11th April 2011, 12:27 AM #16
Re: Communication (PG-13) [Chapter Fourteen Now Posted]
Chapter 15 – Strangers
“Just as they have moved on beyond our world, so must we move on in it. Now go, and may the gods give you strength.”
At the Soul Guild leader’s dismissal, the crowd gathered in the burial chamber stirred and began to disperse. Some among them were hesitant to leave, however, reluctant to make that final parting from the ones who had left them behind in life.
Solonn was one of those who lingered, remaining seated on the stone floor and holding the now featureless space in the center of the room in a sorrowful gaze. Mere minutes ago, they had been there, lifeless and encased in ice like the nine others who had perished in the temple with them. Now, with them sealed away deep beneath the floor with the rest of the fallen, the weight of their loss was impressing itself upon him all the more: he would never see them again. In leaving this chamber, he would be leaving them behind for the rest of his life.
He wasn’t left alone to dwell upon such things for long, however; a prod at his side interrupted his thoughts. He rose and turned to identify its source. There, he found a rather familiar female; he recognized her as the one of the Security Guild members. She was looking up at him with an unspoken question—no, a command—in her eyes.
“I’ve been sent by my guild to escort you,” she said, telling Solonn nothing that he hadn’t already guessed. Hagen had said that he could expect such, after all, and the lahain had clearly meant it. Solonn hadn’t had anyone specifically assigned to him prior to that point, and as far as he could tell, none of the other witnesses had, either; he and they seemed to have just been herded into the burial chamber together following the meeting with the council. Now the time had apparently come for the Security Guild members who had gone into the burial chamber with them to split up and follow the witnesses as they dispersed.
Solonn frowned at her, wishing that she weren’t there—and not only for his own sake. “You have better things to do right now,” he told her quietly, “and you know it.”
“I’m afraid that’s not for you to decide,” the guild member responded. She then circled around and took up a position right behind him—or what was behind him before he turned to face her once more. “Get moving, please,” she said. “I don’t know where you live. You’ll have to lead.”
Solonn gave her an odd look. “Who said I was going home?”
“Well, it’s not as though you have anything else to do, now is it?”
He did have something else to do, but he most certainly couldn’t tell her as much. Letting even the slightest hint slip that he still desired to try and warn people of the threat they still faced, the danger that they weren’t allowed to know still existed, would just get him knocked out and thrown in a cell. If that happened, he would be rendered completely useless to the cause—no one would hear his warnings if he got himself shut away.
He furthermore didn’t much like the thought of leading someone who didn’t trust him (or who at the very least answered to someone who didn’t) back to his home. Very briefly, he considered trying to pick Zilag out of the crowd and go with him instead. He hadn’t even been able to spot Zilag among the mourners, but Solonn was certain that he was present. But doing anything to associate Zilag with him in front of the authorities quickly struck him as something to avoid if he could help it; it just seemed to him like the sort of thing that could wrap Zilag—and possibly also Zilag’s family—up in any trouble that the Security Guild might lay upon him.
Then it occurred to him that even if he avoided Zilag, Zilag was unlikely to avoid him—sooner or later, especially in the wake of what had happened, he would probably pay Solonn a visit to try and lend him some support—and either that guild member or another would likely still be hanging around, Solonn suspected. Their being associated with one another in the Security Guild’s eyes seemed inevitable.
Resigned to that notion, he determined that all he could really do was at least try to avoid revealing the whereabouts of Zilag’s home to them. With that in mind, he sighed and nodded to the guild member in acceptance of her suggestion, then turned his back on her and began drifting toward the exit. After moving a short distance forward, he looked back to see if she was indeed following him—she was. She really was going to tail him literally anywhere and everywhere that he went, he suspected thoroughly. Solonn gave one last glance toward the place where Azvida and Jeneth now lay, sending them a silent farewell and apology for having to leave them so soon, then departed the chamber.
The presence that followed him out did nothing to help put his mind at ease. What it represented—the mistrust and incorrect conclusions of a leader who, as far as Solonn could tell, cared more about being right than about the welfare of his own people, as well as the diversion of such an important resource as the lahain’s officers to keeping people quiet instead of keeping people safe—was bad enough, but on top of that there was the discomfiting notion that he was being shadowed by someone who possibly viewed him as an enemy and might well be inclined to act accordingly. The lahain had said that he would give Solonn and the other witnesses of the attack on the temple a chance to live free (or as free as one could be while under constant watch) provided that they could stay quiet, but nonetheless Solonn couldn’t and wouldn’t put it past him to decide—or, the chilling thought occurred to him, to have already decided—to forcibly silence the witnesses after all.
Would she do it? he wondered of his escort. He couldn’t be sure of what she’d do once he was alone with her, but he did feel fairly certain that she wouldn’t just knock him out and drag him to prison while they shared that tunnel with so many others, at least. He reckoned that neither she nor any other guild members in the crowd who were escorting their own witnesses would strike with all these people present; some of them hadn’t been there at the temple or at the subsequent meeting in the council chamber and therefore might not understand why people whose duty it was to protect them had seemingly suddenly turned on them. Such a scenario might require the guild members to take out those innocents as well in order to nip any loaded questions in the bud, an action that they would surely prefer to avoid taking.
At least, Solonn dearly hoped that they would prefer to avoid taking that action.
Fairly soon, the crowd arrived at a point at which the path branched off in multiple directions. There, the crowd began to thin out as individuals and small groups broke away from it to continue down one path or another. Now Solonn’s sense of safety in numbers began to fade quickly. Already, he had seen a couple of pairs split off and disappear down their chosen tunnels—did those pairs contain guild members? Were those guild members indeed going to strike their charges as soon as they got someplace quiet enough with them, and was the same indeed true of the one who followed him?
It seemed that there was truly nothing to be done about it except to just continue on his way; another gentle but insistent prod of his escort’s horn emphasized that point. Knowing no other way home from here, Solonn could only retrace his figurative steps and go back the way he’d come, choosing the path that led past the council chamber.
Very few others went that way along with him, and in the distance between the council chamber and what had once been and would never again be the temple, the number of people taking his route dwindled until there was only his escort. Alone with her, he was more worried than ever that a strike was imminent. Passing by the temple’s sealed entrance and being reminded of what he’d seen in there added to the unpleasantness of the trip even further.
There were no potential witnesses now, the last of the other people who had been going their way having disappeared minutes ago. No one was around now to see, hear, or ask questions should the glalie behind him make a move, and he wouldn’t know if she did so until it was too late—or quite possibly not at all.
That was the thing about the highest of the mother element’s powers: it was summoned with a mere thought, and it struck in a near instant. It gave its victims virtually no warning, no sign that it was coming…
…Virtually no warning.
There was a way to see it coming, Solonn remembered, no small part of him left in disbelief that he’d forgotten about that particular quirk of the technique. Then again, it had been quite a few years since he’d last beheld this particular property of the attack; the last time he had seen it had been the last time that Azvida had hunted alongside him, back before he’d worked up the nerve to do it on his own.
Hoping that his next actions wouldn’t trigger the exact thing that he was trying to avoid, he brought himself to a stop, turning to face his escort as he did so and earning an odd look from her as a result.
“Sir, what do you think you’re doing?” she asked.
“I’m just going home as you suggested I do,” Solonn said as evenly as he could, and with that he resumed his drift toward home, only now in reverse.
The guild member maintained that baffled look upon him but otherwise gave no objection to what her charge had chosen to do and simply kept following him. Whether she knew why he was now moving backward or had merely decided that he was simply a strange person and that she shouldn’t try too hard to make sense of him, Solonn didn’t know, but he wasn’t really concerned about what was going on behind her eyes at this point—it was what happened in them that mattered to him at the moment.
If she opted to try and use sheer cold on him, he would see it coming. The telltale flash of white in its user’s eyes just prior to its release would give it away, and he would—or at least so he dearly hoped—be ready for it and able to react in what terribly little time it would give him to do so. He maintained a light mental hold on the source of his protect ability, keeping the shield on standby to try and swiftly call it up if she attempted anything against him.
Solonn had traveled between his own home and the temple so many times that he knew the way by heart; he was confident in his ability to navigate it backward. He knew the positions and number of all of the offshoots of the main path and counted them as they moved into sight past the glalie who followed him; those landmarks would tell him when and which way to turn. All the while, he watched his escort’s eyes; thus far, their light remained still and blue.
Their owner kept obligingly quiet as the two traveled, allowing Solonn to keep his concentration and avoid losing track of how many landmarks they’d passed—until she saw it necessary to ask, “Are we almost there?”
Solonn winced slightly, trying not to lose the number in his head and slowing his pace to delay any change in that number. “Yes,” he responded quickly, thankful that that was the answer, “it’s just a li—”
His voice was abruptly cut silent, his unfinished sentence lost in a loud crack whose cause he had, despite his efforts, not seen coming. Its source emerged from an offshoot not far behind where Solonn now lay unconscious.
The newly arrived guild member ascended a bit higher off the ground in order to see past Solonn. His partner returned his gaze with an approving nod, silently commending his work. He responded likewise, then let himself sink back down to his normal hovering height and moved closer to their subdued target. The two officers secured the insensible glalie to themselves with ice, then lifted him with an effort and carried him away.
* * *
The next thing that Solonn was aware of was pain: a somewhat dull throbbing sensation in the back of his head. Groaning, he stirred and lifted himself from the floor, slowly opening his eyes as he rose. What they showed him made him all too certain of what must have happened to him before he’d been knocked out.
She’d got him, he was sure. Somehow, he reckoned, in spite of his watchfulness, his escort had managed to take him out. Now here he was, imprisoned in one of their cells—and he wasn’t alone. There was Grosh, lying half-coiled at the opposite side of the room, still out cold. Solonn made to rush to his father’s side at once but was caught short by a voice that spoke up in nearly the same instant—and a familiar voice, at that.
“Good, you’re awake. You can help out with the psychic, then.”
Turning toward its source, Solonn was greeted by the sight of an unexpected face. Seated not far away was none other than Zdir, the sole member of the council who’d seemed at all willing to hear the witnesses out, the only one who’d seemed willing to believe in the innocence of the steelix behind her and the claydol before her.
Solonn wondered what she was doing there in that cell, though he certainly had his suspicions. For now, though, he was much more concerned about Grosh and Oth—particularly the latter, knowing as he did how the powers of his element could affect someone of Oth’s type. He looked upon the claydol with concern tightening his brow; they were still as utterly motionless as only those who didn’t breathe could be, their hands still lying detached beside them, with nothing but the faint light of their body heat to suggest that they were even alive. These properties were perfectly normal for a claydol that was anything but awake, he knew… but he also knew that the light of Oth’s heat was presently notably dimmer than it ought to have been. The glalie who’d been guarding the cell had clearly done a sub-par job of keeping them warm—quite possibly on purpose, Solonn suspected with disgust.
“Are they going to be all right?” he asked.
“Can’t say,” Zdir responded. “I don’t even know what this creature is, let alone how they work. But I suspect that they might come to a lot faster if we can get them warmed up—and we need them to come to as soon as possible.” She inclined a horn toward the other side of the room, where another glalie lay in the corner opposite Grosh. “I doubt he’ll stay out much longer, and sooner or later his relief will show up.”
Zdir turned back to Oth, lowering her head slightly and staring intently at him. “Try to focus on drawing the cold from this creature as fast as you can, but don’t shut everything else out completely. We could have company at any moment now.”
That thought certainly wasn’t comforting. Nonetheless, Solonn made the effort to keep most of his mind on the task before him. It helped that it was his friend who was lying there in front of him, someone for whose sake he was very keen on succeeding in that task.
Simply keeping the coldness of the warren at bay from another creature was generally effortless for those of his kind, but what Oth needed at this point was to purge the coldness that had settled into them. He conjured up thoughts of times when he’d made ice melt or turn to vapor—opposite actions to freezing. This was what he needed to bring to bear upon Oth, he knew, or rather a much slower and gentler version of that technique. At his side, Zdir was doing likewise, and as the two worked together to reverse the effects of the frigid surroundings and the lingering chill of the sheer cold attack on the claydol, the glow of Oth’s heat began to return to normal.
Moments passed, and Solonn began to wonder if maybe he and Zdir should stop, concerned that Oth might become overheated if they kept this up for too long. Just as he was about to voice this concern, however, the claydol awoke, a few of their presently half-closed eyes simultaneously meeting the gaze of both of the glalie sitting beside them.
<What…> they began, their mindvoice and their true voice both sounding rather weak. <Solonn… what is happening?>
“We’ll have to explain later,” Zdir spoke up before Solonn could even begin to answer. “First, we need to get out of here, all of us. We need you to transport us.”
Oth wobbled in place for a moment, apparently struggling to rise, their hands ascending to rejoin their body at differing speeds. They tried again almost immediately and managed to succeed this time, but Solonn remained concerned for them. With not only no elemental protection against ice but a particular vulnerability to it, recovering from an ice-type strike must surely be all the more difficult for them, he reckoned.
<Where?> Oth asked, still clearly working to keep their levitation stable even as they spoke.
“As far away from here as possible,” Zdir said.
Oth nodded slightly in acknowledgment and began floating somewhat less than gracefully and slower than usual toward Grosh. Once at his side, they proceeded to scan him, checking to make sure that the steelix was in any fit state for teleportation.
“We need to go,” Zdir reminded them urgently.
Thankfully, Oth found out what they needed to know quickly. Satisfied that Grosh was more than well enough to survive the journey, <Come here,> they said to the two glalie, who went to join Oth and Grosh at once, Zdir lagging slightly behind.
“Oth… are you up to teleporting right now?” Solonn asked, worried not only for the claydol’s sake but also for that of those who would be traveling with them. If Oth wasn’t quite strong enough to teleport them, and something went wrong… Solonn didn’t know what the results of that sort of situation might be, but he strongly suspected that they weren’t at all pretty.
<Yes,> Oth said. <Do not worry… What about him?> they then asked, gesturing toward the unconscious guard in the corner with one of their hands.
“Leave him. He’s not with us,” Zdir told them. “Now go!”
Without another moment’s delay, the claydol summoned golden light to deliver the prisoners from their cell.
* * *
The glow faded out, and its passengers found themselves in a place that contrasted greatly with their previous surroundings. The sky, though overcast, was backlit by late afternoon sunlight, and nearly everything below it was blanketed in green. Steady white noise filled the air, the rushing of a waterfall that lay on the opposite side of a deep, wide chasm gouged into the ground before them and poured endlessly into a river below.
Zdir eyed the water with a look of uncertainty. “Where are we now?”
<Mordial,> Oth answered. <Do not worry—we are not anywhere near your territory.> They then turned to face the forest behind them, moving a very short distance into it. <There is an herb that grows here that will help Grosh greatly,> they said, gesturing toward the trees. <I will try to find some of it for him as quickly as possible.>
“It would probably be found faster if more than one of us searches for it,” Solonn said. “What does it look like?”
There was a brief delay in Oth’s response, and then an image appeared in the minds of both of the glalie simultaneously. The herb in question was a bright yellow-green in color, with long leaves that curled slightly at their tips. It seemed vaguely familiar to Solonn, but he couldn’t really recall anything about it for certain.
“All right,” Solonn said, moving over to Oth’s side. He turned back to look upon Grosh, still lying there helplessly. Though going to search for this herb would be for the steelix’s benefit, Solonn nonetheless found himself reluctant to leave him there in that condition.
“I’ll stay with him,” Zdir spoke up, seeming to have read Solonn’s hesitance correctly. “And don’t try too hard to rush back; this herb you speak of sounds like it might be something we’d do well to have readily available. Gathering more of it than he needs would be a good idea.”
“Agreed,” Solonn said. “And… thank you for agreeing to stay with him,” he added sincerely. The significance of Zdir’s decision wasn’t lost on him—here was a Virc and a near-total stranger to boot, willing to be left alone with a creature that had evoked mistrust and fear from so many of her people. “It’s good to see someone else who doesn’t fear him.”
“If what you claimed he was doing in the temple is true, then I have nothing at all to fear from him,” Zdir said. “And I’m inclined to believe that it is.”
The light in Solonn’s eyes brightened and trembled. He made to say something in response but found himself moved beyond words. The fact that Zdir was going out of her way to aid his father and his friend contrasted so greatly with the way that the lahain had treated them that for a moment, it all but overwhelmed him.
“…Thank you,” he finally managed quietly. He then turned away and allowed Oth to lead him deeper into the forest.
Making his way among that many trees was no easier for Solonn than it had ever been, but the relatively slow pace at which the two moved helped him avoid losing track of Oth. The need to scan the ground carefully for the plant that they sought demanded that they not rush, but Solonn couldn’t help but think that it was more than that that kept Oth’s speed in check. Their levitation still seemed slightly unstable; it was clear that they still had some recovering to do in the wake of the sheer cold strike that they had suffered. Their condition had actually factored into his decision to join them in their search along with the hopes of locating the herb more quickly and easily than it could be found alone; he presently wasn’t any more comfortable with the thought of Oth being left alone than he was with the thought of leaving Grosh likewise.
“How common is it?” he asked. “How long do you think we’ll need to look?”
<Not terribly common,> Oth answered, <but fortunately not terribly rare in this area, either. I think we will be able to gather a sufficient amount in a reasonable frame of time.>
Solonn nodded slightly, unable to help making a faint sound of disappointment. Whatever Oth considered to be a “reasonable frame of time” would not, he suspected, be as small as he would prefer for it to be. Aid for his father just couldn’t come soon enough as far as he was concerned.
At least something will be done for him, he told himself silently. That was more than could be said for most of the others who were affected by recent events…
“Oth,” he spoke up to get the claydol’s attention; he saw them pause and turn to face him from a couple of yards away. “Thank you for doing this, for bringing us here,” he told them. “I’m glad that you’re able to provide this sort of thing for him.”
Oth lowered their head in acknowledgment of Solonn’s gratitude. <You are welcome,> they said softly.
Relative silence fell over Solonn and Oth as the search wore on, neither of them saying anything, the only sounds around them being the very faint skittering and buzzing of insects and the calls of birds in the background. Then finally, <There! I have found some!> Oth said, beckoning with one of their hands, and then they sped up slightly as they made their way forward and to the left. Solonn followed, and soon the two reached a small cluster of plants that matched the picture that Oth had given of the herb. Using their telekinesis, Oth harvested the leaves and caused them to rise a couple of feet into the air, at which point the claydol gathered them up against their chest with their hands and held the leaves there.
<This will serve Grosh with plenty to spare,> Oth said. <We should be able to return now.>
Solonn eyed the gathered herb samples; there looked to be about half a dozen of them. He hoped that Oth was right about there being enough, all the while trying to no real avail not to think about the reasons why keeping the medicine in stock had become prudent.
Well… if it’s not enough, we could always come back for more later, he figured, and he couldn’t help but suspect darkly that they would end up having to do that sooner or later anyway when their current stock ran out. “All right, let’s go,” he said to Oth, and the two of them began making their way back through the forest.
Upon returning to the place where Grosh had been left with Zdir, they found the steelix still unconscious. Zdir was waiting next to Grosh’s head. She looked up from where she sat to acknowledge Solonn and Oth as they took their places at her sides.
Oth let go of the leaves and telekinetically brought them together in a tight bundle in midair right in front of Grosh’s face. The claydol kept them hovering there for a few moments, letting Grosh breathe in the scent of the leaves for a while. Eventually, the steelix stirred, albeit not much; his head lifted a couple of inches up off of the ground and he made a very faint groaning sound, but his eyes remained closed.
<Open your mouth,> Oth instructed him gently.
Though there was a slight delay in Grosh’s response, it came nonetheless. His mouth fell open, the jaws slack in his barely-awake state. Oth let one of the leaves drift free from the bundle as they brought the rest up against their chest to hold there once more, directing the separated leaf to land on the steelix’s tongue. The flavor of it seemed to awaken Grosh’s senses further; his eyes opened partway, seemingly unfocused for the moment, and he grimaced, his mouth working as though he were trying to get the offending herb out.
<No, Grosh. You need to consume it.>
That earned another faint groan from the mostly-absent steelix, but Grosh complied nonetheless, closing his jaws and forcing the herb down. He shuddered and then stretched, flexing and twisting his coils, then slowly lifted his head further and shook it a bit as if trying to clear something out of it.
Blinking a few times in succession, he stared out at the unfamiliar scene before him for a moment, finally coming back to his senses in earnest, then turned his gaze upon his son.
“Where…?” he asked hoarsely, unable to finish the question.
Where is she? Solonn couldn’t help but suspect him to have meant, judging by the anguished look on the steelix’s face, but he couldn’t quite find it in himself to speak of Azvida, especially not with his father’s resumed grief staring him in the face and stoking his own all the higher.
Sinking wearily to the ground, “We’re in Mordial,” Solonn finally responded, answering a different but, he imagined, still present question. “We had to flee Virc-Dho… we were being imprisoned there.”
Grosh’s reaction was delayed, but when it came through, there was something dark in the change his expression had taken, something that spoke of burgeoning, sickened outrage. “No…”
“I’m afraid so,” Zdir said. “You and… Oth, was it?” She looked to the claydol, who nodded in confirmation. “You were deemed responsible for the murders in the temple, as well as for the kidnapping of the children who were at the snowgrounds at the time.”
Oth’s reaction was left untranslated, but the gist of it was clear enough: they sounded distinctly astonished, even hurt. Seemingly unconsciously, they reeled back a bit from the others, then lowered their head and closed all of their eyes. Grosh, meanwhile, reared back as if something had lashed out at him, the motion surprisingly forceful given the fact that he still had a bit of recovering to do from the sheer cold attack that he’d recently suffered, and his expression was both the most furious and the most pained that Solonn had ever seen.
“How dare they…” the steelix said in a near-bottomless tone, one that somehow sounded as vulnerable as it did threatening. Fresh streams of tears welled up and poured from his eyes. “How dare anyone even suggest that I’d—” He winced at the thought, shaking with fury. “—that I’d do anything to hurt her!”
