nowhere near the threads!

At least he’d been able to open a window safely. He peered through and thought he could make out some familiar looking structures. He was next to the Enclave, thankfully. He gulped as the stark reality of the situation hit him. The sheer closeness he’d come to being lost forever. Then he remembered the voice. It had been Odjes’ voice, he thought. Perhaps his instincts had woken him. Or perhaps it had just been a dream and he’d been lucky enough to wake up in time. Either way, it had been far too close for comfort.

After taking a few moments to calm down, he navigated his way to the nearest underground passage and entered the Enclave. The dwarven guards were still at the mouth of the tunnel, and they both gave him surprised looks—no wonder, given that he was still in his sleep-wear. They were disciplined enough to not inquire, though.

“I need to meet with the Hauld,” he said quietly, grateful that his voice wasn’t shaking. “I know it’s late. Just tell him it’s a Par’hama situation. The Harbinger should probably be there as well, and I’ll bring my father along too.”

The dwarves exchanged another glance, but then one of them bowed and hurried down another passage. They had no idea what that Par’hama meant, but the Hauld did: a deadly threat to either him, his son, or Arico himself.

-.-

Half an hour later, Arico, Durhu, Jaas and the Hauld had finally gathered together in one of the antechambers off the main greeting hall in the keep. Arico made sure that no one was close enough to listen in, before telling them what had happened.

Predictably, Durhu and the Hauld responded with deep concern, and Jaas was more curious. “From what I can tell,” Arico elaborated for them, “I woke up at almost the very moment I entered the threads. If I hadn’t woken up in time…” he trailed off.

“What would have happened?” Jaas insisted. She had her quill and parchment ready, but wasn’t taking this down. It seemed the others’ concern was wearing off on her.

The Hauld spoke up first, before Arico could explain. “Thar’s a reason no navigator goes ta sleep inside tha threads, lass. E’en tha Council dinnae order their own men ta stay inside mor’n eight hours at a time. If anyone drifts off inside, then they’re jus’ gone. Driftin’ forever inside tha threads, an’ never able ta find their way out! Or so mos’ people believe, anyway.”

“If I hadn’t woken up in time, I’d most likely still be stuck in there,” Arico finished for him. “No one knows for sure what happens to people in that situation, but none of them have ever been seen again. It’s happened maybe a few dozen times since the Threading.”

Jaas’ quill twitched as she started taking all of this down, and her face showed noticeable concern. “You said you were in your room, in bed. Is this the same thing that happened when your—when Heartbane attacked us?” Her pause was brief, but she glanced in Durhu’s direction for just a moment.

Arico smiled. She was getting better at keeping information private, that was for sure. “It’s all right, Jaas. I already told Durhu everything. Yes, I think it is the same effect that we saw when fighting my sister. And I wasn’t sleeping back then, of course. At first I thought that me jumping into the threads like that was just an instinct. A side effect of fighting for my life, and for yours. But if I can vanish from my own bed, clearly something else is triggering it. If I can’t find out what, then I’m in serious danger here.”

Durhu took a sharp breath, as he always did when he got a sudden idea. There’s something else, he signed slowly. Just before you brought me here, I noticed a small hole in the stone wall of our living room. About as wide a finger would be. Still, it’s cut right into the stone, and there’s another hole in your room about the same size and direction. They’re both pointed right towards where the nearest threads are. Or would be, if you could cut through solid stone all the way.

“Arico lad, tha team I sent ta Yeggin patch foun’ somethin’ like that in tha wall where ye were attacked,” the Hauld added excitedly, being one of the few dwarves who could understand Durhu without a translator. “A hole, abou’ tha same size, cut right into the stone. I dinnae think anythin’ about it at the time, but it’s too similar ta wha’ happened in yer home.” Jaas opened her mouth, but he cut her off quickly. “An’ tha hole weren’t from tha dagger tha’ stuck ya in the hand, lass. Ye can be sure o’ tha’, at least.”

“You never told me you sent people to Yeggin patch,” Arico said curiously, but couldn’t quite keep a note of accusation out of his tone.

The Hauld shrugged. “Well, ye were busy a’ tha time, what with yer sister an’ all.”

Arico nodded. “Fair enough.”

When Jaas spoke, it was slowly. As if she was reasoning it out as she said it. “The only thing we know that can cut stone that quickly and cleanly are the threads themselves,” she extrapolated. “What if you didn’t actually jump us into the threads back in Yeggin patch? What if instead, you pulled the threads to yourself?”

The Hauld and Arico both shook their heads immediately. “That’s not possible,” Arico said confidently. “The threads can’t move. Or at least they haven’t moved in over three hundred years. If they could, there’s no way we wouldn’t know about it by now. It would have changed everything! Besides,” he added as it occurred to him, “if I could pull the threads into my room like that, I would have been the first to see them when I got back. Aside from those holes in the wall, our dwelling is definitely threads-free and normal.”