“They also accused you of stealing her son,” Solonn said quietly past a lump in his throat. “Jen… he was in the snowgrounds. He was taken.”
Grosh just stared at him for a moment, still shaking, his jaws parting silently and his eyes widening further in the wake of that news. Then his head sank, his gaze dropping to the ground, tears still falling. “Dear God…” he all but whispered, the words cracking. “And… God, I would never…” he managed to hiss out before his ability to speak failed him altogether.
“I tried to tell them that,” Solonn said miserably. Hearing the hurt in his father’s voice deepened his guilt and shame over failing to get through to the lahain all the more. “I tried to tell them that you wouldn’t hurt anyone, either of you…”
“We both did,” Zdir added. “I refused to take ‘it’s not possible’ as an answer from the rest of the council, even knowing what it would cost me.”
What she seemed to be suggesting came as no real surprise to Solonn. “He dismissed you from the council, didn’t he?”
Zdir nodded. “Tried to take me out and throw me in the cell right alongside you three, furthermore, but I saw that coming and was able to undermine those efforts. The lahain—our leader,” she added for the benefit of Grosh and Oth, “just couldn’t stand to take any chances with those of us who weren’t so willing to let people believe his conclusions about what happened.”
<Those who were at the temple when we arrived there… the survivors… they saw with their own eyes that we were not the ones responsible, did they not? What about them?> Oth asked.
“Oh, I don’t think the lahain is concerned about what they saw anymore,” Solonn said bitterly. “He seems to have them all convinced that they were only being tricked into seeing glalie attacking them…” He was almost too ashamed to elaborate any further, to tell Oth of the way that his fellow countryman had portrayed them, but finally managed to do so. “He said that you had deceived them psychically somehow.”
There was a very small delay in the claydol’s reaction. Then their eyes all widened dramatically, and a noise escaped them that suggested that they were struggling even to speak in their true voice, let alone using their mindvoice.
“I don’t think I can apologize enough for how you’ve been wronged, all of you,” Zdir said sincerely. “Just… just know that not everyone believes these horrible things about you two,” she said with a glance toward Grosh and Oth, “and that you,” she said to Solonn as she turned to face him, “were not wrong to stand up for them.”
Grosh’s only response was something between a growl and a sigh, the look on his face telling that he was far from consoled. Solonn looked at him regretfully, knowing that even just one person believing that Grosh could have done something so horrible to someone whom he loved so much was one too many for the steelix to bear, wishing that he could have done more to prevent his father from having been accused of such things. Oth lowered their head slightly, some of their eyes shutting halfway and the rest closing completely. They tried and failed to speak again, but finally managed it on the third attempt.
<…I appreciate your trust,> they said, both of their voices subdued, <and I thank you for it. I just wish that there were something more that I could do for you and for your people. You are still in danger since whoever was actually responsible has not been identified, let alone apprehended… and in return for rescuing us, you deserve anything I could give.>
“Well… perhaps it’s a good thing that you feel that way,” Zdir said. “Perhaps it’s a very good thing…” She rose, moving back a bit so that she could more easily hold eye contact with all three of the others before her at the same time. “Against our enemies, there’s little we can do. We don’t know exactly how many they are in number, though if they are indeed who I think they are, they number in the dozens. At least.”
“Oh gods…” Solonn had not imagined that they were quite that numerous—the thought of how high the death toll might be if the enemy were to attack in full force made him feel as though the blood had frozen in his veins. “This is exactly why the people back home need to be made aware that the real threat’s still out there. Almost no one—maybe no one at all at this point—has any idea of just how much danger they’re all still in!”
“Actually, I suspect they’re about to find out that it’s not over yet,” Zdir told him. “By now, the Security Guild has probably discovered the empty cell we left behind. I imagine the people will be told of the escape and warned of the possibility of future attacks by more of those ‘illusory’ glalie.”
Solonn looked at her in silence, conflicted with regards to how he should feel about what he’d just been told. Though the Virc still wouldn’t be told the exact truth of the situation, they would at least hopefully be on the lookout for trouble from others of their own kind now. It was, Solonn supposed, a step in the right direction… but still, there remained the fact that by and large, the Virc would likely continue to believe that two people who meant very much to him were there behind the “façade” of those glalie who threatened them…
“Anyway,” Zdir went on, “the exiles are furthermore clearly well-trained to have been able to take as many lives as they did. My point is, if any of you are thinking of vengeance, I’m afraid you’ll need to think otherwise.”
The noise Grosh made at that and the way that he shifted uneasily suggested that he might indeed have been harboring such thoughts to at least some degree. An image of what the steelix might do if he could to the ones responsible for taking away someone whom he had once torn through the warren in desperate search of appeared in Solonn’s mind, an image of powerful steel coils crushing bodies, of a massive tail falling like a hammer and splitting them wide open… Solonn shuddered hard, grimacing, fighting at once to get the gruesome thoughts off his mind.
“There is, however, one thing that I think we may be able to do,” Zdir said. “I believe that we might very well have a good chance of being able to rescue the captured children—a better chance than the Security Guild might have, anyway.”
Four of the eyes upon her widened instantly, and all of Oth’s blinked in surprise. <You truly believe that we are capable of such a thing, given the advantages that you believe these exiles to have?> they said.
“We have advantages of our own—and you in particular do,” Zdir responded. “Your ability to instantly transport people could prove invaluable in getting us out of a dangerous situation, getting the children away from their captors, getting anyone who has suffered any harm to a place where they could get the help they need…”
She turned a meaningful gaze on Solonn while speaking those last several words, and he recognized just what it was to which she was referring. He had mentioned the Haven back in the council chamber, albeit not by name, and had thereby made Zdir aware of that resource—a resource that, as far as he could figure, the Security Guild could not provide for the kidnapped children or for any of their would-be rescuers if need be.
<I… must confess that I do possess a particular concern about this,> Oth said. <While it is true that I am capable of what you say that I am, the nature of our enemies presents a problem that could undermine my ability to help in that capacity: conceivably, any one of them could subdue me—and for that matter any of us—in an instant, with no warning given in the event that we are ambushed and possibly still not enough given otherwise.>
“Oh, there’s a warning that comes with it, if you’re talking about what I think you’re talking about,” Zdir said as she turned to face the claydol. “If it’s sheer cold or its mother technique that you mean, there’s an elemental telltale preceding them that you can feel and react to if you know how. How else do you suppose I managed to avoid being knocked out and shut away with the rest of you? Get away with continuing to exist for as long as I have and do the kind of work that I’ve done and you learn a few things.”
Solonn stared at her, unsure of what to think of her claim. It was true that those techniques did indeed come with a perceptible elemental surge. But in his experience, the beginning of it, the part that could be perceived before the execution of either of those two techniques, could only be felt by the user of either of those attacks; any observers capable of feeling it would only be able to feel the part that accompanied the execution, with no time to react to that surge due to the techniques’ instantaneous delivery.
But then again, that was only what he knew from his experience. Zdir’s experience extended back decades before his—quite conceivably time enough, he supposed, to have successfully trained herself to catch that telltale in time to thwart such an attack.
<Well,> Oth said, sounding slightly relieved, <if you can indeed perceive these attacks before they connect, I could share in your perception and be able to teleport us away in response… if you will consent to the mental link, of course.>
“Of course,” Zdir said. “So I take it that means you’re willing to take this on?”
<I will,> Oth confirmed.
Zdir gave a faint smile of gratitude. “Thank you,” she said earnestly. “Lives may well be saved by your decision.”
She then turned to Solonn again, and the question in that look was as obvious to him as if it had been spoken aloud. He hesitated to answer at first, still uncertain about their chances and all too aware of what could befall them should they fail, and he couldn’t keep the fear out of his eyes.
But ultimately, he couldn’t deny that he felt even worse about the chances that someone especially vulnerable to the powers of their enemies and someone whose age surely brought with it not only the experience of which she’d spoken but disadvantages as well would have alone. They, not to mention the children who might very well depend on them, needed all the help that they could get. Solonn didn’t know what the exiles had in store for the snorunt whom they’d taken, but every possibility that came to his mind was something that he absolutely could not stand the thought of being allowed to happen if it could at all be avoided—especially with regards to it happening to a member of his own family.
“Yes,” he told her quietly. “My brother’s out there—if there’s anything I can do to help bring him back, I will.”
“Well then,” Grosh then spoke up, lifting this upper body from the ground once more. “You could have counted me in to begin with, but now it’s even less of a question—I have to go with you.”
Zdir held his gaze for a moment, then turned away with a faint, concerned sound. “Grosh…” she began uneasily, “as much as I would appreciate your help, I’m… well…”
“You’re what?” Grosh urged her to finish as gently and calmly as he could manage, which wasn’t much of either under the circumstances.
“I’m concerned that your accompanying us would be at the expense of something we need to have on our side—specifically the need to keep our enemies from becoming aware of our presence well before we’re aware of theirs. Grosh… was it you who came to Virc-Dho all those years ago, the silver being whom people described as… well, as making a lot of noise whenever he moved?”
The steelix blinked, then groaned, recognizing what Zdir was getting at there. “Yes… yes, that was me,” he said, wilting with a sigh. “You’re right… there’s no way they wouldn’t hear us coming if I went with you.”
<Perhaps… that is not necessarily true,> Oth said a bit hesitantly. All eyes turned toward them. <I think I might be able to keep him off of the ground. That should eliminate the problem of the sound caused by his slithering.>
Solonn frowned at Oth. It wasn’t that he didn’t want them to try what they were suggesting—he knew how much his father surely wanted to pitch in on this mission, knew what it meant to him—he was just concerned about them exerting themself in such a way. Even having been trained specifically for shows of strength as they were, it would surely be no easy feat even to lift, let alone carry, something as heavy as Grosh had to be. Not to mention the fact that given their recent ordeal, Oth was surely not in peak condition…
Holding his tongue lest he potentially undermine Oth’s confidence and make the task even harder for them, he watched as bright, fuchsia light filled the claydol’s eyes. Slowly, Grosh rose up from the grass, coming to a stop at just a few inches up off the ground. Oth held him there for a few seconds… but then the light in their eyes began to falter. The claydol shook slightly as they struggled to maintain their telekinetic hold, but not for long—they abruptly lost their grip, leaving Grosh to drop back down with a loud thunk that sent birds from the forest behind them scattering into the air.
Oth hovered unsteadily for a moment, their hands hanging lower than usual as they worked to regather their telekinetic strength. <I am fine…> they told the others, noticing their worried expressions, <and I am sorry,> they said to Grosh.
“That’s all right,” Grosh told them, his voice a low, resigned rumble. “You don’t need to be busting your brain carrying me around, and I don’t need to be slowing you all down by making you have to stop every few seconds to give Oth a break. I can stay here,” he said, though the words were followed by a sigh that told that he still wished dearly that he didn’t have to do so.
Zdir nodded at him, though she wore something of an earnestly sad expression. “I’m sorry you can’t join us,” she told him. “Don’t worry—we’ll do our best to return safely.” She turned to Oth then. “Before we begin our search, there are a few relatives of mine with whom I think it would be prudent to talk about the situation—at the very least, I think they deserve to know what I intend to get myself into. Is there anyone to whom you feel you need to pay a brief visit before we head out?” she asked of the claydol.
<No,> Oth said, gathering the unused herb samples, which had fallen during the claydol’s attempt to hold Grosh aloft, back up to their chest as they spoke. <I am ready whenever the rest of you are.>
“And you?” Zdir asked Solonn.
Solonn nodded. “Just one stop,” he said, though part of him wouldn’t have minded getting a chance to touch base with his old friends from Lilycove again now that Oth’s presence made such possible, especially since he couldn’t help but think that much of the reasoning behind those stops preceding the actual mission was to give the participants a chance to say goodbye… just in case. He was concerned, however, about taking very much of the time that could be spent on the search for the snorunt; he didn’t know how much time they had to spare.
He would have answered Zdir’s question just as Oth had were it not for the fact that Zilag and his family were back there in Virc-Dho—and therefore potentially in harm’s way. He wanted to make absolutely certain that they knew that the threat hadn’t passed. He hoped that Zdir had similar motives for taking time out of the search to make her own stops; he was inclined to figure that she did, though.
“All right,” Zdir said. “Come on, then. We should be on our way.”
“Just please come back safely,” Grosh said. “Bring her sons back—both of them.”
“We will try,” Zdir tried to assure him.
Solonn looked to his father, swallowing against a lump in his throat at the pain and worry still plain on the steelix’s face. “Goodbye,” he said with difficulty.
“Goodbye,” Grosh returned hoarsely. “Please be careful. Please.”
Solonn could only nod in acceptance of Grosh’s plea. He then turned and moved closer to Oth, and Zdir did likewise. As the golden light surrounded them, he hoped to all gods that they and those whom they sought to rescue would indeed be able to get safely through what lay ahead.
* * *
Solonn, Zdir, and Oth appeared in a chamber a short distance from the Zir-Arda residence. Arriving there rather than at their ultimate destination was rendered necessary by the number of others who now accompanied them—they couldn’t all simultaneously materialize into a space that wasn’t large enough to contain them. The passages leading to and from the residence itself in either direction were furthermore too narrow to teleport that many people into with ease, and it had been decided that Oth should limit the number of trips that they made as much as possible for the sake of their endurance despite the claydol’s assurances that they could perform quite a few teleportations without tiring.
The newcomers to the search party numbered three. Ronal, Zereth, and Narzen were their names, though none of those names had quite settled into Solonn’s memory given everything else that was presently on his mind. He also hadn’t quite absorbed the nature of each one’s relation to Zdir; he seemed to remember having heard one of them refer to her as an aunt, but he’d already forgotten which of them that had been. Each of the three of them had apparently volunteered to join the search after Zdir had spoken with them. Zdir had also paid a visit to one other residence, but she hadn’t left that one with another person in tow.
Solonn broke from the small crowd and began leading them single-file into the tunnel toward his goal. Once he spotted the ice wall that blocked off the Zir-Arda residence, he stopped, a signal to the others that they were close enough. He would be going in alone, just as Zdir had gone alone into each of the homes at which they’d stopped; Zdir had figured that it would be easier and less potentially startling to deliver the news to each of them without strangers watching the entire time, and he had agreed.
He moved over to the barrier, casting a glance back at the others waiting just out of sight from the threshold… out in the open, conspicuous enough in those numbers, to say nothing of the alien creature hovering among them. Zdir had assured him that they had little or nothing to fear in the event that they were seen out there due to the psychic link that she now shared with Oth, forged just before she had gone in to talk with the first of her relatives. Should anyone show up, she had told him, the party would vanish from the vicinity immediately after Oth made a very brief stop indoors to pick him up. He could only hope that she was right about how easy it would be to get out of trouble if it arose.
Somewhat cautiously, wanting to make only as much noise as was necessary, he tilted a horn toward the ice wall and tapped on it a few times. He heard hushed voices from the other side of it and was thankful for the fact that they were very clearly glalie voices; he had not wanted to wake Kavir and Ryneika, Zilag and Hledas’s children. A blurred pair of blue lights drifted into view, approaching the wall, their source coming into clarity as the clouded ice obscuring them was vaporized.
“Oh hey,” Zilag greeted Solonn, his tone falling notably short of its usual level of energy. “Come on in…” He turned and moved back into the main chamber, and Solonn followed. Solonn saw Hledas lingering over by the entrance to the couple’s sleeping area and watching him enter.
“What’s going on?” she asked him, still keeping her voice low so as not to disturb her daughters, though her tone suggested that she believed that she already knew the answer to that question.
“I think it’s fairly obvious,” Zilag said quietly, then turned a somber gaze on Solonn. “Go ahead and have a seat,” he said, then generated some ice for Solonn once the latter took him up on the suggestion. Solonn muttered a wordless thanks for it and took a couple of small bites from it; he didn’t want to snub the hospitality, and he told himself silently that he’d likely do well to have something more on his stomach than was presently there. Nonetheless, he found it difficult to pay the offering any mind beyond that.
Zilag set himself down, facing Solonn from a few feet away, with Hledas seating herself next to her mate. “I tried to get a hold of you after the service,” he said, “but the crowd was…” He shook his head. “I just couldn’t get to you. And when I went to your place, no one was there.”
Zilag sighed again, and for a moment he looked like he was struggling to speak. Finally, in a rather brittle voice, “There was no one at… at Azvida and Jeneth’s home, either. Jen… he was one of the ones who was taken, wasn’t he?” he asked. Solonn nodded regretfully in response. Zilag swore under his breath—that he’d wanted to be wrong was all too clear. “Gods… they’d better find him,” he said.
“I… don’t have much faith in them,” Solonn admitted without exactly having meant to do so. He’d intended to deliver his warning about the threat that Virc-Dho still faced prior to informing his friend about what he was about to go and try to do, but the way that the faces before him saddened further at his words compelled him to go ahead and let them know that there was something else being done about the situation. “So I and a few others are going to go search for the stolen children, as well.”
Zilag’s brows drew together in distinct worry, while Hledas’s rose in what looked almost like disbelief. “Solonn…” Zilag said tentatively, “that’s certainly brave of you, but… I don’t know. I’m not sure that this is something you ought to be doing—I mean, you know what kinds of things the ones responsible for this are capable of. I can’t exactly say I like the sound of you basically going right into their lair like that.”
“Oth is with us,” Solonn told him, “as are a few other glalie. Oth can teleport; they can get us out of trouble very fast if need be. And they can take any one of us—or, gods forbid, any of the children—who are harmed to a place where we can get help—really good help.”
Hledas cast a meaningful, rather troubled glance at Zilag, who somewhat mirrored it. She turned her gaze toward Solonn. “I’ve heard of this… ‘teleporting’,” she began slowly. “And I’ve also heard that it’s a psychic ability…”
Solonn’s expression hardened, his eyes narrowing; he didn’t like the direction that the conversation was taking. “That’s irrelevant,” he said sternly. “That ability could be the very thing that saves those children. And I’ll have you know that Oth is one of the last people you should be mistrusting right now.” He turned to face Zilag. “You should understand, at least. You remember what I’ve told you about them, don’t you?”
“I do…” Zilag said, but with a hesitance in his reply that suggested something left unsaid.
“But what?” Solonn pressed, filling in the blank with what he suspected Zilag was withholding, sounding more than a little hurt. There he was, apparently having to convince one of the last people in the world whom he had expected to doubt the innocence of his friend and father that they were not to blame, that they could be trusted. “Please… don’t tell me that you actually believe that I only trust them because they’re making me trust them.”
“Maybe you should at least consider that possibility,” Hledas suggested, earning a glare from Solonn.
“Look…” Zilag said carefully, “I want to believe this Oth person’s all right. I really do. At the same time, though… there are some very, very strange things going on around here lately—very strange and very dangerous. And it’s not the first time something strange has happened to one of us—I’m not assuming Oth had anything to do with anything that’s happened to you in the past,” he added hurriedly when he saw the pained frustration that his previous statement brought to Solonn’s face. “I’m trying not to assume much of anything at all about this situation at this point.” He drew a deep breath, seemingly bracing himself for something. “And that’s why I’m going with you.”
This earned a rather distressed look from Hledas, while Solonn found himself temporarily unable to do anything but stare at Zilag, at a loss for quite how to feel about his friend’s choice—particularly given the apparent reasons for it.
“Are you insane?” Hledas hissed at Zilag. “You can’t go out there facing gods only know what with people we don’t even know if we can trust like that!”
“If we can trust them, if they really are the best chance those kids have at being rescued, then they should be given all the help they can get. I don’t want to sit here and possibly have to wonder someday if things could have gone better if I’d helped out. Hledas… that could have been Kavir out there.”
A considerable amount of the severity left Hledas’s features, her mouth falling partway open. “…I still don’t like this,” she said quietly, lowering her gaze.
“I know,” Zilag said. “But I have to do this. I have to do my part, and I have to look out for my friend.”
“I don’t need you to protect me from Oth,” Solonn insisted, but his tone told that his anger had begun to dissolve somewhat. The knowledge that one of his closest friends fell short of understanding, and with regards to another of his closest friends, still left a cold, sick feeling in his heart and frustration gnawing at his nerves… but the caring and desire to see things made right that Zilag was also displaying made it difficult for Solonn to be entirely angry with him.
“Hopefully you don’t,” Zilag said. “And hopefully you won’t need protecting from anything else, either. At any rate, though, I’m still going.”
Solonn held his gaze in silence for a moment more, then sighed, nodding in acceptance of Zilag’s wishes.
“Fine,” Hledas conceded as well, still sounding none too happy about Zilag’s decision. “I’ll stay with the kids—you had better come home,” she told Zilag in a warning tone, but there was earnest concern there alongside the threat. “Don’t you dare make me have to explain to our daughters that they’ll never see their father again.”
“I’ll try,” he told her, though he couldn’t help sounding somewhat less than fully confident. “I’ll try as hard as I possibly can. Just… well, just in case… tell them I love them, okay?”
Hledas’s frown deepened, the light in her eyes wavering. She nodded in assent, apparently unable to find her voice in the moment.
Zilag moved closer to Hledas, closing his eyes and lowering his head, allowing his forehead to touch hers. “Goodbye,” he said, adding, “for now.” He lifted his gaze once more and turned it toward Solonn. “Guess we’d better head out, then,” he said, moving toward the exit.
“Wait,” Solonn said, halting him. He turned to once more hold both of the other glalie in his gaze. “There’s something you both need to know—that’s the main reason I came here in the first place.” Zilag and Hledas both looked at him attentively. He opened his mouth to speak… but then paused. He had caught himself about to flat-out state that the Virc leadership was mistaken and to recommend that the truth of the matter that he was about to present be passed on to everyone whom they knew. That plan was shot down by images in his mind of Zilag and Hledas drawing action against themselves from the authorities in doing so, of them being thrown into prison chambers, rendered unconscious and vulnerable, with their children possibly never seeing them again.
He inhaled and tried again. “Look after yourselves, all right?” he said finally, opting for a more general warning. “Look after yourselves and everyone you know. Zilag has a point about keeping an open mind,” he acknowledged aloud, though he aimed the notion in a different direction. “Don’t assume that you or anyone else here is safe just because the authorities tell you that you are, and tell everyone you can to stay vigilant, too,” he advised.
Zilag nodded at this, as did Hledas, though the light in the eyes of the latter still fluttered with uncertainty. Hoping that they would indeed heed his warning, “Goodbye,” Solonn said to Hledas. “You and your daughters stay safe, please.” He then turned back toward the exit. Zilag removed the ice barrier, replacing it once he and Solonn were in the corridor outside, and the two went to join with those who were waiting for them in the hall.
* * *
The search had begun in the border cavern. Upon arrival there, Zdir had spoken to the rest of the search party, choosing to do so via Oth. The psychic connection that they had formed with her in order to share her elemental perception allowed her to speak with the claydol telepathically, but enabling her to communicate likewise with the others was beyond Oth’s capabilities; as such, they had instead passed her words on to the rest of the group, using their mindvoice alone in doing so.
The claydol had relayed her explanation that the Security Guild most likely had the warren covered and that she was fully convinced that the children were in the possession of exiles and therefore were likely being held somewhere outside of Virc territory, away from Virc authorities.
Oth had also shared the plans that Zdir had conceived, the actual courses of action that they would take in that mission. The seven were to exercise caution around any glalie whom they encountered, to generally avoid conflict—be it from the attackers, from guild members on a search of their own, or from anyone else—unless it was absolutely necessary. As for those of other species, Zdir proposed that wherever circumstances allowed it, they would seek information from those people, see if they had noticed something that could give any sense of where the snorunt might have been taken.
There had been nods of acceptance from the others, though there had also been poorly concealed uncertainty on some of their faces, uncertainty that Solonn shared. In particular, he was skeptical of the notion of seeking any clues from Shoal Cave’s natives; he had a hard time imagining any of them wanting to cooperate with a bunch of predators and a being the likes of which they’d surely never even seen. Then again, the alternative—a more-or-less completely blind search through caverns that extended gods knew how far and in gods knew how many directions—wasn’t a course of action that he particularly liked the sound of, either.
He’d caught Zilag’s eye, the latter having returned as much of a reassuring look as he could manage. Solonn had suspected that the sentiment was directed inward as much as outward.
While in the border cavern, the seven had moved in a ring with Oth at the center, staying close together rather than splitting up as per Zdir’s relayed instructions so as to ensure that no one was left behind should they need to make a sudden escape. But now, having reached the narrow passageway leading out into Shoal Cave proper, they were forced into single file.
Oth was fourth in line, hovering high enough to allow them to see over the heads of the glalie both in front of and behind them. Solonn held a worried gaze upon them as they all moved through the passageway, unsure if those who were at the ends of the line were close enough to Oth for the claydol to include in their teleportation field should such become necessary. He strongly hoped that such wouldn’t become necessary while they were stuck in that formation—or at all, of course.
As of yet, no danger had arisen, the border cavern having turned out to be completely devoid of anyone else and the tunnel that led out of it proving likewise, and as the seven emerged into more open space once again and proceeded to explore that area, that trend continued. Minute after minute passed, and one stone chamber after another was found to be completely unoccupied.
This did nothing to ease the tension that hung over the air, however, for the fact remained that they were only alone for now. Sooner or later, they all knew, they would run into someone. They could only hope that it wasn’t the wrong someone.
Sure enough, they soon discovered a sign of life. In near-unison, the glalie in the party picked up on the presence of someone warm-bodied who was out of sight for the time being, accompanied by the sound of flapping wings. The source of that sound seemed fairly close. The party halted, several pairs of blue eyes turning toward a tunnel that curved rather sharply away; the being whom they had just detected was apparently around that bend.
They waited in place for a short time to see if there was anyone else down that passageway—or, more specifically, if there was anyone who was not warm-bodied off that way. Apparently there wasn’t; no crack sounded to indicate a hunter picking the unseen creature off, their heat signature remaining steady rather than suddenly vanishing, and the creature seemed to be staying put rather than fleeing as they would have most likely done in the presence of beings that posed a potential threat to their life.
Zdir turned to face the others and gave a nod that said to proceed, and the seven then made their way into the tunnel in the same way that they had entered every other narrow passageway prior to that one: three glalie ahead of Oth, three behind Oth, and Zdir in the lead. Just as Zdir was about to disappear around the bend, a shrill chittering noise arose.
In almost the same instant, a thick ice barrier formed behind the party, sealing off that end of the tunnel. Another such wall had been raised further up ahead, Solonn knew—the flying creature’s escape routes were being cut off.
<It is only a lone male zubat,> Oth informed the others. To the zubat, <Do not be afraid. We mean you no harm,> they said, using as calm and soothing a mindvoice as they could manage. The zubat had stopped chittering but could still be heard fluttering about out of sight, apparently at a loss for how to deal with the situation in which he had found himself. <We are merely seeking information. Please try to respond as quietly as possible. We need to know if you have smelled or heard anything out of the ordinary recently and if so, where.>
“Other than you just now, no!” the zubat said. To his credit, he did manage to keep his voice down to a minimal hiss; perhaps he had decided that the creatures who had discovered him would only keep their word and leave him unharmed if he did as he was told. “Now please, go away! Leave me alone!”
<Very well. Thank you for your time.> The ice barrier behind the party vanished, as did the unseen one beyond where they all waited, and the wingbeats dwindled away as their maker fled. <We shall proceed, then,> the claydol then said to the rest of the group, and the line before them began moving forward once more.
The search wore on. There was a detached sense of fatigue and hunger starting to set in, but there was far too much on Solonn’s mind for him to care much about these feelings—a mind that was beginning to play tricks on him. Every even remotely pointed stone warranted extra glances back to confirm that it wasn’t a snorunt standing or sitting there—or worse, lying there—and phantom movements in the corner of his eye kept seizing his attention only to have nothing to show him, with no indication from any of the others that they had seen anything, either.
The seven encountered more zubat along the way, each of which was accosted and questioned just as the first had been. Just like the first one, though, the second knew nothing that was of any value to the party, and the same was true of the third. The fourth one’s initial response to their arrival in the chamber where they’d found him was to fire a confuse ray at them, only to have his attack waste itself on Ronal’s protect aura and his mind changed by an ice beam warning shot fired by Zdir. Once convinced that trying to fight them would do him no good, however, he too had proven to have no useful information for them.
At length, the seven found themselves in the part of the caverns that had long been recognized as the territory of spheal and the evolved forms thereof… but the state in which they found it suggested that such was no longer the case. There were no heat signatures about save for the very faint one that was Oth’s, and no one in the party spotted any of the expected inhabitants of that place, alive or otherwise.
Their total absence frayed Solonn’s nerves further, especially due to the fact that there were no signs of any struggle having taken place in what had been their territory. Maybe they had simply relocated, he considered, but the lack of clear evidence as to why they were no longer there also reminded him uncomfortably of what had happened to the snorunt who were now missing—they had also been described as simply being gone. If the same thing was behind both the abduction of those snorunt and the lack of the spheal, sealeo, and walrein that should have been about in considerable numbers here…
He didn’t want to believe it. Not only did the possibility remind him too much of what Hagen had accused Oth of doing, but the thought of such dangerous people having access to that kind of power sent a chill through his veins. Nonetheless, Solonn was finding it harder and harder to imagine a group of exiled glalie, however large that group might be, as being capable of making people vanish so thoroughly. Believing that the enemies might very well have a teleporter in their midst after all, meanwhile…
Solonn shuddered and tried to chase such notions away, tried to remind himself that it was still fully possible that the spheal, sealeo, and walrein who had been in that area had all left of their own accord, but the contrary possibilities wouldn’t leave his mind. His certainty as to just what they were facing began dissolving rapidly, leaving him all the more worried about the lost snorunt, for the party seeking them, and for the Virc.
The caverns beyond the deserted territory mirrored those just past the border cavern; there was no one about, not even any zubat. The imagined presences and movements continued popping up, however, and now that Solonn was helplessly entertaining the notion of their enemies being even more dangerous than he had already known them to be, those tricks of his mind had him all the more on edge.
Then a faint blue light appeared in the chamber that they had just entered, followed by a glalie who was carrying a pair of dead zubat in his jaws, and neither Solonn nor any of the other six with him could deny that the newly-arrived presence was really there. Automatically, Solonn raised a protect shield around himself; out of the corner of his eye, he saw some of the other glalie in the party do likewise.
The stranger noticed them almost immediately. “Hey!” he shouted, the zubat falling from his mouth, and as the stranger surged forward, Solonn caught a glimpse of more unfamiliar glalie rushing into the room—only to have the scene before him washed away in the light of a teleportation, light that lasted slightly longer than usual this time.
They rematerialized somewhere else altogether: suddenly they were all out in a snow-filled clearing in a forest of conifers, under sunlight, albeit only the weak rays of dawn. There was one more glalie in their midst than there should have been, and as that unexpected person tore himself away from the others in a hurry, Solonn recognized him as the first of the unknown glalie whom they’d seen in their previous location. They were alone with him now.
Why, Solonn wondered at once, had that glalie been brought with them?
He saw the stranger swiftly light up with a dark blue aura as he backpedaled, and Solonn realized in almost the same instant that his own protect shield had also fallen, as had those of everyone else who had raised one. His heart hammering, he hurriedly tried to bring it back up, feeling the slightest relief when he succeeded.
The unknown glalie’s eyes, already wide and blazing with obvious bewilderment and fear, brightened further and turned white—but that image promptly exploded into another golden nothingness. The picture that replaced it barely more than an instant later was nearly identical, save for the fact that the white light in the stranger’s eyes was gone and Oth had moved a few yards forward from their prior position.
The stranger looked about frantically until he found the claydol. Solonn suspected at once that the unknown glalie had figured out that Oth was the one behind the warping about and had targeted them as a result; without really giving it any further thought, Solonn tapped into his own sheer cold power and kept a hold on it, ready to strike at him the moment the stranger’s shield fell—
—And then there was yet another burst of golden light, another lingering one. The first thing Solonn saw in its wake was the now shieldless stranger dropping to the floor as an echoing crack sounded.
Solonn looked the rest of the party over in order to try and figure out who had beaten him to the strike; he saw Zdir, breathing noticeably heavily and still holding her gaze upon the unconscious glalie, and got the immediate impression that the sheer cold had been her doing.
Though not ungrateful to her for that, Solonn couldn’t deny that there was an easier way to have gone about solving the trouble that she and Oth had just taken care of: she had said that they would avoid any situation that might erupt into conflict altogether wherever possible, and they could have gotten out of that situation altogether the moment that it had reared its head.
He found himself feeling rather inclined to ask for an explanation as to why they hadn’t done just that—as it stood, it seemed as though Zdir had just put them in needless danger. He saw looks on the faces of the glalie at his sides that suggested that they might be thinking likewise.
<For any among you who are wondering where we presently are, we are in Aderi. We are far from Shoal Cave—we are safe here from any who would pose a threat to us,> Oth spoke up then from right beside the fallen glalie, fielding the question of their current whereabouts before anyone could voice it. <We are also far from Mordial,> they added for Solonn’s sake.
<Zdir has identified this person as being one of the exiles,> they went on. There was a distinct unease in their mindvoice… a hesitance, Solonn thought. <As such, she believes that he is likely to have had some involvement with the abduction of the snorunt and may therefore know their current location.>
A shiver ran through Solonn then as he looked upon the fallen glalie, his throat going dry, the light in his eyes unsteady. It had just truly hit him: this might have been the one who took Jen. Alternatively, that exile might have been the one who took Azvida’s life or Jeneth’s, or even both… Solonn felt his stomach turn at the thought.
<If it turns out that this person is uninvolved with the ones who were responsible for the kidnappings and murders, we will return him to Shoal Cave and continue on our search.> They lowered their head very slightly. <I will now determine if that is the case, as well as if this person has any information that would be of use to us if that is not the case.>
Solonn’s eyes went wide; he had realized at once just how Oth was going to go about determining those things, and he couldn’t pretend that it didn’t disturb him in a deep and very personal way. He shot a rather shocked and disappointed look at Zdir—it had to have been her idea, he was sure. He couldn’t imagine Oth, who always asked for consent before looking into another’s mind, volunteering that course of action.
“Is this really necessary?” Solonn asked her.
Zdir looked at him with an expression that he couldn’t decipher. “You can’t mean what you’re asking. Surely you of all people would recognize this as something that needs to be done,” she said somberly. “You heard Oth: this person is very likely to know where the children are—probably moreso than anyone else we’d be likely to encounter anytime soon. If he does know something about it, we need to know that something, too.”
Offense moved swiftly into Solonn’s features; he didn’t like even the slightest suggestion that he wasn’t giving the kidnapped snorunt due concern, particularly given who was among them. “Well, yes, of course we do, but—”
“But what?” Zdir interrupted him. “Should we really take the time to wake him, to deal with any further attempts to fight us or perhaps try to flee from us, and then to try and get him to answer our questions once we’ve got him cooperating that far? That could be time that the children may not necessarily have. We don’t know what their captors ultimately intended to do with them when they took them.”
Solonn tried to respond to her, but instead he ended up breaking eye contact with her and shutting his mouth almost as soon as he’d opened it, not knowing what to say. He wasn’t even sure what to think. He agreed with Zdir in a way, unable to stand the thought of further harm befalling Jen and those who’d been taken along with him—especially with regards to the thought of harm occurring because the party had failed to get to the snorunt in time to stop it—but he had a considerably harder time agreeing with what she was proposing to be done to that glalie’s mind.
Gods… why do you even care this much about him? part of him asked, reminding him silently of just who that person lying there might be and just what that person might have done. Images crossed his mind of the broken bodies in the temple and the mist that hung over them, images of ruined eyes on a painfully familiar face looking sightlessly up at him as their owner’s life ebbed away, and he couldn’t bite back the choked, near-voiceless sob they brought from him.
Then another mental image intruded, that of a dragon made of blazing light with pitch-black holes for eyes, and that sob sharpened into a hiss.
He turned to face Oth and ask them if they, at least, were truly fine with what they were about to do… only to find the claydol now hovering before and slightly above the unconscious glalie with their head lowered and all but the foremost of their eyes closed. They had already begun their scan of the exile’s mind, Solonn recognized.
Solonn looked away at once. It was hard enough for him to see someone hanging there and probing the mind of another person, enemy or not, like some kind of psychic parasite. It was even worse with that someone being a friend of his. He only hoped at this point that Oth’s search would bear fruit, that it would indeed lead to the children’s salvation.
Minutes passed, a wait that was made no easier for Solonn to endure by his awareness of the remaining chance that searching the exile’s mind wouldn’t yield any information that would aid their efforts, thus resulting in precious time having been wasted and a mind invaded with no good coming of it. Come on, he urged Oth voicelessly, at least get it over with…
Finally, <This person is indeed involved with the guilty parties, and he knows exactly where the children are presently being held.> Even now, with the deed having been done, Oth still sounded hesitant, and something of a somber tone had crept into their mindvoice, as well. This immediately struck Solonn as ominous—had Oth discovered bad news regarding the current state of the stolen children? <I will be transporting us there shortly, picking up the snorunt, and then transporting them along with the rest of us and this glalie to the Haven. I am sorry to say that someone has… tampered with the children’s minds, making them believe that they belong among the exiles—hopefully it is within the capabilities of the people at the Haven to undo this tampering.>
Solonn swore that he felt his heart stop for a moment at those words. The news that there was someone among the enemies who could control minds and that such a thing had been done to those children—to his own half-brother—hit him so hard and on such a personal level that he had to sit down before he could simply fall from the air. He saw the others moving toward Oth in preparation for their imminent teleportation and tried with little success to calm himself, searching through his memories of the Haven as he managed to rise once more and joined the rest of the glalie in their tight cluster around the claydol. He remembered the various types of psychic therapists there, and he vanished from the scene with a pleading prayer that one of them might be able to restore the children’s minds to normalcy.
* * *
The light that removed the party from Aderi lingered in much the same way that the flashes that had accompanied some of Oth’s most recent teleportations had, only for longer this time and not quite as steadily. On a couple of occasions, it attempted to fade out in the way that it always did when its passengers had arrived at their new destination, but each time it pulsed right back to full intensity before it could get more than a little dimmer. Every time it happened, it also brought a bizarre sensation to those whom it carried, a sense of only possibly having arrived somewhere.
The result was that when they definitely, finally reached a destination and the light was allowed at last to vanish completely, all but the one of them who’d been in command of the process and the one who still lay unconscious were left fairly disoriented. The sheer amount of difference between where they now were and where they had been didn’t help matters.
Once his brain was finally convinced that he physically existed somewhere again, Solonn recognized their artificial, pale-walled, brightly-lit surroundings as the interior of the Haven. He recognized something else, as well—or rather someone else; several someones, in fact—a sight that shot a bolt of relief and gratitude through him. The relief was quickly dampened, however, when he saw a fuchsia aura bloom around those people. It was Oth’s telekinetic hold, there to keep the eight snorunt who now accompanied them from escaping, and it reminded him swiftly of just why they had been brought to this place.
Most of the snorunt began struggling almost immediately as if trying to break loose and make a run for it, but to no avail. “Help!” one of them called out, and a couple of the others followed suit. “Help!”
“They’re… they’re not gonna come…” another said, sounding as though he were on the brink of panic, a frantically-sweeping gaze taking in the unfamiliar place in which he’d just found himself. “They can’t…” Most of the shouting snorunt fell silent at his words, but one kept on, raising her voice almost to its breaking point in desperation.
The sound of footsteps mingled with her cries, a slapping of multiple bare feet against linoleum. Turning to identify the source, Solonn saw a trio of chansey rushing to join the group, and he heard what was likely another one coming from the opposite direction.
“What’s going on here?” one of them asked. She seemed a bit startled, undoubtedly due to the good-sized group and the screaming children and unconscious person among them who had just suddenly burst into being in her vicinity, and might have been even moreso than she let herself appear to be.
<These snorunt have been subjected to some sort of psychic tampering,> Oth answered her, raising their true voice to overcome the din of the still-shouting snorunt, though both the accompanying telepathic message and the fact that that snorunt was momentarily stricken silent by the very alien sound of their speech rendered that unnecessary. <This person—> They gestured toward the exile. <—is involved with the ones who are responsible for this tampering.>
The chansey frowned, exchanging not-quite-readable glances with the other three of her kind who were present before letting an equally inscrutable one linger briefly upon first the snorunt, then the exile, and then Oth. “Go fetch Adn, please,” she then said to one of the other chansey, who went to do so at once. “We’ll need Saul and Chandra to tend to him,” she then said with a nod toward the unconscious glalie, “and someone needs to place a call to the station.” These orders were responded to promptly, as well.
Looking up slightly toward Oth, the remaining chansey said, “Don’t worry; someone will be here soon to have a word with him soon, and Adn should be here to take the snorunt off of your hands at any moment now. He’ll also be the one who’s going to see what can be done about this ‘tampering’ you spoke of.”
Adn… The name didn’t ring a bell for Solonn, but then again not many of the minor details of what he recalled of Convergence seemed reachable at the time given the much bigger things on his mind, one of which was almost literally right in front of him.
He looked back to the snorunt, identifying Jen as one of the still-struggling ones, and he gently nudged his way past Zereth, who hovered beside him, to move closer to his half-brother. “Jen,” he said once in front of him, trying to keep the worry out of his voice out of some scant hope that this might in turn calm Jen, a hope that he knew to be vain even as he exercised it. “It’s going to be all right,” he tried to assure Jen as well as himself. “They’re going to take care of you.”
Jen stopped struggling against his confines and looked up at the massive face whose owner had just spoken to him. Fear was written all over his own face, but his features tightened suddenly, an imperfect and very deliberate hardening. “You’re… you’re not gonna get away with this,” he said, trying to sound tough but failing completely. “You’d better let us go!”
Solonn backed away slightly, involuntarily, the light of his eyes wavering with concern and dimmed by sadness. He sighed, somehow feeling disappointed despite not really being surprised by Jen’s response. In his current condition, Jen really had no reason to trust him—for all Solonn knew, his half-brother might not even recognize him at the moment, a thought which saddened Solonn further still.
Nonetheless, “It’ll be all right,” Solonn said again, if only for his own sake.
Once again, footsteps came sounding from nearby: lighter, longer strides this time. Their source, a blue-haired gardevoir, almost seemed to glide rather than walk through the corridor leading in despite the contrary evidence his audible steps gave.
“I’ll take them from here,” the newly-arrived gardevoir said in a warm, resonant voice, thereby identifying himself as Adn. The snorunt who were still struggling suddenly found their efforts no longer in vain as Oth relinquished their hold over them, but they were all swiftly yet gently caught by Adn’s telekinesis before they could really do anything with their newfound freedom.
“Do any of you know what sort of being is responsible for what’s been done to their minds?” Adn asked of the party. As he spoke, he made the eight snorunt rise slightly from the ground in unison, then brought them over to be held in midair all around him.
<I am afraid not,> Oth answered. <Will this interfere with your work?>
“Well, it may take me a bit more effort if, for example, their reprogramming turns out to be the work of a ghost’s methods rather than a psychic’s, but I’m certain that I’ll be able to undo it regardless of its cause. It just might have shaved a little time off of the process if I could have known how to approach it from the start. They still ought to be just fine when I’m finished with them,” Adn said.
“All right, then, let’s let everyone get to their work,” the chansey who’d stayed with the group spoke up as a pair of machoke arrived on the scene to carry the exile away. “Come with me,” she said to the party, beckoning with a stubby, fingerless paw as she began to turn away from them.