“Hear me out,” Jaas continued with that overly patient tone she liked so much. “What if you did pull the threads to you, but just for a moment? Long enough to get into them, with me along for the ride, but then you let go and they just snapped back to where they were before? Think of it like stretching that gum rubber you use to seal your homes. Once you let go, it immediately goes back to the form it had before!

“And then again, in your sleep, you pulled the threads to you. They cut holes in your dwelling and in your bedroom wall, you jumped into the threads, and then they snapped back to where they’d been before!” She concluded breathlessly.

It made a certain sense, Arico had to admit, but in his experience nothing like this had ever happened before! Testing her theory would be difficult, given that none of them knew how this was happening in the first place. Besides, he had a much more pressing problem to handle first, anyway. “Hauld, I… I think we should contact Cartwright. If anyone knows what’s happening to me, or has heard of anything like it, it’s him.”

He expected the Hauld to object immediately, but got nothing but silence from the old man. That in itself was unsettling. Apparently the Hauld was just as disturbed by all this as Arico was.

When he finally spoke, it was in a determined voice. “All righ’, lad. We’ll sen’ someone ta Lady Cartwrigh’s place in tha mornin’. It’ll have ta be someone who cinnae navigate, tho. ‘E’ll never see a navigator, ye know tha’.”

“I’ll reach out to some of our sympathizers in Tonnok patch,” Arico said with some relief. “They can bring a message back to me. And if they’re followed, maybe I’ll just disappear right then and there,” he added with a small smile. “If there’s an upside to this, it’s that I’ll be much harder to pin down, won’t I?”

It was a poor joke, and did little to raise spirits. Jaas was kind enough to smile in response. Durhu did too, but then started signing again. It might take a few days before he gets back to us, though. Will you stay awake the whole time, Arico?

Arico hadn’t considered that. Even if Cartwright could help him, there was no guarantee he would want to, and no guarantee that it could be done quickly. The prospect of staying conscious for three or four days straight wasn’t a very appealing one. But then, neither was being stuck forever in an empty white expanse. “I’ll make do. Maybe take some of those spiced drinks the cooks can make. If they can keep dwarves awake, they should be pretty strong for me as well.”

“Actually,” Jaas put in with a confident smile, “I have an idea about that.”

-.-

“You gotta be kidding me,” Arico complained, back in his room some hours later.

“It’s the only way to be sure,” Jaas responded serenely, as she tied the rope tightly around his wrist. She wasn’t tying him to the bed, as some people found arousing, nor to a chair. She was lashing his wrist to another, smaller wrist. A wrist belonging to Tarith, Nemith’s excitable son. Sure enough, the kid was grinning like an idiot, even now as the back of his hand was pressed against Arico’s forearm.

“Nemith has things to do,” Jaas continued, “and his wife Ansanah is no navigator. If you jumped into the threads with her, she’d be as helpless as I would be. Tarith can help you, though. You fall asleep tied to him, and if you end up inside the threads, he’ll be able to wake you up and bring you back no problem. And if you don’t end up in the threads, then at least you get some sleep. It’s a win-win situation.”

“It’s a ridiculous situation,” Arico grumbled, but with no real force behind the complaint. He had to admit her idea had merit.

“Come on, Arico,” Tarith said brightly. “It’ll be fun. I can navigate us back just fine if things go wrong. If they don’t, well, Chanul lent me a book from the Hauld’s collection. I can read fine one-handed, and if you snore I can just poke you until you stop.”

“Yeah, I can’t wait,” Arico said dryly, as he laid back and tried to get comfortable.

“I’m just concerned you might hurt him,” Jaas said with a slight crease to her forehead. “That’s why he’s on this side of the bed. The last two times, it looks like you pulled the threads from their nearest location. If you do it again, they should come from that side of the room, away from Tarith. If they can cut through stone, imagine what they could do to a person!”

Tarith looked a little concerned as well. This was new to him: the idea of the threads being malleable, in any way. But he was a kid, and kids could handle seemingly incredible information—not to mention possibly dangerous situations—much more easily than adults. That was probably why Jaas had chosen him in the first place. Busy or not, Arico was sure that Nemith would be willing to help if the situation was dire enough, but she’d gone with his son instead.

Thankfully in this case, there was no risk to Tarith from him. “It’s all right, Jaas. Remember, he’s a navigator. It wouldn’t matter if I pulled the threads right through his heart. He’d still be completely unharmed.”

“In theory,” Jaas reminded him, at the same time finishing the last knot.

“Right,” Arico admitted. “In theory.” She was right: this was new territory for all of them. Still, no matter how ridiculous this whole process was, he did feel safer now, thanks to these two.
« Last Edit: April 12, 2022, 02:49:22 AM by Daen »