The party followed her out of the room. As they moved, Solonn took a look back at Adn and his patients until the gardevoir and snorunt disappeared back into the corridor from whence Adn had come. He hoped that the confidence that Adn had shown in his own abilities would prove to be well-deserved, and he reminded himself that he’d had enough confidence in the Haven to have brought it up even when he hadn’t known for sure if it was still up and running. He’ll fix this, he tried to assure himself.
The chansey led them into a fairly spacious room with a pair of large windows to the outside showing an early-evening sky over a street with sparse traffic. There were chairs lining the walls, but no one took any of them, the glalie merely seating themselves on the floor while the chansey stood by the entrance and Oth hovered close to her.
“Adn will be here with the snorunt once he’s finished treating them,” the chansey said, holding the crowd of somewhat large creatures together in her sights as best she could. “The people who’ll be questioning the other person you brought in will also be here later on with a few questions for you about what happened.
“In the meantime, if any of you would like some refreshments, the cafeteria is down the hall to the left,” she told them, gesturing in that direction. “There are restrooms right next to this room—don’t worry; there are instructions posted in there if you need them. And if you need anything else, just ask Catherine at the front desk, okay?” With that, the chansey left.
“Hmm…” Zdir said once the chansey was out of sight. She turned toward Solonn. “Do you know who these ‘people’ who’ll be asking us questions later are or why they’re wanting to ask them? Might they be inclined to think that we’re the culprits?” She cocked her head slightly as something occurred to her that apparently intrigued her. “Or might they perhaps be inclined to offer us aid in dealing with the exiles?”
“Someone from the police department,” Solonn reckoned aloud. “Their Security Guild,” he clarified almost immediately. “And… I can’t say if anyone is personally suspicious of us or not, but they will want to be as certain as possible before they conclude that it wasn’t us.” Unlike some people… he thought bitterly.
“As for offering us aid…” he said, pausing briefly for a moment’s perusing of his memories of Convergence’s policies, only realizing then just how much they might have changed since the days when he had lived and worked there, “…I don’t know for sure,” he admitted. “They might only be concerned with making sure that what we’re dealing with back home poses no threat here.”
“Depending on what this unknown, mind-altering being—or, gods help us, possibly beings—that the exiles have on their side is, they might very well pose a threat here,” Zdir said grimly. “Well, whatever the motives and intentions of our hosts might be, we would probably do well to have as many answers for them as possible under the circumstances…”
A couple of the others nodded in agreement at this. “How much did you learn while you were looking around in there?” Narzen asked Oth, turning to face them as he spoke.
<Not as much as we might have preferred,> Oth said, <but a fair amount nonetheless. The exile is named Anzen Vin-Siara. He did not participate in the attack on the temple, but he did aid in the abductions. Those of his group call themselves the Sinaji, and their lair is in the far western areas of Shoal Cave, as far from Virc-Dho as one can go without leaving Shoal Cave entirely. Their leader—the one who, according to Anzen, reprogrammed the minds of the children—is named Sanaika Val-Harka.>
That got an immediate reaction; every face other than Zdir’s looked at the claydol incredulously. “Wait, that guy? Seriously?” Zereth asked.
“That can’t possibly be right…” Solonn said. He just couldn’t imagine the same Sanaika whom he had encountered all those years ago—or any other glalie, for that matter—having the ability to alter minds in the way that the minds of those snorunt had been. There had to be something else in the equation…
“That’s what I said. I can believe that he’s their leader. That he could have done what else Anzen thinks he did, however…” Zdir shook her head. “No, that, I suspect, is just something Sanaika wants his followers to believe so that he can garner more respect from them. There is something else among them, I’m quite certain, something that people like Anzen don’t know about…”
Solonn looked away from the others, ill at ease all over again in the wake of her words. They didn’t tell him anything that he hadn’t already suspected, but they did serve as a chilling reminder of the fact that the true nature of their enemy still eluded them.
His eyes soon found a clock upon the wall next to a dark and silent television set with an “OUT OF ORDER” sign taped to its screen, and he wondered just how long he and the others would be left waiting there in that room. Solonn figured that however sure Adn was that he could help the snorunt, it would take at least some time to do so, especially given that he had eight minds to restore. He also imagined that the police would have their hands full with Anzen for a little while before stopping here.
“Gods, I wish someone would get back to us…” he said aloud to no one in particular. “Or that I could have gone with him,” he added.
“That Adn guy?” Zilag guessed from beside him. Solonn made a faint, affirmative noise. “Don’t worry,” Zilag said as comfortingly as he could manage. “I’m sure he’ll be done with them soon. He seemed like he really knows what he’s doing.”
“He probably does,” Solonn said, the more rational parts of his mind sure enough of this despite how other parts of it couldn’t help but worry to the contrary. “It’s just… the way Jen looked at me, the way he talked… I really don’t think he recognized me. It’s… it’s almost like we haven’t got him back yet,” he said with a pained, concerned sort of frustration in his tone and the gaze that he sent into Zilag’s eyes at those words. “Not until Adn takes care of him.”
“Which he will,” Zilag said, managing to impart an earnest conviction to those words in spite of the concern for both Solonn and Jen that also tinged his voice.
Minutes passed in relative silence. Then sounds from somewhere outside the room drew the party’s attention: tapping sounds, seeming to come from more than one source, drawing closer. Solonn’s heart skipped a beat as he realized at once what they signified: they were the footsteps of snorunt. It seemed that Adn had succeeded in reversing the children’s reprogramming and was now returning with them.
The gardevoir came into sight, leading the snorunt before him. The children moved with a not-quite-rhythmic, slightly uncertain-seeming gait that went with the rather confused and overwhelmed expressions worn by those snorunt whose faces could be seen at the moment. Adn gently shepherded them all in before him, encouraging them to sit down among the glalie.
As Adn did so, Solonn noticed that something was still amiss about the snorunt: there were only seven of them. He also noticed that none of them seemed particularly interested in approaching him, and when he looked the seven over, he did not see Jen. He shot a look at Adn, his eyes brightening in a burgeoning panic, suddenly certain that the gardevoir had failed Jen for some reason—or worse, had done harm in attempting to help him.
“I have succeeded in undoing the modifications to their minds,” Adn told the six glalie and the claydol, “and yes, with one exception, I’m afraid,” he added quickly before any of the owners of the questioning or panicked looks that were aimed his way could say anything.
“Why?” Solonn asked him, sounding accusatory as well as fearful despite an earnest effort to not let that question come out as a demand. “Why can’t you fix him?”
“I can,” Adn said, unfazed by Solonn’s tone, sounding every bit as calm and confident as he had every other time he’d spoken to anyone of that group. “It’s just going to take a bit longer than it did for the rest of them. Minds are unique—they vary in their resistance to psychic procedures, and for some reason that I’ve yet to determine, his is being particularly stubborn in giving up its malady.”
Solonn wondered what could be causing that to be the case, and he couldn’t help but fear that it might be a sign of some further harm done to Jen by whatever had brainwashed him. Still… he cast a glance over the faces of the other seven children, all of them successfully deprogrammed—he wanted to believe that Jen would soon be among them. Those seven snorunt stood there as proof that Adn had indeed known what he was doing; he had solved their problems. Solonn wanted to have faith that the gardevoir would solve Jen’s, as well.
“You’re sure you can help him,” he said, reaching for confirmation, for anything that could help him feel certain that things would turn out all right.
“Absolutely,” Adn said, kindness and reassurance playing about his orange eyes. “Do not worry, any of you. However long it takes, I’ll make sure that he—”
Quite suddenly, thoroughly unexpectedly, the gardevoir’s voice dropped out, as did all sound. Sight was erased in virtually the same moment, consumed by an all too familiar golden emptiness that lingered like the one before it, though not for quite as long, and seemed to waver ever so briefly at one point.
The scenery of the Haven was gone. They were surrounded once again by stone surfaces instead of painted walls, by a wide tunnel winding out of sight rather than the waiting room. All of the glalie were still present, as were Oth and the seven snorunt who had been successfully treated. There was no sign of the gardevoir who had been speaking to them the moment before.
Inexplicably, they had teleported, leaving Convergence behind.
Multiple pairs of blue eyes looked about in confusion, their owners rising in near unison, with several of them turning to the only one present whom they knew to have been capable of pulling them out of the Haven in such a way, including Solonn’s. “What… Oth, why did you do that?” he couldn’t help but ask, his voice barely more than a whisper.
<I… I did not mean to teleport,> Oth said, and they actually sounded rather afraid. <The thought of doing so never even crossed my mind…>
“Well, you need to get us back there!” Solonn hissed. He had to get back to Jen—the thought of leaving him behind was unacceptable to him as it was, but doing so while the snorunt’s well-being still hung in the balance…
Oth made no obvious response at first. A few seconds passed, and then they emitted a noise that might have indicated worry, frustration, or both, briefly shutting all of their eyes as if trying to focus harder on something. <I cannot get it to happen… I cannot even find the energy to access for its use!>
“Keep trying!” Solonn urged them, becoming increasingly worried not only for Jen but now for Oth as well, wondering what in the world could possibly be rendering them unable to teleport and what had caused them to teleport involuntarily.
“Where are we?” one of the snorunt spoke up fearfully.
“Well… I don’t think we know yet,” Zilag answered him quietly, though there was a hint of unease in his voice that suggested that an answer might be occurring to him, and not an answer that he liked. “Do we?” he then asked of the others.
“Yes and no,” Zdir said. “I’m quite certain that we’re in Shoal Cave—this place looks familiar. Which part of Shoal Cave it is, however… that I can’t say.”
It seemed that no one else among them could say exactly where they now were, either. Solonn only knew that their current location put them all at considerable risk; if they were spotted by the wrong people now, especially with those children in tow… He felt sick just thinking about it, and he could tell by the looks on the other glalie’s faces that they were having similar thoughts and feelings about the situation.
“So… now what do we do?” Narzen asked.
“We go home!” the snorunt who had spoken last said. “Please, I just wanna go home!”
“Yeah!” another one said.
There was a brief silence. Then, “Yes. We’re going home,” Zdir said. “I’m going to try and remember the way there from here. Now, I won’t lie to you: it might get scary on the way there, but we will protect you. We promise.” There were several noises of assent and nods from the other glalie and Oth at those words. Zdir looked down the tunnel in one direction and then the other, appearing to be deep in thought. She looked to Oth for a moment, the claydol nodding at something that she had just told them privately.
“Come on,” she then said. “Now, don’t be afraid of what Oth’s about to do,” she told the children. “They’re only going to carry you so that you don’t have to walk and so that no one will hear you walking. Just try to relax as best as you can and try not to talk unless it’s really important.”
With that, Oth telekinetically took hold of the seven snorunt and lifted them up just a few inches off of the ground, at which a couple of them couldn’t help but gasp or yelp despite Zdir’s assurances.
“As for the rest of you,” Zdir said, “if at any point you know for certain where we are and how to get back to Virc-Dho from there, let me know. You can take the lead from there.”
Zdir began moving forward then, and everyone else followed, with the children all carried through the air within a fuchsia aura and surrounded by the adult pokémon. The tunnel through which they all traveled led them on a path that was winding but remained as-yet unbroken. Sooner or later, though, it was sure to branch out. They would be forced to stop and choose a direction—Solonn hoped that Zdir would pick the right one.
Those concerns were thrown aside by something else altogether when they finally did stop, however—something that took immediate precedence in the minds of all who saw it.
Wherever the party and the children presently were, they were no longer there alone.
Credit for Ryneika’s name goes to Saffire Persian. Thanks again, Saffire Persian! ^^
Next time: The party finds out just what they’ve run into and where they are exactly, and the matter of finding a way to get the children home safely becomes even more difficult. See you then!
- Sike Saner
Last edited by Sike Saner; 11th December 2013 at 12:08 AM.
12th July 2011, 01:41 PM #17
Re: Communication (PG-13) [Chapter Fourteen Now Posted]
Chapter 16 – To Return
If the sight before the party hadn’t already stopped them in their figurative tracks, the sound that came with it—a long and incredibly loud roar, the product of six voices calling out in unison—certainly would have. The snorunt and glalie and the single claydol in their midst now stared at its source: a cluster of walrein blocked their path, each of the bulky, blue creatures wearing an expression that told all too clearly that they were uninterested in letting the party pass without giving them a hard time about it.
Solonn eyed the foremost of the walrein warily. The Virc didn’t encounter these beings anywhere near as often as they came across the less evolved counterparts thereof. They generally left walrein alone whenever they did stumble upon them, and with good reason. Those who had gotten on the bad side of one had not come away unscathed, and their accounts of those encounters had spread among the public—all Virc glalie, as far as Solonn was aware, knew of the strength, resilience, and dangerous tusks of the walrein.
Taking on just one of them was generally considered risky, and here were six—a potential threat to them even given their own numbers. And with the children still in their charge, not to mention the very real possibility that Oth’s present inability to teleport meant that the claydol was unwell in some way or another, Solonn was not of the mind that they ought to be getting into any fights if they could help it.
If Zdir had expected to run into a gang of walrein en route, he hoped to all gods that she had some idea of how to deal with them peacefully.
<We apologize, sirs,> Oth spoke up; a couple of the walrein’s eyes darted around momentarily, trying to pinpoint the source of the words without sound, but the rest of the walrein seemed to guess where it had come from right away, casting an acknowledging and briefly appraising glance at the claydol only to fix it right back onto the glalie almost immediately. <We did not mean to startle you, and we do not mean any harm. We merely need to pass through—we must return these children to their homes. We will not cause any trouble for you in the process.>
The foremost of the walrein drew a deep breath, his already broad chest expanding greatly. “I don’t know who you are,” he said in a booming voice, still keeping his eyes locked onto those of the glalie in front of him as he spoke, “let alone what, but I reckon that you’re not from around here, and I imagine that you haven’t been given the most complete picture of how things work around here if you’ve chosen to ally yourself with those creatures. At any rate, no, you are not passing through, not any of you.”
He had to raise his voice on those last few words; a great thundering noise had arisen and was growing louder by the second. It shuddered to a stop as its cause came into view: beyond the six walrein, a large crowd of sealeo had amassed, and from what Solonn could see of them, they didn’t look any more hospitable than the walrein had. If anything, they looked even less so.
“I won’t attack children of any kind,” the apparent spokesman of the walrein went on, “and neither will any of my men here, but they…” He gave a quick, backwards jerk of his head toward the crowd behind him. “They may not be so inclined to show that kind of mercy.”
<With all due respect, sir… do you not have any authority over them?> Oth asked.
“We do. But at the same time, we understand that their caution may well have saved their lives or those of their loved ones in the past. Now then, if you’re really interested in getting those children back where they belong safely, you won’t push your luck in here. Go find some other route to take,” the foremost walrein said, and his tone told that he was done discussing the matter.
There was a moment that would have been nearly silent if it weren’t for the audible shuffling about of restless sealeo—Solonn became concerned that they might decide to just charge at them and try to drive them away or worse. He found himself rather surprised that they hadn’t done so already, in fact.
Then, <We will go. Again, we apologize.> To the rest of the party, <Go quickly, but not too quickly. Zdir does not entirely trust that the sealeo will not charge after us, and neither do I, but we must stay together.>
Not quite in unison, the glalie turned around. The party began making their retreat in nearly the same instant. The sounds of the sealeo were still audible, including something that suggested flippers slapping against stone and made Solonn worry for a moment that he and the rest of the party were indeed being pursued, but all those sounds grew softer rather than louder as they left the site of that encounter further behind, and Oth was giving no indication that anyone was following them.
Eventually, <Stop,> Oth instructed the party. <We are back where we began. I… regret to inform you that I remain unable to teleport,> they said heavily. <We have no choice but to take the opposite direction from this point this time. Again, if any of you recognize our surroundings at any point, please let us know.>
Zdir made her way to the foremost position once more as the claydol spoke, and Solonn looked at her with uncertainty as she moved past him. Maybe she had simply made a mistake in choosing the route that had led to the walrein and sealeo, and the opposite path was in fact the one that led back to Virc-Dho… but there was also the possibility that she had chosen correctly the first time, that the right way back to the warren—and maybe the only way there—was now impassable, meaning that they were now more lost than ever before. He caught a look on Zdir’s face as she passed that suggested similar concerns, as well as a hint of embarrassment and apology in the way that the light in her eyes fluctuated.
The party moved out, and as they did, Solonn tried to focus on the lingering possibility that Oth would regain the ability to teleport before the party could get hopelessly lost or run into any more trouble. Still, the fact that Oth being able to teleport again was only a possibility at this point made it difficult for Solonn to be too optimistic about the situation. Neither he nor apparently anyone else even knew what was wrong with Oth, exactly, though Solonn still harbored dark suspicions about the way that the guard back at the Security Guild’s holding cell had treated them. He had very little understanding of how a claydol’s body worked, alien as they were; for all he knew, too much exposure to hostile elements could damage whatever mechanism allowed them to teleport, and perhaps permanently.
Please, gods… don’t let that be the case. Please let them heal…
At length, the path split. Both of the routes that they were presented with led leftward, with the main route curving out of sight a relatively short distance past the entrance to an offshoot in the left wall. After a few moments’ worth of tight-browed consideration, Zdir guided the party into the farther path.
That path ultimately turned out to be a dead end, opening into a somewhat large, oddly-shaped room. Solonn prepared to turn back around and saw Zereth out of the corner of his eye already doing so, but Zdir stayed put and appeared to be thinking briefly.
Then, <We will stop and rest here for a while,> Oth announced; Zdir began leading the rest of the party well into the room, away from the exit, as the claydol spoke. <I will make further attempts to teleport while we are here.>
Most of the glalie put a little bit more space between themselves and the snorunt and sat down, many of them leaning against the walls. Zdir, however, remained where she was, staying airborne, and she turned to face the children as Oth lowered them to the floor. Some of the snorunt wore confused or worried looks, while a couple of the others looked annoyed to varying degrees by the current situation.
“Now, don’t stray, any of you,” Zdir said in a lowered, gentle tone once Oth had relinquished their hold over the snorunt completely. “The ones who took you from home are still out here, and until we get you back home, we’re the only ones who can protect you from them.
“Speaking of the ones who took you…” she went on, “can any of you tell me anything about whoever it was that tampered with your minds, made you believe things that weren’t true?”
All of the snorunt responded in the negative, shaking their heads or saying “no” in one way or another.
“I don’t think we were awake when it happened… were we?” one of the slightly larger, presumably older ones among them asked of the others, which sent another wave of negatory responses through the children. “I was at the snowgrounds just minding my own business—we all were—and then a couple of glalie showed up. They knocked out Jeril right away. Her and Seska. We couldn’t get out of there. Pretty soon, they got all of us.”
“I tried to fight back,” the snorunt at her side said, looking proud for a moment, but wilted just as quickly, looking aside. “…It didn’t work.”
“At least you tried,” said the snorunt who had been speaking previously. She sounded a bit regretful, even ashamed. “But anyway, yeah. Next thing I knew, I woke up somewhere else, and I thought I’d always been there.”
Zdir nodded in acknowledgment, drawing and releasing a deep breath with a look of disappointment. “Is that what all of you remember, more or less?” she asked, at which the snorunt all nodded in near-unison.
“I’m sorry I can’t remember any more about it,” another of them said quietly, earnestly.
Zdir’s features softened a bit. “That’s okay,” she assured her. “It’s not your fault.”
There was a very brief flash of the light in her eyes then, and a small pile of snow appeared just behind her. She moved around to the other side of it, and Oth joined her there a moment later. “Eat,” Zdir told the snorunt. “You’ve certainly earned it.” Four of the snorunt obliged right away, with the rest only hesitating briefly before partaking of the snow. She watched them for a moment, then turned to face the majority of the other glalie.
<Are there any among you who have not successfully hunted in the past couple of days?> Oth asked then.
That question took hold of Solonn’s attention at once. His eyes widening slightly, he looked over the snorunt, not knowing for sure how they might react to such a question… but found them all just sitting there and eating snow, giving no indication that they’d even heard the last thing that Oth had said. Oth had transmitted the message to the glalie alone, he realized.
With regards to that message… he had to stop and think for a moment, finding the last few relatively mundane hours preceding the hell that had broken loose in Virc-Dho hard to reach. He finally managed to recall having hunted shortly before he’d gone to sleep on the night prior to the attack on the temple and the snowgrounds, and he was fairly certain that that was in the time frame about which Oth had just inquired. He looked back toward Oth and shook his head.
Someone else had apparently done the opposite; <I am afraid that you will have to make do with ice until such time as the children have been returned to Virc-Dho,> Oth said. <Zdir believes that it would not be prudent to expose the children to predation at this time on the chance that it may disturb them too greatly. She wishes for them to remain as calm as possible for the sake of their safety and our own.>
That made sense, as far as Solonn was concerned—no one needed to be losing their heads at a time like this. He just hoped that no one, including himself, would be affected too detrimentally by the lack of proper food for a while. Ice could occupy the stomach, could pacify hunger to a degree, but without meat, the glalie in the party would start to grow weak and ill before terribly much longer.
Solonn decided to conjure up a moderately sized block of ice in front of himself then, the rest of the glalie each doing likewise for themselves. Though he still felt oddly disconnected from the hunger that he was fairly sure he should at least be starting to feel by now, he started in on the ice right away, trying not to eat too slowly, feeling that the party should and probably would be moving on before much longer.
As he fed, he saw Oth and Zdir make their way over to Narzen, who looked up from his ice with a questioning expression. Narzen maintained eye contact with Oth, and he nodded a couple of times over the seconds that followed, his expression turning from one of vague disappointment to one that suggested that he was intrigued by something and then to another that almost looked eager.
Oth and Zdir moved away from Narzen then, leaving Solonn to wonder what the apparent, silent, one-sided conversation that had just taken place there had been about. That question then moved aside in his mind as he saw Oth and Zdir stop before Zilag and start up a similar conversation with him.
Solonn frowned in puzzlement, wondering what the two of them—or rather just Zdir, he imagined—could have seen fit to discuss privately with just one of the others at a time rather than saying it to at least all of the glalie at once, if not to everyone who was present. He suspected that the subject they were on about with Zilag wasn’t the same as what they’d discussed with Narzen, however; he noted that Zdir wore a visibly more serious expression while Oth spoke to Zilag and that Oth apparently had more to say to Zilag than they’d had to say to Narzen.
It was all too apparent that the topic in question was unsettling Zilag to some degree, but at the same time, Zilag responded affirmatively to every silent question he received, as far as Solonn could tell, and Zdir looked satisfied enough with those responses.
The two began to drift away from Zilag then, returning to the spot near the snorunt where they’d been moments ago. The still-troubled look on Zilag’s face left Solonn feeling strongly inclined to go over to him and ask what that had been all about.
But before he could do so, <Zdir wishes to know if anyone else among you wishes to be left in Virc-Dho when we return the children,> Oth spoke up.
Solonn was shaking his head before he’d even quite realized that he was doing so. He was a fugitive, and a fairly recognizable one at that. Showing his face in the warren seemed incredibly ill-advised, and he got the distinct, unpleasant feeling that doing so would continue to be a bad idea for a long time—possibly forever, much as he hated to consider it.
<Very well, then,> Oth said. <If any of you change your minds later, please let me and Zdir know. Even if we have already returned the children by that point, we will help you get back to the warren.>
Zdir looked pleased enough with the silent answers that the rest of the glalie had given her, partaking of her ice once more and sending no further messages through Oth for the time being.
Solonn, meanwhile, was less at ease with the matter, for something in the way that Oth had inquired about it had struck him and struck him hard: if anyone else among you wishes to be left in Virc-Dho, they had said. Perhaps by “anyone else” they had been referring to Zdir, the thought occurred to him, but he promptly dismissed it; Zdir had the same good reason not to go back that he had, and he was sure that she recognized that fact. What he suspected instead was that Oth was referring to Narzen and Zilag there—that the matter of whether or not they wished to return was what those private conversations had been about, and that they had both said that they did want to go back to Virc-Dho.
This didn’t come as any real surprise to Solonn, at least not where Zilag was concerned. He knew that Zilag would want to go back home to his family. He just wasn’t sure any longer if it would be well-advised for Zilag or anyone else in the party to do so.
Once again he had remembered the lahain having known his name back in the council chamber, and once again he had found himself wondering just what else the Virc authorities saw fit to know. This time, however, it had occurred to him that maybe they already knew whom he associated with, and with Zdir having once been one of the Virc authorities, he suspected that she was well aware of just what they knew.
Solonn reckoned that if they did indeed know such things, then the authorities would likely want to look to those associates for any information that might help them track down the fugitives. And if they decided that those associates weren’t cooperating enough to suit them… Solonn swallowed hard, feeling as though the remainder of the ice that he’d generated for himself had just tried to force itself down his throat all at once.
But then something else crossed his mind. Wait… Whether or not they really would be in that kind of danger if they went back home seems like something Zdir would know, too. If Narzen and Zilag are in any danger from the authorities, then she wouldn’t let them go home, would she?
That, he couldn’t answer. He sort of figured that she wouldn’t, seeing as how she’d not been able to stand the thought of letting him, Grosh, or Oth be unjustly kept in the Security Guild’s custody. Still, the possibility that Zilag and Narzen would be greeted by harsh treatment from the guild upon their return sent new currents of worry through his nerves.
There was yet another reason to hope that Oth would be able to teleport again soon, as if they needed any more. If Narzen, Zilag, or anyone else who decided to stay in Virc-Dho got thrown into the Security Guild’s cells, he could see no other feasible way for them to be delivered from them.
<We will now resume our journey toward Virc-Dho,> Oth said then, sounding regretful, and telekinetically gathered up the children once more. As the other glalie began to rise and cluster around the snorunt, Solonn hurriedly finished his ice, then quickly rose to join the others. The party and their charges departed the cavern and went back out into the unknown, with Solonn still harboring concern for what might await some of them after reaching their destination in addition to that which he had already held for the trip.
The party backtracked to the fork in the road, taking the other route that it had offered this time. Not long afterward, they were met with another choice of multiple directions to take and subsequently ran into another dead end, but they didn’t stop there, and they only made a very brief stop for necessities at the third dead end that they encountered.
Meanwhile, nothing of their surroundings looked at all familiar to Solonn, and no one else had given any indication that they recognized anything around them since Zdir had mentioned that the place into which they’d unexpectedly teleported looked familiar. Maybe that wasn’t the place she thought it was after all, Solonn considered dismally. It truly seemed that they were traveling blind at this point—and there was the chance, he couldn’t help but consider, that they were headed straight for the Sinaji’s lair.
That thought sent a fresh bolt of fear into him. Before he had long to dwell on it, however, <Solonn! This place… we have been here, have we not?>
Being addressed directly when he’d not been expecting such a thing startled him initially; he threw a gaze about, but couldn’t seem to connect any of what it showed him to anything that he could remember.
Then his wits congealed once more, and he nodded to Oth in confirmation as he realized that yes, he and the claydol had been here before, and recently, at that. He’d been here alone several times prior to that, furthermore; it was simply his first time looking at it from this angle.
Oth had moved to the front of the party and was now leading them toward an irregularity in the path before them, one that revealed itself to be a large, deep hole in the floor as they drew nearer to it. The party had managed to stumble upon Grosh’s home.
Oth came to a stop at the edge of the pit, and they once again relinquished their hold over the children. <Be careful not to fall in,> they warned them.
The claydol leaned forward, peering down into the hole in silence. Next to them, Zdir was looking into its depths similarly, wearing a look of contemplation. She nodded at something that had been spoken silently.
<Solonn… do you suppose that your father would mind if we were to take shelter in his home while he is away?> Oth then asked.
The question took Solonn slightly by surprise, but then it occurred to him just why Oth might be asking such a thing. When he and Oth had been on their way to visit Grosh, he’d told them of how Grosh had managed to remain undisturbed in that hole for so many years. It might have occurred to the claydol that if such a creature had successfully stayed hidden there for so long, then the party could perhaps avoid being noticed likewise there.
Solonn figured that Grosh would have no problem at all with their using his home to keep themselves safe—if anything, he imagined, the steelix would be elated to know that he could be of some help to them, even if it was in some distant, indirect way.
Gods… he’d be happy just to know we’re alive, he recognized, which made him rather heartsick. Solonn nodded to Oth in response to their question, silently praying as he did so that the steelix on whose behalf he answered would be reunited with his home and what remained of his family before much longer.
<All right, then,> the claydol said. <I have proposed that we stop here to rest for a while, longer than any of our previous stops,> they then announced, which earned a groan from one of the snorunt. <This—> They gestured toward the hole with one of their turret-hands, the other still clutching the herbs that they had gathered to their chest. <—has been the home of one of our allies for many years. He is elsewhere at this time, but I have assurances that he would not mind our staying here in his absence.
<Given a bit more time to rest, I may be able at last to teleport us to the warren. I sincerely hope that I will be. If not, that tunnel,> Oth said, pointing toward a passageway off to the left, <ultimately leads back to Virc-Dho, but fear not—it is a scarcely-traveled route. People virtually never come here. Our hope is that we may be able to avoid notice here, or at least likelier to avoid it than we might be anywhere else that we can presently reach.>
That was, in truth, all it was: a hope. Still, it was better than nothing, Solonn supposed, and he furthermore reckoned that an extended period of rest might very well help the claydol succeed in finally reconnecting to their presently unavailable ability, which would make the final phase of their rescue of the children much easier to pull off without any further trouble. And spending that period of rest out of sight in that pit was certainly preferable to doing so out in the open.
An ice platform appeared then, covering the hole in the floor. Solonn looked to Zdir, saw the brightened light in her eyes, and figured that she was responsible for it.
She moved out onto the platform once it was level with the floor, and Ronal followed her, but she shook her head when Solonn and Zereth tried to do likewise.
<Zdir and Ronal wish to make certain that no one else is down there before the children are allowed to descend, just in case,> Oth explained.
As Solonn watched the platform slowly carry Zdir and Ronal downward, the light from the two glalie’s eyes dwindling as they went deeper into the chasm, he found a thread of concern for them uncurling in his mind in spite of the fact that, for the most part, he still doubted that they’d find anyone down there. He didn’t question Zdir’s choice on this matter; he understood that no one else here—not even Oth, really—had as much reason as he did to believe that this place was left almost entirely alone. Now given cause to think about it, it occurred to him that maybe he was taking the safety of the pit before him at least a little bit for granted.
Before long, though, <They confirm that it is empty,> Oth said, and the platform could be heard rising again as the claydol spoke. There was no one on it as it ascended, Zdir and Ronal presumably having gone into the chamber adjacent to the one into which the chasm opened.
With the platform being too small to accommodate everyone who still waited outside in a single trip, Oth directed Narzen and Zilag to go and sit down on the flat expanse of ice next, then moved to hover over their heads, assuring the glalie that they would attend to the snorunt on this descent and assuring the snorunt that they would not drop any of them in the process. All but a couple of the snorunt looked less than successfully comforted by the claydol’s words as the fuchsia aura surrounded the children once more, and one of them failed to bite back a whimper as he, along with the rest of the snorunt, were made to drift downward through the air after the sinking platform. Not long after, the platform returned to bring the remaining members of the party into the pit.
Grosh’s home seemed to lack some of its sense of familiarity as Solonn now beheld it. With so many more people gathered together in the chamber further inside than he had ever seen occupying that space before, it seemed rather smaller than he remembered it being. It was much brighter than usual as well, with the light from so many eyes illuminating it.
“When can we leave?” one of the snorunt asked.
<We will leave once we have all had a chance to rest properly,> Oth answered.
The snorunt who had just spoken frowned. “But I don’t like this. I don’t like hiding in a hole when we could be going home. You said you knew where home is, right?”
“We do,” Zdir said. “But Oth might not be feeling well. They might be hurt. We want to give them a chance to recover before we continue.”
The snorunt narrowed his eyes slightly, holding Zdir’s gaze, looking as though he were trying to decide whether he liked her response well enough or not. Finally, shooting a glance at Oth, “You’d better hurry up and get better,” he said, then stalked off to sit against the wall. Several of the other snorunt seated themselves as well, as did most of the glalie.
<In the event that I… do not recover during our time here or at any point prior to our arrival at Virc-Dho,> Oth then began, another of those psychic transmissions that seemed to exclude the children, <we have decided on an alternate course of action for returning the children to Virc-Dho. For their safety, Narzen has agreed to escort them into the warren. He has also agreed to having a link established with me prior to doing so that will allow him to keep us informed of happenings within the warren.>
Out of the corner of his eye, Solonn saw Zereth shudder slightly. A bit to the right, he saw Narzen with that odd, eager look on his face again—it seemed that Zdir had certainly approached the right person about being the party’s eyes and ears back in Virc-Dho.
At any rate, Solonn found himself rather liking the thought of them having one of their own in such a position almost at once. They could know if Narzen were in trouble, be it through his transmissions via Oth or a conspicuous lack thereof, and Narzen could also inform them if anyone else among them who chose to stay in the warren were in any trouble.
He’ll have other things to keep an eye on, Solonn had to tell himself. He can’t spend the entire time guarding Zilag and his family.
<For now, we should try to rest as soon as we can,> Oth went on; the children apparently heard them this time, all of them turning to face the claydol. <One of us will keep watch at all times, and we will take shifts. Who wishes to go first?>
“I’ll do it,” Ronal said simply, rising, and he moved over to sit in the imperfect archway separating the two chambers.
<The moment you feel too tired to focus on your surroundings correctly, wake someone else,> Oth told him. Zdir shot them a glance. <Someone other than me,> they added.
Oth set about trying to fall asleep right away then, and the blue light filling the room gradually dimmed as most of the glalie and snorunt eventually followed suit. Solonn lay there, eyes closed, but remained awake as the time passed. Concerns about what might lie ahead for those who were gathered there with him, wondering about what might be happening at the moment to certain people who were presently elsewhere, and even the knowledge that he probably wouldn’t have long to sleep before someone prodded him awake so that he could take his shift all kept his mind too preoccupied to allow it to drift away with any ease. Above him, unbeknownst to him, ice crept over the ceiling, and the thoughts that attended him marred its surface with aimless, crooked lines that kept changing direction abruptly as if twitching.
At some point, he gave up trying to sleep for the time being. No sooner had he sat back up and opened his eyes than Zereth entered his field of vision.
“You want to go next?” Zereth asked in a whisper.
Solonn cast a glance to the archway and saw that it was unoccupied. He found Ronal lying nearby, seemingly asleep, and realized that it was Zereth who was just finishing his shift. Solonn hadn’t noticed when Zereth had relieved Ronal of watch duties; he wondered if any others’ shifts had come and gone without him noticing.
Hoping that he’d be more attentive in the task that was being offered to him, Solonn nodded and rose, taking his position in the archway. He tried to stay focused on the presently unoccupied chamber in case anything unwelcome descended into it, but only mostly succeeded.
It did help somewhat that the possibility of someone finding them there had already had a stake in his mind. It also helped that every so often, as he gazed out into the as-yet undisturbed emptiness of the room before him, he thought he heard a scraping, rustling, or other noise that compelled him to investigate it. Every furtive look that he stole up the chasm showed him nothing, however, leaving him to chalk each of those sounds up to his mind playing tricks on him. Nonetheless, no matter how many times it happened, the first thing that crossed his mind whenever he heard something was the chance that it might mean that the party had company.
“Hey. Been on watch for very long?”
The utterance was only whispered, but it sent a jolt through Solonn almost as if it had been screeched right in his ear. He bit back a hiss and turned to identify the speaker—it was Zilag—then turned back to stare into the empty chamber once more.
“I don’t know,” Solonn admitted just as voicelessly. He heard Zilag set himself down beside him. “I don’t feel at all like sleeping, though. I think I can stay here a while longer. Go ahead and get some more sleep for now, if you want.”
“Hm. Don’t really feel much like sleeping right now myself, to be honest,” Zilag said. “Besides which… I don’t know. I guess I just kind of feel like you could use as much of a break as you can get after… well, you know. Especially considering what the folks back home decided to do to you and Oth and your dad afterward.”
Solonn turned a brief, surprised glance toward Zilag, but that surprise faded quickly as he realized when and how Zilag must have learned about the lahain’s decision to have him imprisoned. “Zdir and Oth told you about that, didn’t they?” he asked, at which Zilag nodded. “And you believe what they said, right?” Solonn asked, unable to help himself, hearkening back to the seemingly incomplete readiness to trust Oth that Zilag had shown back in his home.
Zilag sighed. “I’ll be honest with you: if your dad were anyone, anything else, I’d be a bit more skeptical. But I know how they feel about him, how… how deep it is, you know? Hell, I even felt a little bit of it myself the first time you took me to see him,” he admitted, looking away guiltily.
“Mm,” Solonn responded dismissively to that. “Don’t worry about that; I used to feel that, too. But anyway… since you do know what happened… what had to be done,” he said carefully, “you know they’ll surely want information at the very least, and they’re likely to see you as a good source. And if they don’t like your answers, they might…” He swallowed, suddenly especially concerned that his next words would make him sound paranoid, less credible. “They might just decide against taking chances and just put you out of commission, same as they did with me.”
“Yeah, she told me that, too. She says she doesn’t think they’re too likely to do that, but she wanted me to know that they might, said she couldn’t in good conscience let me go without me knowing what I’m possibly getting myself into.
“And I won’t lie: she had me pretty worried there for a moment, and there’s part of me that still is,” Zilag said. “But… well, I gave it thought; don’t think for a moment I didn’t. It’s been in and out of my head this whole time since, in fact. And what occurred to me is that yes, going back’s a risk, but so’s staying out here. Who’s to say that someone—maybe even the folks back home—won’t find us somewhere out here? If anything, honestly, it would probably look worse for me if I were found along with all of you than if I were approached alone.”
Solonn’s eyes widened slightly; that angle hadn’t occurred to him. “Gods, it might…” he agreed.
“And besides which…” Zilag went on, “besides which, Hledas and the kids are still back there. I know that Hledas at the very least is probably worrying herself sick about me, and Kavir might be starting to get worried by now, too. Even Ryneika might be starting to sense that things are off. I can’t let them go on worrying about me for much longer, Solonn. I just can’t.”
Solonn nodded in solemn understanding. His own thoughts drifted out toward Mordial, toward the steelix whom he was sure was fretting both for him and for Jen off in that distant region at that very moment, and he winced at the pang of guilt that those thoughts brought.
“Just… be careful, all right?” he said.
“You know I have no intentions of doing otherwise,” Zilag responded.
“Hm…” Solonn didn’t question that in the least, but he found it hard to be quite confident that Zilag’s caution would prove sufficient. What he really wanted was for Zilag not to have to be so careful at all, and the only way that such a thing seemed possible to him at the time was for Zilag and his family to be relocated.
"Maybe,” he said, “when Oth has recovered… if they recover,” he forced himself to add, much as he didn’t want to, “you and your family could be brought out of there. You could leave Virc-Dho for somewhere safer.”
Zilag’s eyes flickered a bit, and he nodded slightly. “Well… we’ll get all this sorted out when the time comes, all right? My family, yours, these kids here… we’ll get it all taken care of. In the meantime, go and try to get yourself some rest,” he suggested gently. “I’ll go ahead and take over for you.”
Solonn hesitated at first, but then nodded in acquiescence and returned to the chamber where the others slept, still doubting as he set himself back down among them that he would see any sleep that night.
When he rolled onto his back and his eyes met the ceiling once more, he saw what he had unknowingly done up there while he’d sat awake earlier. He looked at the patterns, results of his unconsciously reaching out to his mother element for solace, and decided, albeit still no more than half-wittingly, to seek his element once more in the hopes of being able to vanish into it as he’d done so many times before—no thoughts for a little while, no fears, just that connection. In doing so, he hoped, he might finally get a bit of rest.
A short time later, the room got just a little darker.
* * *
Solonn opened his eyes. It seemed that he’d been right about simply being unable to sleep for the time being. Sighing in resignation, he sat up yet again. Soon after, he took to casting his gaze in a different direction every so often, figuring that it couldn’t hurt to have an extra pair of eyes watching over the party.
He looked out toward the exit, and at the same time, the glalie hovering there looked back into the chamber where everyone else still lay sleeping. It was Zereth who was currently keeping watch, and this struck Solonn as odd in a detached way; hadn’t Zereth already done his shift? The peculiarity of the situation vanished from Solonn’s mind before it could truly light there, though, and the fact that Zereth didn’t seem to see him despite their gazes having met didn’t quite take root there, either.
The loud scraping noise that broke the silence in the next moment had no trouble at all seizing his attention, however, sending a spike of terror straight into his heart.
Much faster than he had ever made the descent or seen anyone else do so, an ice platform brought a group of strangers into the adjacent chamber. Zereth, still facing away from the shaft leading upward, seemed completely oblivious to their arrival—Solonn opened his mouth to alert him and the rest of the party but couldn’t get a single syllable out before the intruders poured through the archway, far greater in number than it seemed could have come down on a single platform, filling the space around them with their eyelight. As if he were vaporized, Zereth simply vanished among them as they rushed past him.
Solonn made to shout again, bringing up a protect aura to surround himself and calling upon a sheer cold strike against one of the attackers as he did so, but neither his voice nor either of the techniques that he’d attempted answered his summons. Feeling his heart rate easily triple, he tried charging at one of the invading glalie instead—only to find that he couldn’t move.
On the verge of panic, Solonn made attempt after attempt to rise and to lend himself to the defense of the party and children in whatever ways crossed his mind, but he couldn’t get himself to move an inch, nor could he command any of his abilities. The intruders seemed not to notice him struggling there at all, but before his eyes, he saw them begin to smash and tear into the rest of the party and the children. Cries of pain and fear rang out, and the air became heavy with blood mist, and all the while he remained unable to do anything against the attackers—
The horrible picture before Solonn’s eyes changed abruptly into an entirely different scene. Nonetheless, there was a delay before he truly recognized that there was no one there who shouldn’t be, that barring anything that might still be awry with Oth, everyone around him was all right.
Oh, thank the gods… he thought, taking a deep breath of blessedly clear, mist-free air in an attempt to calm nerves that still didn’t quite believe that the dream was over, feeling his pulse reluctantly slowing back down.
“Come on, move aside,” he heard Zdir say quietly. He turned and saw her gently shepherding the snorunt closer to the walls, clearing a space in the middle of the room into which she then brought another small snow pile into being.
<The rest of you should feed yourselves, as well,> Oth said, and the tone of their mindvoice told all too clearly that a night’s rest had not replenished their power as they had hoped. <We will be heading back out into the caverns above soon.>
Solonn held a dismayed gaze upon the claydol for a couple of moments. Though something inside him offered up a silent reminder that it had only been less than a day since Oth had found themself unable to teleport, that maybe it wouldn’t be much longer before they recovered from whatever was behind that problem, the possibility that they simply wouldn’t recover seemed to loom larger than ever. So did the possibility that he would never see Grosh or Jen again and that anyone who ran into trouble in the warren would be unreachable.
These thoughts brought it to his attention that he still didn’t know for certain if Narzen or anyone else who might decide to go back home was aware of the potential threat posed by the Virc authorities. There was, he recognized, a chance that Zdir might have told them back when she’d discussed their venturing into Shoal Cave with her in the first place; though he had been at least within partial earshot of each of those conversations, he’d had too much on his mind at the time to pay any real attention to what they were saying. At the very least, he reckoned, she might have had Oth run that matter by Narzen when the two of them had had their private discussion with him.
Still, he had to be sure. He approached Zdir, who turned a questioning gaze up at him at once.
“There’s something I need to know,” he said, whispering.
Zdir raised an eyebrow. “And that is…?”
“The others… do they know?” he asked. “About what was done to Father and to Oth and me, I mean. About what certain people might want from them, considering who they associate with.”
“Of course they do,” Zdir assured him. “All of them, including your friend. I made certain.”
A small wave of relief washed over Solonn at this. “Thank you,” he said.
“You’re welcome. Now go on, get yourself fed so that we can move out soon.”
Solonn did as he was advised, and he once again found himself having to rush a bit to finish when everyone else was ready to go. Soon, Zdir and Ronal were riding an ice platform back up toward the surface, and it wasn’t long before everyone else had come up out of those chambers, as well. With that, the party set off, leaving Grosh’s home behind.
Apart from a pair of zubat who immediately turned tail and fled at the sight of them as they drew near, they encountered no other living souls as they closed more and more of the remaining distance to Virc-Dho. In passing once again through the place that had once belonged to spheal and the evolved forms thereof, they found it empty save for the occasional scattered shell of some unknown marine creature, just as it had been the last time that they’d been in the area.
Solonn found himself considering that perhaps those walrein and sealeo whom they’d run into the day before had come from here. He wondered, though, if such creatures really could have moved so far since the last time that he’d been here prior to following Zdir through this place, which hadn’t been terribly long before then—from what he’d seen of them, they were rather ungainly. Meant more for the water than for the land, his mother had said of them once.
Then it occurred to him that the walrein and the rest of their people might well have already departed the area sometime before he’d led Oth along this route to visit Grosh—as he thought about it, he didn’t recall having given terribly much mind to his surroundings at the time, knowing the path by heart and being fairly preoccupied with the conversations that he’d had with the claydol en route.
Solonn hoped that the former inhabitants of this place had indeed just relocated of their own accord, by their own power. The possibility, however remote, that they might have been whisked away by some unknown teleporter in league with the Sinaji still brought a shudder whenever he thought of it.
There eventually came a point at which he could see that the path up ahead was crossed by another, a landmark that Solonn recognized as a sign that they were very nearly at their destination. But before they could reach that intersection, <Raise your shields and retreat at once!> Oth called out suddenly, a command that Solonn didn’t hesitate in the slightest to obey—he’d seen what provoked it himself. There had been glalie passing by through the tunnel that crossed the one that the party was currently using, heading for Virc-Dho. The split in the path had been just far up ahead enough that there was some hope that the party hadn’t been spotted; nonetheless, they moved more than half again as far away from it as swiftly as they could manage before Oth indicated that they could stop.
Some of the blue eyes that surrounded the claydol cast questioning gazes at them or at Zdir, while others warily eyed the intersection from which they’d all just fled. <Zdir recognized those glalie as members of the Security Guild,> Oth said to the glalie alone. To everyone present, they said, <There were some people up ahead, and we could not tell for certain whether they were friend or foe. Since they are heading toward Virc-Dho, we will wait here for a brief while before proceeding, long enough to put some more space between them and us in order to hopefully avoid any more close calls with them.>
Solonn continued to stare at the intersection ahead, more than half-expecting the guild members or someone whom he had equally little desire to run into to appear there at any moment, but minutes passed with no such thing happening. Eventually, Oth indicated to the rest of the party that Zdir felt that it was safe to continue.
When they reached the mouth of the narrow, curving passageway that led into the border cavern, however, the sound of voices from the cavern beyond became audible, telling them that moving ahead now would once again put them at risk of being noticed by the wrong people.
Solonn expected another command to turn back to be issued via Oth, but no such instructions came. Sending a part of his mind to the source of his protect ability, he turned toward Zdir and found her with that familiar look of deep thought on her face. He frowned, hoping to all gods that she would decide what the party was going to do next quickly, all too aware that the owners of the voices that they were hearing could choose to head back their way at any moment.
He caught movement out of the corner of his eye then, but it was only Zilag nodding at something. Solonn was certain at once that Zdir had just had Oth tell Zilag something and immediately began wondering just what it had been.
<Zdir is going to try and listen in on the conversation in the border cavern from out of sight in order to try to identify the nature of the speakers,> the claydol announced; once again, they spoke only to the glalie. <If she is able to determine that there are Security Guild members among them and no Sinaji, she will send the children ahead on their own into the border cavern and the guild’s custody. Narzen will stay with us, and I will be establishing a link with Zilag instead. We will allow a little time to pass between sending the children into the border cavern and sending Zilag into the warren—hopefully this will reduce the likelihood of anyone believing that he had anything to do with them.>
Solonn stared at Oth for a second, surprised at the change of plans. His eyes then darted to Narzen and then Zilag, finding the former looking not nearly as disappointed as he’d expected given how keen Narzen had seemed on the previous plan to establish the psychic link with him instead. Apparently, however much that idea had appealed to Narzen, the idea of staying out with the fugitives appealed to him even more. Zilag looked less at ease, but the fact that he had consented to the link at all gave Solonn the impression that he was surely either entirely over any mistrust that he might have held for the claydol or else damned near entirely over such, at which Solonn managed to send a small, approving smile his way.
Zdir went into the curving tunnel then, and several moments that felt like several minutes to Solonn passed with her remaining there. Come on, hurry before someone finds us here… he urged her silently, shooting a quick glance back toward the other entrance to the cavern that they presently occupied, still fully aware that the glalie conversing in the border cavern weren’t the only ones about whom the party had to worry.
Zdir returned in short order, looking fairly relieved. Soon thereafter, Oth set the children back on their feet, and the fuchsia aura that had surrounded them vanished. <The voices coming from up ahead belong to Security Guild members,> Oth said, their mindvoice sounding just as relieved as Zdir had sounded, and the way that the snorunt all looked up at Oth when they spoke told that they had not excluded the children this time.
The claydol lowered their head slightly toward the snorunt. <What all of you—> Their free hand drifted away from the rest of their body and drew an invisible circle encompassing the children alone. <—need to do now is to go to them. We will remain outside and make sure that no one who poses any danger to you can come in. Now go,> they instructed the snorunt with a waving motion of their still-detached hand. <Hurry, while they are still in there.>
A couple of the small, gray faces that had been staring up at Oth held looks of uncertainty upon the claydol for a moment, but soon their owners were rushing to catch up with the rest of the snorunt, who were now running into the passageway toward the border cavern. In nearly the instant that the last of them disappeared around the bend, <Get back out of here as fast as you can manage,> Oth instructed the rest of the party. They were rushing forward in the direction opposite to the one that the snorunt had taken even as they spoke, and all of the glalie followed suit immediately at the claydol’s command.
They put a fair amount of distance between themselves and where they had parted ways from the snorunt, stopping at Oth’s signal at the point where the path first branched. There, they positioned themselves just within one of the tunnels leading out from the fork, simultaneously watching over the chamber that was the furthest point from Virc-Dho through which all people going there must pass and the tunnel behind them. They waited there for a time, giving the guild members within the border cavern a chance to deal with what had just run into their midst.
Solonn gazed out over the heads of those who were in front of him in the general direction from whence the party had come. He hoped as he stared into the presently empty chamber that the children had indeed gotten safely into the figurative hands of the Security Guild and were now being reunited with their families, or at least that they would be reunited with them soon.
Then it finally, truly hit him that some of them might not have families to return to any longer, and he turned away involuntarily as another wave of heartsickness rolled over him.
Eventually, <It should be all right to proceed now. Zilag, are you ready?> Oth asked, at which Zilag nodded from just inside the entrance to the cavern just in front of them. There was a flash of light in the claydol’s eyes that signified their connection with Zdir being broken, followed almost immediately by another that signified a new link being forged with Zilag. <It is done,> Oth told Zilag. <We are now connected.>
Telling him this seemed somewhat unnecessary to Zilag; he was sure that he had sensed, in some way, something entering his perception but staying just out of reach. It was rather like a memory that he couldn’t quite recall, he thought, but with one difference: he could tell that it was most definitely not of his own mind.
Trying not to let that foreignness distract him too much, he instead opted to test the connection. <Can you hear this?> he asked.
<Technically no, but I am receiving your message.>
Zilag couldn’t help but nearly laugh, wondering if Oth had actually intended any joke there. <Guess it’s time for me to head out, then, huh?> he asked.
<Yes,> Oth responded.
<Okay,> Zilag acknowledged, but didn’t depart right away. He held the rest of the party in his gaze for a few moments more, seeing varying degrees of concern and unspoken well-wishes in the faces there, with the eyelight particularly unsteady and the brows drawn tightly together on the largest face among them. <Tell them goodbye for me,> Zilag said. <And tell them not to worry too much about me; I’ll take care of myself. You all just concentrate on taking care of yourselves, okay?>
Oth relayed the message, drawing acknowledging nods from the other party members. Satisfied as he could be that he was ready to part ways with them, Zilag then turned away and began making his way back toward the warren alone.
<There may well still be Security Guild members in the border cavern when you arrive there,> Oth told him as he traveled, <even if the ones whom we saw going in earlier have gone further on inside since the children joined them. Zdir believes that there may now be guards posted at the entrance and that they were the ones who were speaking with the guild members whom we saw.>
Zilag absorbed this with very little surprise; he had been steeling himself as best as he could to have to deal with Security Guild members ever since Zdir had spoken to him of the interest that they might have in him. <So I should probably just expect that there will be, then. But I shouldn’t act like I expected to find them there if there are.>
<Correct,> Oth responded.
<Okay, then… They’re probably gonna want to know what I’ve been up to out here, right?>
<Most assuredly. You are advised to tell them that you had gone out hunting.>
<Yeah, that’s what I’d planned to do,> Zilag said. He’d been rehearsing the lie in his head from time to time since the evening prior. He just hoped to all gods that if anyone had been questioning Hledas in his absence, she hadn’t told them anything that would clash with his story. <I’m gonna tell them I couldn’t find anything, though. I just don’t trust my stomach to keep quiet enough for them to believe me otherwise. Gods, I can’t wait to get some real food again…>
It wasn’t long before Zilag found himself approaching the barrier at the entrance; <All right, I’m here,> he sent back to Oth. It appeared that there were indeed guards posted there; three glalie hovered before the barrier, and while none of them made a move to intercept him, their eyes followed him keenly as he drew nearer.
Hoping that he looked sufficiently surprised to see them there, “Uh… what’s going on?” he asked of them as he came to a stop a couple of feet in front of them, wearing a perplexed frown.
None of the guards answered the question, at least not right away. “How long have you been out?” one of them asked, though not harshly. “And what have you been doing?”
Zilag had expected to be hit with questions upon his arrival, though the fact that he’d managed to get a question in first did surprise him somewhat. “Too long,” he answered, half-sighing. “I was out hunting… or rather trying to. Went out late the night before last and found not a damned thing since. Had to sleep out there and everything.”
There was a moment of silence and a very brief look exchanged amongst the guards. “You’re lucky to have woken up,” another of the guards said seriously. “The steel creature and the psychic escaped while you were gone.”
Zilag’s eyes widened dramatically. “What? Oh gods, my family…” he said at once. “Are they all right? I need to get in there—”
He’d made a move toward the barrier as he’d spoken, trying to vaporize it as he did so, but the barrier remained fully intact, and the guards moved in unison to block him. “Your family is fine, I assure you,” the second guard said. “There have been no further attacks since the prisoners escaped.”
Zilag didn’t have to fabricate the relief that showed through his features at this. “Oh, thank the gods…” he murmured.
“Now, I’m sorry you weren’t successful in your hunt,” the first guard spoke up then, “but we’re going to have to ask that you not go out and try again on your own, at least not anytime soon, all right? It’s not safe for just anyone to travel alone right now. You’ll need to go with the next hunting party.”
“Okay,” Zilag said, nodding, “okay.” He looked questioningly at the barrier, hoping that he would be let in soon. He wasn’t altogether certain that the guards were buying his story, and every moment he spent with them made him ever so slightly less comfortable around them. He was somewhat grateful for his unease, though, and didn’t make any real effort to hide it at this point, hoping that any nervousness that was showing could be interpreted as an appropriate reaction to having just learned about the escape.
The barrier vanished, but before he could enter the warren, “I’m going to be going home with you, all right?” the first guard said. “Like I said, it’s not safe for just anyone to travel alone right now.”
Zilag nodded in acceptance, unsurprised and figuring that he had no real choice in the matter anyway, especially given that the guard seemed to have decided on his destination for him. He only hoped that by “going home with you”, the guard simply meant that he would be escorting Zilag back to his family’s place of residence and not staying with them for any length of time.
Zilag entered Virc-Dho, his escort following, the barrier immediately reforming behind them once they were past it. <I’m being escorted home,> he told Oth. <Looks like Zdir was right about them not wanting to leave me entirely alone. They haven’t acted blatantly suspicious of me yet, though—not that I imagine they would, of course. They’re just claiming concern for me, what with the escape and everything.>
<There does remain a chance that they genuinely do not suspect you,> Oth responded. <Still, remain cautious. Continue to do as you have been advised and you may yet avoid trouble.>
Zilag heard the guard behind him draw a rather deep breath and felt something inside him tense as if anticipating a strike, but the guard only spoke. “I’m afraid I have something to tell you that you’re not going to like hearing,” he said.
Zilag stopped, careful not to turn to face his escort too quickly, and fixed him with a troubled look. “Oh?”
The guard sighed. “You’re friends with a Mr. Solonn Zgil-Al, right?”
There was no use in denying it; as Zilag had been told, the authorities certainly knew who associated with those whom they didn’t trust, and the fact that the guard had asked such a question seemed to confirm it in Zilag’s mind. He nodded.
“Have you seen him recently?” the guard asked.
“Well, I saw him at the service,” Zilag said quietly, “but I haven’t seen him since then, no. Why do you ask? What’s going on?”
“Well, we think that he might have been the one who freed the steel creature and the psychic. Now, I know you might not want to believe that, but there’s something you need to consider: if it was him, odds are he wasn’t doing it of his own accord. We think he’s under some kind of psychic control.”
Zilag cast his gaze to the icy floor, his brow furrowed, trying to look deep in thought. “This… this wouldn’t be the first time he’s run into trouble with something psychic,” he said, slipping a hint of dawning epiphany into his tone.
“No, it wouldn’t,” the guard said. “We do have reason to believe that the same thing that took him way back when is responsible for what’s going on now. They’ve even returned the children they stole, just like they brought him back.”
Zilag’s gaze shot back up to meet the guard’s, the light in his eyes brightening. “Really?”
“Just earlier today,” the guard confirmed.
“Oh, that’s good to hear…” Zilag said with a sigh of relief. He then turned back around and resumed his drifting. “At least something’s gone right lately…”
“Well, we don’t intend to let anything else go wrong if we can help it.” The guard’s tone suggested that he was trying to be lighthearted in his response, but there was also something vaguely affronted-sounding in his voice, which sent a little wisp of worry through Zilag; had he said something that he shouldn’t have? “Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that Solonn’s whereabouts are currently unknown and that if you see him… be careful, all right? He’s probably not himself, and he might attack you. If you see him, you should probably strike at him and call out for help right away. If it turns out he’s not being controlled after all, I’m sure he’ll forgive you if he really is any kind of friend.”
“…Okay,” Zilag said.
Soon after, the two arrived at the Zir-Arda residence. “So this is it, huh?” the guard asked.
“Yeah,” Zilag answered.
“Okay, then. Stay safe, all right?” With those words, the guard backed away a short distance, but he kept his eyes on Zilag.
Figuring that the guard wouldn’t leave until he went on in—if indeed he did intend to leave anytime soon—Zilag opened the entryway and passed through it, sealing it shut at once. Inside, he found Hledas holding a gaze that was both troubled and questioning upon him, while Ryneika chased a somewhat irritated-looking Kavir around the main room. The young child broke off her pursuit almost immediately, however, having noticed her father’s arrival, and she ran up to him with a squeal of joy. Kavir sent Zilag a smile, grateful to have been rescued from her sister’s pestering.
“We need to talk,” Hledas said almost inaudibly.
Zilag shot a look back at the entrance. He saw no light beyond it to indicate a glalie lingering immediately outside, but he figured that the guard would know better than to be so obvious anyway. Not knowing for certain if his escort was still within hearing range of anything said in the main chamber, as well as not exactly wanting his children to be privy to the conversation, either, he merely gave a quick nod and made for the couple’s sleeping chamber. Ryneika tried to follow him in; “No, no. Play with your sister,” Zilag told her, earning a groan from Kavir.
Once both Zilag and Hledas were in the sleeping chamber, the latter moved to hover directly at the former’s side. “Did you succeed?” she asked right into his ear, still using the faintest whisper she could manage while remaining audible.
“Yes,” Zilag said, keeping his voice equally low. While it was true that Jen was still brainwashed in Convergence, Zilag was still confident enough that the snorunt’s mind would be restored to normalcy and that the rest of the party would ultimately be able to go back and retrieve him. As such, he considered the rescue mission a success.
“Thank the gods,” Hledas said as she moved to face Zilag once more, “both for that and for your return, as well.” She sat down. “The authorities came in while you were away,” she then said. “They asked questions, Zilag. They asked where you were and if either of us had seen Solonn lately.”
Zilag swallowed, turning to look her in the eye. “Well… what did you tell them?”
“That you were just out hunting and that the last we saw of Solonn was at the service.”
The light in Zilag’s eyes brightened, and he had to bite back a miniature peal of laughter that threatened to break forth at the relief he felt. Grinning, he moved forward to press his forehead against Hledas’s. “Oh, thank the gods you said that…” he breathed happily.
“Well, what did you think I would have said?” Hledas responded as Zilag drifted back once more. “I already could have lost you as it was. Do you really think I’d have done anything that could have even remotely run the risk of getting you thrown in a cell if you did make it back?” she asked, looking somewhat hurt.
Zilag’s smile faded a bit. “No… no, of course I don’t.” He drew close to her again, his eyes closing, letting his forehead rest against hers once more. “Thanks for taking care of things. I appreciate it,” he said sincerely.
To Oth, he then said, <I’m back home. That guard who was following me may or may not be hanging around outside, but at least he’s not in here with us. I think he might actually trust me—don’t worry, though; I don’t intend to get careless. And Hledas did get questioned, but her story matches up with mine—and… well, I’m not gonna get careless with her, either. I’ve decided not to tell her about our little connection here.> It had occurred to him prior to being linked with Oth that Hledas might become mistrustful of him or inclined to go to the authorities with his well-being in mind if she found out that he’d come home with a psychic link that he hadn’t had before.
<That seems like a prudent course of action,> Oth said. <From what I heard of the conversation that you two held with Solonn, she seemed… somewhat more inclined toward believing that I was at all responsible for the recent tragedies.>
<Yeah…> Zilag said, with a touch of vicarious guilt in his mindvoice and a further shrinking of his smile, though he also found himself possessed of something of an urge to defend Hledas in that moment. <But again, she’s already saved my hide once, so…>
-She most assuredly has,> Oth concurred. <It seems as though you really can take care of yourselves.>
A sense of pride washed over Zilag, and his smile widened once more. <It does, doesn’t it?> he said. Now that there seemed to be at least a bit more hope than before that he and his family would be able to carry on without any real harassment to speak of from the authorities, he felt a fair bit more confident in such claims.
* * *
<The Security Guild appears to have shifted its focus from maintaining the silence of the witnesses to keeping an eye out for potential threats,> Oth said to the small crowd of glalie gathered before them within the deep chambers that were Grosh’s home. After taking some time to hunt and feed, the party had decided upon this location as the place where they would take refuge, at least for the time being, and they had been there for roughly half a day by this point. <Zilag and Hledas, as well as friends of the latter, have seen known witnesses to the attack going unescorted and have seen known guild members patrolling the warren, and I am told that guards are indeed now posted at the entrance at all times.>
“I’d figured as much,” Zdir said in the hushed tones that had become the norm for the group, nodding. “At least as far as the shifted focus is concerned, anyway. Now that his prisoners have escaped and Hagen’s been forced to let the people find out as much—to let them recognize that they need to be on the lookout for trouble from other glalie, even if they are being led to believe that said glalie are merely illusions concealing something else—he’s undoubtedly well beyond the point of feeling like he needs to keep people believing that they’re not in any danger.”
“But Zilag and his family still don’t know for certain whether or not they’re being watched, do they?” Solonn asked.
<I am afraid not,> Oth answered. <Zilag wishes to assure you that both he and Hledas continue to do their best to keep the possibility of the guild monitoring them in mind at all times, however.>
“Hm…” was Solonn’s only reply to that, sounding somewhat less than fully assured. He hadn’t really expected for either of them to be careless in dealing with the guild, but the notion of them possibly being watched like that still kept a degree of gnawing worry and a vicarious sense of indignation attending him.
<He also has mentioned that there are rumors of the Security Guild intending to increase its numbers,> Oth then said. <There has been no official word from the guild on the subject, however. It may only be wishful thinking on the part of the public.>
“Hopefully that rumor will prove to be true. I’ll admit right now that I don’t exactly have the utmost faith in the guild’s current ability to defend the warren. At the very least, a small pack of guards at the entrance isn’t going to keep the Sinaji out if they show up in even only a third of the numbers I suspect them to have,” Zdir said grimly.
“Sounds like they’d do best to just do away with the Security Guild,” Narzen mused aloud, which earned him a couple of bemused and alarmed looks. “What I mean is, they should probably just train everybody to fight like they do,” he clarified. “Just make everyone one of them, basically. From the way you’re talking,” he said with a glance at Zdir, “it sounds like they’re gonna need damned near the entire warren to stand a chance against the Sinaji.”
“I don’t imagine that that’s literally the case,” Zdir said, “but I do agree that making sure that as many people as possible are capable of defending themselves is something that should happen, yes. And that, incidentally, includes all of us, especially since we still have more than just the Sinaji to be concerned about as long as we remain here.”
“Which is unfortunate,” Ronal said. “I for one would like to have the guild on our side, especially with their numbers bolstered. I would prefer to take the fight to the Sinaji rather than let them make another move against the warren.”
“Under those circumstances, that might indeed have become an option,” Zdir said. “As it is, though, we are still fugitives and accomplices thereof in the guild’s eyes. We may be able to seek out allies once we can be teleported from this place—then, perhaps, we can deal with the Sinaji. For now, however, I don’t imagine that most of us are truly ready to face more than a stray exile or a guild member or two. You all need to be made ready. You need to be trained to fight for your lives. We need to make damned certain that we’re all truly prepared to face whatever lies ahead of us.”
Next time: You’ll see. :3 See you then!
- Sike Saner
Last edited by Sike Saner; 11th December 2013 at 12:31 AM.
8th October 2012, 05:07 PM #18
Re: Communication [Chapter Sixteen Now Posted]
Chapter 17 – Safe
Pale eyes turned his way, and Solonn thought he detected a hint of weariness about them as though their owner were dealing with a tiresome child.
“Zdir… what if they hadn’t been Sinaji?”
No response, or at least none spoken. Her expression became harder to read.
“What then?” Solonn’s voice lowered of its own accord. “What would we have done?”
A pause. Then, “They could have joined with us if Oth had found them to be inclined and able to do so. If not…”
The lines of Solonn’s face sharpened, his eyes narrowing. Something turned to lead inside of him.
“If not,” she resumed, but then sighed. “I think you already know the answer, whatever you feel about it—and for what it’s worth, no, Solonn, I don’t like it, either. I would hope that any Virc who might find their way to us in future would prove to be no liability to us, but if not…”
She let it hang. Maybe it was that she couldn’t seem to bring herself to speak of it that stopped him from going off on her any further; maybe it made it easier for him to believe that she really did hate it as much as he did, or at least close enough to suit him.
He turned away, closing his eyes against the orange glow of the beams that were working to vaporize the lifeless intruders in the adjacent chamber, wishing that he could block out the accompanying sound and taste on the air likewise.
* * *
The days were starting to shorten again. The forest behind was beginning to change its colors, and the river far below was hosting a different set of creatures than before.
To the large, silver figure loosely coiled on the cliff, all of these changes to his surroundings served as reminders of one constant that had persisted all the while that he’d been here in southern Mordial: throughout every day since, he had waited for the burst of golden light that would bring news of what had become of his family. That light still hadn’t come.
Grosh had feared for Solonn and Jen from the start, but he’d tried to maintain some measure of faith, some hope that the rescue effort had a chance in hell despite Zdir’s projection that their enemies outnumbered the search party several to one. He’d known that they would largely be operating blind, scouring a network of tunnels that Grosh knew from personal experience to be vast and sometimes confusing, and that as such it could take quite a while for the party to return even if things worked out all right in the end.
But even given that, Grosh hadn’t expected for quite this much time to pass without seeing any of them again. And he had by no means forgotten what he’d seen back in the Virc temple. Things could all too easily have gone horribly wrong, and he had no way of knowing for sure if they had.
He hated not knowing. He hated being kept across the sea while God only knew what was happening to the last surviving people in the world who meant anything to him. Grosh had never stopped wishing that there’d been no reason why he couldn’t have gone with them. But he had, with no small degree of effort and despite recurring internal questions as to whether or not he was really making the best choice, nonetheless stayed more or less in the same area where they’d left him, not wanting to give them a scare with his absence should they return.
But his last drops of belief that they still could were starting to dry up. His waking thoughts were now very nearly as certain that something terrible had befallen them as his dreams had been ever since he had been brought to Mordial. His restlessness had grown as his faith had waned, and so had his hatred of the ones who had murdered Azvida and stolen one of her sons.
That they could have taken the life of the other—and by this time, Grosh couldn’t help but suspect to the point of near-assumption, they surely had—sickened him to his core. The notion that Azvida’s dying wish for her children to stay safe could have been shot down tormented him, and there came a point at which he just couldn’t wait around with that torment any longer. He had to act. Maybe it was too late to bring Solonn and Jen back to safety, but perhaps, somehow, he could make the ones responsible for that answer for what they had done.
He knew, though, despite the fact that his agitation was rising by the minute and threatening to fill his mind with haze, that he couldn’t do it alone. He couldn’t even reach Virc-Dho without aid, let alone attempt any sort of assault against what might very well amount to a miniature nation of glalie and snorunt.
Rising, he turned his back on the river and entered the forest, silently and occasionally not-so-silently cursing the noise he made as he twisted and crawled among the trees. He could hear the sounds of local pokémon fleeing as he made his highly conspicuous way through their territory, no more keen on interacting with the massive metal serpent than they’d been when he’d simply been hanging around the outskirts of the forest. Just stopping someone long enough to hear him out about his need for transportation and for support in mounting an offense against his enemies was going to be a challenge.
After some time, and with no real luck on his part in flagging down anyone who might be able to help him thus far, the forest thinned before him. Not far ahead, a dilapidated highway stretched across his path. He drew closer to it, sweeping a glance from left to right over its cracked, faded surface and the weeds sprouting up through its fissures. Where the road led, Grosh couldn’t exactly tell; it extended all the way to the horizon in both directions with no clear destinations in sight.
Before he had any real chance to decide whether or not he wanted to try following the road, a piqued instinct took hold of his attention. An elemental telltale was setting off a familiar warning that fanned out across his nerves in an instant, and it was accompanied by a light rumbling in the ground whose source was several yards off in front of him and approaching rather quickly.
Someone was coming, someone who might be of some use to his cause… or who might already be aware of his presence, unhappy about it, and intending to try and drive him off the hard way. Grosh moved a short distance backward from the disturbance, his eyes trained on it and following it as it moved despite being unable to actually see its cause at the moment, the end of his tail held up off the ground and shining even brighter than usual as he held an iron tail attack at the ready.
Once they were just a couple of feet away from him, whoever was approaching from underground decided to make a proper entrance. There was an upward eruption of soil, following which three fuzzy, brown heads popped out into the open air, blinking and twitching their noses under the sunlight. Almost immediately afterward, a section of the street behind the newly surfaced creature burst apart, scattering chunks of asphalt as a pokémon identical to the one who’d just appeared emerged.
“Oh, so that’s what that was!” said the second of the dugtrio.
“Certainly wasn’t what I was expecting,” said the first.
“Or, well, not the silveriness, at least. That I wasn’t expecting. But I knew he’d be big.”
“Oh, same here, same here.”
“But he’s not big; he’s huge!”
“Could probably snap one of us up in two bites, I’ll bet.”
“In one bite, even!”
Grosh had no such intentions—he had even decided against bringing the iron tail he’d readied to bear against them, letting the steel-type energy dissipate—but as the two rattled on, he did find himself tempted to speak a bit less kindly to them than he might have otherwise, his spiked segments twisting in impatience and a touch of lingering unease at the presence of the two ground-types.
He held down the outburst trying to shove its way out of his mouth, however, not wanting to scare away the only creatures he’d encountered in the area thus far who seemed at all willing to share his company. Instead, he merely cleared his throat to try and get the two dugtrio’s attention, though that still resulted in a deep, grating rumble that could easily be misinterpreted as a growl.
Thankfully, the noise didn’t appear to register as anything threatening to the dugtrio; all twelve of their eyes locked onto his in unison, and neither of the dugtrio looked terribly worried despite having discussed the possibility of being eaten by the steelix mere moments ago.
“Hm?” the first of them said, cocking one of her heads. “Something you’re wanting from us?”
Grosh opened his mouth, but then: “Now come on, surely he can tell we don’t have anything on us,” the other dugtrio countered, his rightmost head turning to face the first dugtrio as he spoke, his other two faces still turned up toward Grosh. “Have you ever tried digging and carrying things at the same time? It’s not easy! I’ll bet Silvery here understands what I’m talking about; just look at him. Looks like a burrower himself, doesn’t he? Like a great big worm, don’t y—”
“My family and I need help,” Grosh cut in, his voice easily overpowering those of the dugtrio, who quickly fell silent at his interruption. “I’m wondering if you know of anyone who can get me to where our enemies are and help me fight them.” He didn’t imagine that they would be of much help themselves—however swift they were, he had his doubts that they could last long against a horde of well-trained ice-types and was prepared to dissuade them if they expressed interest in joining the fight themselves.
“Oh. You’ll want Valdrey, then,” the second dugtrio said.
“Oh yes, she’d be absolutely elated to help you out. Poor dear’s probably not seen a really good fight in years,” said the first dugtrio. “And she’s got friends all over; perhaps some of them’d be willing to pitch in, too.”
Grosh’s eyes widened and his head rose a bit further, but he made an effort to stop himself from getting too optimistic too soon. The dugtrio’s response seemed fairly promising, but there was no way of knowing just yet whether nor not this Valdrey person would really be as enthusiastic about joining his cause as the dugtrio had claimed she would be. There also wasn’t any way to know if she would have enough interested friends—if indeed the dugtrio were right about whoever they were referring to even being Valdrey’s friends—to stand any sort of chance against the exiles. His search for aid wasn’t guaranteed to end with this lead.
“Where is she?” he asked of them before they could get into another conversation amongst one another.
Both of the dugtrio jerked one or more of their heads back and to their right, toward the old highway. “That way,” they said in near unison.
“Just follow that path to Wisteria,” said the first dugtrio. “You’ll know it when you see it; humans used to live there.”
“Oh, now don’t assume Silvery knows what humans were,” said the second. “Doesn’t seem to be from around here; who knows what he has and hasn’t seen.”
“No, I’m perfectly well aware of what humans were,” Grosh assured them. “Thank you both kindly for your help,” he added, then made his way around and past the two dugtrio and set off down the road.
“Don’t mention it!” the first of them called out to the departing steelix.
In time, stone walls began cropping up to either side as Grosh continued to make his way toward Wisteria. They soon rose high, higher than his line of sight; along with the way the road was now curving, this prevented him from being able to see where the path he had chosen was actually taking him.
Grosh hoped that the dugtrio hadn’t in fact sent him off in some useless direction—or worse, had pointed him toward trouble. It was only now, with the faint glimmer of hope that the dugtrio had put in front of him taking just enough of the edge off to clear some of the haze from his mind, that it occurred to him that the two ground-types might have been feigning their lack of mistrust for him in order to guide him into a trap.
He started to berate himself silently for trusting them so readily when no one else in Mordial had seemed friendly toward him prior to that point, but caught himself short. Come on now, don’t beat yourself up over it too much, he tried to placate himself. This might still work out. And you had to give it a try. You know you did.
The steelix carried on in the direction he’d been shown, trying to focus on the name of the person to whom he was being sent in case he needed to ask someone else for an audience with her. Eventually the stone walls shrunk back into the ground, and a cluster of buildings came into view soon after.
It was then that Grosh realized that he’d left the dugtrio’s company before giving either of them a chance to perhaps tell him just where in Wisteria Valdrey was to be found.
Grumbling in annoyance at himself, Grosh slithered along the downward slope that the road took toward the city below. Now he had more asking around to do—he could only hope that it would go better than it had back in the forest.
Inauspiciously, the first few pokémon that caught his eye darted away as soon as they were sure his attention had fallen upon them, while others, remaining unseen altogether, could be heard scuttling away from him, evading him among largely empty and decrepit shops and houses and down slowly darkening alleyways whenever he tried to follow those sounds.
At some point, he faintly heard what sounded like a whole crowd of people gathered and chatting somewhere neither too near nor too far. Before very much longer, he pinpointed the source of the noise: there was a large, circular building up ahead, and as he got closer to it he could see a faded sign with a symbol on it that he recognized from his time as a trainer’s pokémon as a symbol of the IPL. He was looking at an old gym, he reckoned.
Grosh figured that if there really were as many people hanging around in there as it sounded like there were, then at least someone among them might hear what he had to say before they could get a chance to flee the building.
Granted, they were sure to know that he was headed their way before he got there, but he still hoped that being all cooped up in a large building as they were would impede their escape long enough for him to get a chance to make someone among them hear him out.
As he continued to approach the gym, trying not to move too fast in an effort to at least minimize the noise he made as he dragged himself along, he saw a sawsbuck emerge from it, using his red-leaf-covered antlers to push his way out through the large double doors warding the building’s arched entrance. The moment that the sawsbuck raised his head once more, his eyes met Grosh’s across the remaining distance between them, and he immediately turned tail and went right back in through those doors.
“Damn it!” Grosh spat, not quite under his breath. He was sure that now they’d have even more of a warning and more motivation to get the hell out of there, what with their apparent lookout letting them know exactly what was coming for them.
Nonetheless, he decided not to give up on asking about Valdrey at the gym. It could still work, he tried to will himself to believe as he kept on moving toward it. Hell, maybe this Valdrey’s in there herself. She doesn’t sound like the type who’ll run—not if those two were right about her, anyway…
Just as Grosh was about to reach the doors, they opened again. This time, three pokémon stepped out into the parking lot. There was the sawsbuck from earlier, accompanied by a rapidash and a golden-armored centaur pokémon that Grosh didn’t recognize: an aurrade.
Both the rapidash and the aurrade awoke little threads of elemental unease in Grosh, and the look on the former’s face suggested that the feeling was mutual between him and the steelix. The aurrade’s expression was a little harder to read; there were hinged plates of her armor covering most of her face, leaving only her eyes visible.
“Hi,” she spoke up crisply, her voice resonating a bit oddly from within her armor. She clasped her hands in front of her waist. “Care to share what brings you to these parts?”
There was a faint sense of relief at the fact that these three seemed sufficiently uninterested in running from him, but Grosh maintained a degree of wariness; they also seemed like they might be well-trained, much moreso than the dugtrio had, and he wasn’t so sure that he could take them all on if they decided that they didn’t like what he had to say for whatever reason.
“I’m looking for someone named Valdrey,” he responded.
“Well, mission accomplished,” the aurrade said; Grosh saw the dark gray skin around her eyes crinkle in a way that made him wonder if she were smiling behind those faceplates. “Any particular reason you were looking for me?”
“I need help,” Grosh said. “Me and my son, and his brother, and their whole nation. They’ve got enemies, horrible ones. They…” He suddenly felt like a stone was lodged in his throat. “They took the love of my life from me,” he said, his gaze lowered. “They’ve taken many lives. And I don’t doubt for a second that they’ll take more.”
Valdrey cocked her head slightly. She cast a quick glance to each of the pokémon at her sides; both of them looked somewhat less apprehensive toward the situation than they had before, but neither’s expression had quite softened completely.
“Sounds like they need to be taught a lesson,” she said as she looked up at Grosh once more and folded her arms across her chest. Her tone was notably softer, more sober than before.
“Yes,” Grosh said, nodding. “But I can’t do it alone. I can’t even get back to where they are on my own—there’s an ocean and God knows how much distance in the way. Please… if there’s anything you or anyone you know can do to help…”
Valdrey stepped forward, then made her way around the sawsbuck to the doors and pushed one of them open. “Come on in,” she said. “Let’s see what we can come up with for you.”
* * *
A solid body was smashed against a stone wall. One of its horns snapped clean off, falling to the floor and rolling a short distance away. Ice cracked audibly, bits of it flying everywhere.
With the impact still ringing faintly in Solonn’s bones, he withdrew his horn from the side of his attacker’s head. He pulled back, panting, staring down at the broken form before him.
In the next moment, his victim dissipated into thin air.
“Well done,” Zdir said from nearby. “And that goes for you, too, as always.”
The other one to whom she was speaking was Oth. The claydol had been puppeteering the “glalie” against whom, or rather which, Solonn had been training, just as they had been doing for him and the other fugitives in the months since Oth had volunteered the idea.
The ice dummies were conceived to reduce the amount of injury and thus need for recovery experienced by the fugitives during their training, though they did still continue to include some sparring against one another for the purposes of increasing their elemental power.
Though the glalie could manipulate the dummies themselves, Oth’s telekinesis was significantly stronger and ultimately proved better suited to making the artificial glalie move with the same speed and force that real ones used.
Oth was unquestionably grateful to be able to provide this service for them. Solonn was glad for them, as well, and not only because of their usefulness in training. Throughout all this time, the claydol still hadn’t regained the ability to teleport; being able to do another sort of good for the fugitives in the meantime seemed to be helping Oth to finally stop casting blame upon themself for this fact.
“I think that’ll do for now,” Zdir then said. “Back to the chasm, everyone.”
While Grosh had abandoned the place where he’d been waiting, the Virc fugitives and the claydol among them had stayed put for the most part, only venturing out of Grosh’s home to hunt.
They descended into the chasm a couple at a time as usual. Shortly after they had all made it down, <I am receiving a report from Zilag,> Oth announced, at which everyone gathered around them, awaiting whatever news Oth had to relay this time.
Thus far, the news had been largely good. Zilag’s reports from Virc-Dho told that the Sinaji had stayed out of Virc territory since the initial attack on the temple and the snowgrounds. The Security Guild had indeed swelled their ranks as rumors had suggested that they might, adding to the likelihood that the Virc might be sufficiently defended in the event of another strike. And while neither Zilag nor Hledas were quite ready to assume that the guild no longer kept eyes upon them, the authorities had avoided being overbearing toward them all this while.
After a few minutes, <A hunting party apparently had an encounter with two exiles yesterday,> Oth told the others. <All of the Virc survived. Beyond that, there has been no trouble among the Virc.>
“That’s good to hear,” Zdir said.
“Yeah,” Narzen said. “Sounds like two fewer problems for us to deal with.”
The fugitives had had to deal with some of the Sinaji themselves during their time up in Shoal Cave. They’d had a couple of run-ins with them during hunting excursions, which had left a couple among their number with some new scars and had partially depleted their stores of the revival herbs that they’d dried and frozen.
On top of that, it had become clear that the hole in the ground that had become the fugitives’ erstwhile home really wasn’t impervious to being found by outsiders after all. A pair of Sinaji hunters, having gotten separated from the rest of their party and lost following a skirmish with a gang of walrein, had stumbled upon the hole in the ground and opted to descend into it. They had been struck down almost as soon as they had appeared, and once they had been identified as Sinaji, their fate had been sealed.
Apart from Sinaji, they’d neither encountered nor been visited by anyone. There had been no run-ins with the Virc, guild members or otherwise, and no one from outside Shoal Cave had shown up, either. Questions of whether or not they could ever expect help from Convergence, from the ones who might still be holding one of the Sinaji in their custody, had come up more than once, but by this point no one really expected them to pitch in—assuming, of course, that they hadn’t already tried to and failed.
Following the report from Zilag, the evening proceeded just as most evenings had since taking refuge in Grosh's home, with the five glalie conjuring ice for themselves and conversing in lowered voices among themselves and with the claydol. At some point, “All right, let’s resume,” Zdir said, at which everyone who wasn’t already hovering rose and gathered behind her to begin filing back up into the cavern above for some more training.
She had barely begun to generate the ice platform for them to ride on when she immediately dissipated it. No one questioned her actions. They all heard the faint voices coming from outside just as she did.
The tension in the chamber where the fugitives now warily and watchfully huddled together seemed to harden the air, making it difficult to breathe. Solonn stared into the adjacent room, keeping himself as still as he could manage, his heart pounding. Its pace only quickened at the sound of ice slithering audibly down the walls of the chasm leading toward them.
As every other glalie alongside him did likewise, he tapped into his sheer cold ability and put it on standby, hoping to the gods that if it came down to his shot saving their lives, it would succeed. The rigorous training that Zdir had put everyone through in the past several months was intended, among other purposes, to put the advantages of the knockout attack firmly into their figurative hands, but both the Sinaji and the Security Guild were well-trained, too, and so there was always the lingering doubt that it had been enough.
The fugitives waited for their uninvited guests to descend further, and Solonn was less than fond of the suspense. He accepted it, though, understanding well why they waited. Zdir had explained how it was better to get a clear line of sight before attempting to strike. How it was preferable not to knock out whomever was generating the ice platform from below and risk the bodies riding on it crashing down before their innocence and what should be done with them could be assessed. How the intruders should be allowed to come down far enough to make getting back out and bringing knowledge of the fugitives’ location with them more difficult.
A silver of deep blue light framing the lower halves of gray-and-white bodies lowered into view. The eyes watching it maintained their color, the turret-hands pointed toward the approaching intruders holding their fire. No sense in striking at shielded targets.
And then there the intruders were. Just a few feet away, three glalie in a triangular formation and a fourth actually sitting atop their heads were staring with wide eyes behind protect auras that were due to fade at any moment.
“Wait, don’t strike!” the foremost of them cried out. “We surrender! We don’t want to hurt you!”
“Oth,” Zdir prompted, not missing a beat.
<We must subject you to a psychic scan to verify your claims,> they said.
“What?” another of the intruders said in response, sounding more than a little alarmed at that prospect.
But, “Fine, fine!” the one who was being carried said, nodding rather frantically, raising an unpleasant noise as the armor covering her belly scraped against that which covered the heads of the glalie underneath her. Then, as a few seconds passed with apparently nothing happening, “Are they done yet?”
“No,” Zdir said.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” the intruder who had spoken first said, then winced slightly as if fearing that she might be pushing it. A second later, her protect shield fell, as did the shields surrounding the others among her party.
“That,” Zdir responded, at which Oth drifted forward. The rest of the fugitives maintained their stare at the intruders, ready to strike again at any moment.
Oth rose and stopped in front of the glalie who was still perched atop her party members’ heads, and said glalie made a valiant but not entirely successful attempt at concealing some degree of unease at Oth’s presence. Solonn narrowed his eyes at her, hoping that her discomfort wouldn’t lead her to try and attack the claydol.
Meanwhile a faint and familiar discomfort of his own reared its head, but it was fleeting. The scan was voluntary this time, after all, and the awareness that he still might have to strike in order to save his friend at any moment was taking up too much of his mind to allow for much else to linger there.
Eventually, <Our visitors are Moriel La-Virj—> Oth pointed toward the glalie whom they had just scanned. <—Evane and Viraya La-Zyar, and Alij Van-Zaria.> They swept a hand from left to right over the other three glalie as they named them off. <Moriel intends no harm to any of us, and from her knowledge of the others, it appears unlikely that any of them do, either. They are all deserters. They have all fled from Sinaji territory, and all of them have expressed strong disinterest in re-affiliating with them.>
Moriel watched Oth as they moved backward away from her, then turned her gaze toward Zdir. “…Can I please come down from here?” she asked tentatively. “This is really rather awkward.”
The set of Zdir’s brows suggested that she was at least somewhat deep in thought, but nonetheless she spared a nod for Moriel. Acknowledging this, Moriel extended a sheet of ice downward between Evane and Viraya’s heads, descending the ramp that she’d just made toward the stone floor and then making it vanish in a cloud of vapor.
“You can come forward as well,” Zdir told the others, who did so a bit hesitantly.
“Will we need to have a scan, too?” Alij asked.
“Possibly,” Zdir said, “but probably not. For now, I’d like for you to tell me what finally convinced you to leave the Sinaji.”
“There’s something wrong with their leader,” Moriel said. Her response was met with a derisive noise from Narzen, which she ignored. “He hasn’t been acting like himself. Not since they were invaded. Some enemies of theirs got in and out without anyone even noticing, and ever since then… I swear, the leader’s gone crazy. He’s been babbling something about ‘repayment for the blood of the Rannia’, whatever that means.”
“And something about the honor of the ‘Vanished Ones’. Maybe they’re the same thing,” Evane supposed out loud.
“Maybe,” Moriel concurred. ”All I know is that he didn’t even sound like himself anymore, and neither did the ones closest to him. And there near the end, before we got away, they were threatening us, threatening our lives. And they made good on it with some of us.”
“We’re not the first to try and get away from them,” Viraya said morosely. “Just the first to survive trying.”
No one said anything for a few moments after that. Then, “Understandable that you’d want to get away from such a climate,” Ronal said. “But I do find it troubling that knowing that these people had been involved in murders and kidnappings wasn’t enough to convince you that you should want nothing more to do with them.”
All of the apparent defectors turned to him with what looked like genuine shock. “What… When the hell was this going on?” Moriel demanded.
“Right before that invasion you mentioned. Are you telling us that you honestly weren’t privy to these doings?” Zdir asked.
“We had no idea,” Alij said hollowly.
“None whatsoever,” Moriel said. “You can have the psychic look in our heads again if you don’t believe us.”
“Sanaika and his gang have had a bad reputation in Virc-Dho for a long time,” Narzen said. ”Surely you knew what sort of people you were involved with from the start.”
“Whatever reputation they had down there is news to us,” Evane said. “We haven’t lived in Virc-Dho since we were children. Not since the humans took us.”
“So that’s what became of you,” Zdir mused aloud.
“You knew they’d gone missing?” Solonn asked, only for it to dawn on him as soon as the words left his mouth that of course she’d had the means to know such things. The Security Guild, and by extension the Council, had found out when he’d been taken. The same was likely true of all abductions.
“Mm-hmm. And I know the names of Virc-Dho’s exiles. None of theirs are among them. So,” she then said to the deserters, “I suppose when you finally got back here, you encountered Sanaika’s people first?”
“Yes,” Evane said. “A clefable brought us here—teleported us to just outside these caverns, under the sun. The Sinaji told us that Virc-Dho had become corrupt. That their leaders had been overthrown and anyone who acted against them was being attacked and driven out. There was a lot of fighting going on up in these caverns when we arrived, and the Sinaji told us that we were only safe at all with them. Since no one else seemed to win when they took the Sinaji on, we believed them.”
“They trained us,” Moriel said. “Trained us in case the Virc showed up and we had to defend our new nation against them. We made them regret it.” She smiled, but there was something rueful in it. “We had to use every last trick they taught us, plus spring a few surprises we picked up on the outside. It was just barely enough… well, mostly enough.” The light in her eyes dimmed considerably. “Wasn’t enough for Kanjara, but…”
“Well,” Zdir said at length. “We are willing to provide sanctuary to you if you’re willing to accept it.”
“Yes, yes of course,” Moriel said; the other three nodded in concurrence. “Thank you.”
“Now, considering the training the four of you have undergone, we would also appreciate it if you were to aid us in any confrontation with the Sinaji that we have in future,” Zdir told them.
“Of course,” Moriel repeated. She lowered her head slightly, averting her gaze. “It’s… the least we could do.” She shook her head and sighed. “I regret ever having had anything to do with them.”
“We all do,” Viraya said. “I would definitely have liked to have given them more of a… parting gift, but… well there were only five of us against nearly three dozen of them.”
“Three dozen of them and some unseen mind-controller,” Narzen said.
“I suspected as much,” Evane said, and she sounded distinctly uneasy. Her eyes shifted toward Oth. “It would explain why some of them have been acting so strangely.”
“The fact that we know next to nothing about this psychic, or whatever they are, that the Sinaji have in their midst is still a strike against us,” Zdir said. “But the numbers of the Sinaji being as they are is welcome news. I had allowed for the possibility that there could be thrice the number you’ve reported.”
“It’s a good thing there weren’t. We wouldn’t have had a chance if…”
Alij’s voice faltered, a look of vaguely troubled confusion on his face as, from above, a strange, continuous grinding sound came rumbling downward through the stone overhead. Solonn, Oth, and Zdir, meanwhile, looked notably less perplexed.
Eyes wide, Solonn shot a look at Zdir, feeling a thrill of hope surge through him. “Gods, that sounds like…” He found that he couldn’t quite dare to finish the sentence. “Is it… could it be possible?”
<Conceivably. Perhaps he found a way to return somewhere in Mordial,> Oth said.
“What’s going on?” Evane asked, sounding a bit concerned.
Solonn stared up toward the wonderful, presently invisible possibility that had just reared its head, hearing the sound slowly grow fainter as its source kept moving onward. He’s not coming down here, he reckoned, suddenly unable to help further entertaining the notion that yes, he was indeed hearing what he hoped to be hearing. He didn’t doubt that they would still be able to track the source of the sound by its sheer loudness and catch up with it easily, but he wanted to know if he was right about what it was, and he didn’t want to wait. ”We’ve got to go check it out,” he said.
“Agreed. Come on,” Zdir said with a dip of her head toward Solonn, then led him into the chasm leading upwards. Solonn promptly set about forming the ice platform that would lift them out of there, his eyes blazing and his heart racing as he willed the platform to ascend as fast as it could.
Please let it be him, please let it be him, please…
The two of them reached the top, and the sight that greeted them halted Solonn’s thought processes at once.
For a moment, Solonn could do nothing but gawk at the sight. Then, “Father!” he greeted him.
The steelix turned his head immediately, as did most of those who’d arrived with him. His face lit up like the sun. “Oh my God, you’re all right!”
The pokémon accompanying him parted as he turned and began making his way toward his son as fast as he could. Solonn had begun rushing toward him in nearly the same instant and soon reached him. He buried his face against the steelix’s chest, shaking with joy and relief, and as Grosh gently brought his coils around him in an embrace, he felt tears fall upon his head from above.
“Father… how did you get here?” Solonn asked.
“That’s how,” Grosh answered, nodding toward a lanky, red-furred biped with a long, skull-like face and a black mane. “Quiul here was kind enough to help round up these people for us and bring us here.”
Solonn met the gaze of the mercirance to whom Grosh had referred. “I can’t thank you enough,” he said sincerely, the light in his eyes wavering. He’d had legitimate reason to wonder if he would ever see Grosh again, and now here the steelix was. And Solonn recognized that now he could perhaps also be reunited with some other loved ones from whom he’d been separated…
“Oh, it was nothing,” Quiul responded with as much of a warm smile as her face could manage.
“I do hope one of you will consent to a scan,” Zdir spoke up. Solonn looked up in initial disbelief… but then he followed her line of sight. There was a pack of unfamiliar glalie there. None of them looked particularly hostile, but that didn’t mean anything.
“I… what?” one of them responded.
“We’ve been under threat of attack from not only our own kind but collaborators of an unknown kind for months now,” Zdir said.
“Those guys are from Sinnoh,” the aurrade who stood next to Quiul said. “They’re here for the same reason we are: to make your enemies wish they were never born.”
“Valdrey’s telling the truth,” Grosh said. “She and Quiul spent most of the past couple of days getting these people together. I was with them the entire time.”
“I don’t personally suspect them,” Zdir said, “or you. But it would be irresponsible of me to not seek confirmation.”
“That’s fine,” said another of the newly-arrived glalie, drifting forward a bit. “I’ll volunteer.”
“Very well,” Zdir said. She turned an expectant look toward Solonn, who followed her back to the hole in the floor and descended with her.
“So what’s the situation?” Narzen asked them once they reached the bottom.
“We may have just received reinforcements,” Zdir answered him, “as well as access to teleportation and a safer place to stay.”
“Ha, excellent!” Narzen responded. Several of the others mirrored his enthusiasm in some way, particularly among the defectors.
“So it’s really happening, then?” Moriel asked. “We’re really gonna take them on?”
“So it would appear,” Zdir said. “But we do need to have one of them scanned first, just to be certain of what we’re dealing with.”
Wordlessly, Oth moved forward, accompanying Zdir and Solonn as they returned to the cavern above. Zdir indicated the glalie who had offered himself up for scanning, and the claydol went to work at once. <This is Roskharha Nharitas,> they eventually reported. <He is not of this region, nor has he ever been here before, and the same is true of the rest of the glalie who are with him. They are soldiers of the Hirashka people.
<These are allies,> they said, and there was distinct hope and wonder in the tone of their mindvoice. <All of these people—> They indicated the entire crowd of various pokémon gathered there. <—are here to try and deal with the Sinaji.>
Zdir looked back toward Valdrey and Quiul. “We’ll aid you in your endeavor,” she told her. “We and our new associates. They were formerly involved with the enemy and have already yielded useful information about them. They may have more to offer us all.”
Valdrey tilted her head back, making a faint, intrigued-sounding noise. “Sounds like your people and mine could do with a good chat.”
“Yes, we could,” Grosh agreed. “I’d like to know how you all have been holding up these past few months.” He cast a look down toward Solonn as he said this, one that told that he hoped for the best.
And not only for himself and for Zdir and Oth, Solonn was sure, but for Jen, as well. He tried to put on a face that suggested good news on that front—they had, after all, indeed successfully delivered him from the Sinaji, and he was, as far as anyone was aware, still somewhere very safe. But he didn’t imagine that Grosh would be altogether happy about Jen having been left behind, and he suspected that the steelix was hoping to be able to see him tonight.
It’s all right, Father. We might still bring him back very soon. With a teleporter available, there was a chance that they might indeed retrieve Jen that very night—though not as much of a chance as he would have preferred.
Valdrey swept a glance over the room. “This doesn’t seem like the best place for that though. Mind coming back to my place? It’s safe and spacious.”
“That sounds fine,” Zdir said.
<I will go inform the others,> Oth said, at which Zdir nodded in assent. The claydol drifted down into the chasm, and soon after, glalie began filing up to join the pokémon gathered above them a few at a time.
Once they were all up, “All right now, gather together, everyone,” Valdrey instructed them. When it looked as though everyone had, “Are we all ready to go?” Valdrey asked, at which everyone gave some form of confirmation that they were. “All right then, let's go!” And with those words and a burst of light, the small crowd vanished from Shoal Cave.
* * *
The fugitives and their new allies all reappeared under a night sky, but there was a degree of somewhat harsh, artificial light shining upon them from nearby, at which Solonn initially winced. Once he had adjusted sufficiently, he took in his new surroundings as best as he could given the fact that he was partially surrounded by other pokémon, some of whom were taller than he was.
But he didn’t have to see much before he realized that he recognized this place as the Wisteria gym in Mordial. He had been here before, back when he was traveling the world to spread word of the Convergence project. The gym had been lit by sunlight back then rather than by the few among its lights that still functioned, and there had been humans dotting the bleachers, watching as the gym leader’s pokémon raced each other for fun on the track that ran around the actual battle platform.
“Welcome to Wisteria,” Valdrey said as the rather tightly packed crowd began dispersing a bit, the eyes of some of its constituents sweeping the alien environment in curiosity or wonder or mild wariness. She stepped out in front of Zdir. “This is my home, and for as long as you have need of it, it can be your home, too.”
“Thank you for your hospitality,” Zdir said. She settled herself at the edge of the racetrack, and the rest of the Virc fugitives, along with Oth and Grosh, joined her there. Many of the other pokémon clustered off into little groups, as well. “Of course, I do have to wonder what inspired you to come to our former nation’s aid.”
Valdrey shrugged, spreading her arms wide. “It’s just the kind of thing we do. Me and most of these guys here used to do this kind of work all the time back in the days after the Extinction. I guess we just never tired of being able to lend a hand. Or, well. A figurative hand, in some cases.”
What the aurrade was describing sounded awfully familiar… “You wouldn’t happen to know an alakazam by the name of Sei Salma, would you?” Solonn asked her.
“Hmm… no, I can’t say I do. What about you?” she asked Quiul.
“I’m afraid not,” the mercirance replied. “Sorry.”
“That’s fine,” Solonn said, supposing that he shouldn’t be too surprised. It wasn’t as though Sei and her group of psychics were the only ones capable of deciding to come together and aid people in the wake of humanity’s end.
“So I take it you—” Zdir nodded up toward Grosh. “—found her, or the other way around, and she took it from there,” she surmised aloud.
“Some locals directed me toward her,” Grosh said. “But yes.” He drew in a breath and let it out on something of a sigh. “I… do regret not seeking help sooner than I did. I was just worried about not being there if you came back to where you left me.”
“It’s all right,” she assured him. “No real harm came to us or to the Virc as a result of your timing. They’ve been lucky these past few months.”
No sooner were the words out of her mouth than her eyes darted almost imperceptibly toward where the defectors were gathered together, and there was a hint of guilt in her expression. Solonn remembered Moriel mentioning one of their own apparently not making it away from the Sinaji. He could only wonder if indeed that person could have fared better had help arrived sooner.
<I would nonetheless have liked to have been able to have come back for you sooner,> Oth said. <Unfortunately, I lost my ability to teleport shortly after we rescued the abducted snorunt. We have yet to determine what caused this, and I have yet to regain the technique.>
“Hmm…” Quiul approached the claydol. “What you’re describing sounds rather like a case of spontaneous move deletion.”
Solonn’s eyes widened. That was a phrase he hadn’t heard for many years, not since the days of his involvement with the IPL. He’d heard of humans inducing the loss of techniques via artificial means for various reasons, and he supposed then that he must have been taught of it happening on its own at some point but had merely forgotten it.
“Can it be cured?” Zereth asked.
“I can’t say for certain,” Quiul said. “All I know is that it’s not within my capability to heal.”
“It might be within the capability of the people at the Haven,” Solonn pointed out. “And… we might be able to get Jen back while we’re at it.”
Grosh frowned. “You didn’t get them back?”
“We did,” Zdir said, “but Oth’s teleportation misfired and then failed altogether before the mind-tampering that Jen was dealt could be undone. He was left behind at the Haven.”
“Well then we’ve got to get him back!” Grosh said, throwing a glance at Quiul.
Solonn sighed. “It… might not be that simple,” he said. “Considering how long it’s been since he was left there, they might have come to figure that we abandoned him. Even if they haven’t, they’re not necessarily keeping him there. And even if we knew where they were keeping him, it might not be a simple matter to get him returned to our custody.”
Grosh stared down at Solonn all the while as the latter spoke, and Solonn knew that whatever was going on behind those red eyes, it probably wasn’t acceptance. Solonn wasn’t fond of the way things were, either, nor was he especially fond of the way Zdir had told him to approach these complications back when he’d first recognized and spoken of them. But ultimately, he had come to understand with and agree to them.
“If it is, it is,” Zdir said, addressing them both and holding the two of them in her gaze as best she could. “We’ll bring Jen here. He’ll be safe. If not… he is, as Solonn has said, safe there, too. Safer than the Virc are in their own homes. We should tend to doing what we can for them first. We mustn’t delay them that help for too much longer, and we mustn’t squander the time and generosity of our new allies.”
“I’m ready anytime,” Quiul said. “Just say the word.”
“Would it be all right if we could bring Zilag’s family here as well?” Solonn asked. “It would in all likelihood be a single trip.”
“Sure,” Quiul answered.
“See if they’re ready to go first,” Zdir instructed Oth.
Oth nodded in their fashion. A couple of minutes passed, during which a couple of the groups of gathered pokémon began conversing among themselves; then, <They are.>
“Very well,” Zdir said, and nodded toward Quiul.
The mercirance made beckoning gestures toward all those who had spoken on the matter of retrieving Zilag’s family and Jen. Only Solonn and Oth moved toward her, however.
“I… think I ought to stay here,” Grosh said, though he sounded somewhat regretful about it. “Jen’s obviously been through a lot since he was taken, and even though he knows about me, it might be a good idea for you to let him know well in advance that I’m gonna be here before he sees me. And… I don’t need to be in Virc-Dho again. Not even briefly.”
Solonn almost tried to reassure him on the first point, at least, but decided against it just as quickly. It made sense, he realized, especially if, gods forbid, Jen’s memories still hadn’t been restored and he had to learn about the massive steel-type all over again. As for the second point, he didn’t even think of arguing against it. Grosh would probably never be safe in Virc-Dho after what had happened, nor would he likely ever be comfortable there again.
“I’m going to stay behind, as well,” Zdir said. “There are a few things I wish to discuss with Valdrey and with the defectors; I might as well get to them.”
“I guess everyone’s ready, then,” Quiul said. “I assume at least one of you has been to the places we need to go?”
<Yes,> Oth answered. <I will transfer the memories to you at once if you wish.>
“Please do,” Quiul said.
As soon as the memories were transferred, “We’ll see you all later, then,” Quiul said, and then teleported away, taking Solonn and Oth with her.
* * *
Solonn, Oth, and Quiul appeared in front of the Haven after making a stop in Virc-Dho to retrieve Zilag and his family, as well as a stop back in Mordial to drop them off there.
Though the family had agreed well in advance to leave Virc-Dho one day, it was clear when the time had finally come for them to do so that they weren’t doing it wholly without regret. Oth had long ago raised the possibility that they could still live among their own kind, in some other nation, in the hopes that letting them retain some familiar element in their lives would make the transition easier on them, and the Hirashka had proven perfectly willing to give them a home in Sinnoh upon meeting them. But while they and especially Hledas had latched on to the idea, the fact remained that they were still leaving their home and their lives as they’d known them behind. As they had sat there, all at once in this alien environment and surrounded almost totally by strangers, their faces told that only now was the change that they’d chosen truly sinking in.
Solonn felt for them, and as he entered the Haven with the mercirance and claydol at his sides, he hoped that his newly displaced friends would be fully at peace in their new situation soon. At the same time, however, a good portion of his thoughts were trained toward Jen and Oth and the hopes, however cautious, that he would be leaving Convergence tonight with the former at his side and the latter in full possession of all their techniques once more.
The three crossed the lobby to the front desk, where a chansey sat watching them approach. “Can I help you?” she asked when they stopped before her.
<Yes,> Oth said. <We came here several months ago with eight snorunt who had suffered mental tampering and a glalie who was involved with the tamperer. One of the snorunt was left behind when I involuntarily teleported before his treatment was finished. I subsequently lost the ability to do so, voluntarily or otherwise. We have returned to retrieve him, as well as to inquire about our captive and to perhaps have my lost technique restored.>
The last item on that list was even more of a longshot than the first, Solonn knew. He’d recalled there having been humans who could restore techniques just as there had been some who could erase them, but he didn’t know if anything of that art had survived the Extinction. And similarly to the situation with Jen, if it was determined that it would take too long to restore Oth’s ability to teleport, that restoration would be postponed.
“…One moment, please,” the chansey said, and turned her sights downward toward something on her desk and out of sight. “Teresa?” she said to what was apparently some sort of paging device there. “Could you come to the front desk, please?”
Soon after, another chansey arrived on the scene. “You came back,” she said simply.
Solonn nodded. “We never meant to leave,” he said.
“They claim that something went awry with the claydol’s teleportation,” the chansey behind the desk said. “Something that caused them to teleport away with the others involuntarily and prevented them from coming back.”
“Have you been trying to teleport without any success all this time?” Teresa asked.
<Yes,> Oth said. <It’s as though I never even knew the technique.>
“Hmm…” Teresa’s mouth drew into a thin line. “We might be dealing with a move deletion here,” she said. “We can run a couple of tests to confirm it, but in the event that your teleport technique has deleted itself, I’m afraid there’s nothing we can do.”
<We had anticipated as much,> Oth said, though they still sounded a bit disappointed all the same.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to work this out. If you’ll follow me, we can find out.” Teresa began leading the way out of the lobby, and Oth and those who accompanied them followed.
When they reached their destination, Solonn somehow expected to find the same gardevoir there as he and the rest of his party had dealt with before. Instead it was a hypno who stood behind that door, casting an inquiring look at them. Teresa explained the situation to her, then motioned Oth into the room with the hypno, closed the door behind them, and began ushering the others toward a waiting room.
“What about Jen?” Solonn asked as he and Quiul followed her lead. “The snorunt who was left here,” he clarified. “My half-brother. Were his memories ever successfully restored? Is he here?”
“I’m afraid the answer to both of those questions is ‘no’,” Teresa replied.
Solonn’s heart sank. He had dearly wanted what was done to Jen to be undone, and the thought that he would be greeted with confusion or disbelief or even fear whenever he finally reunited with Jen was hard to bear. Especially since it now seemed likelier than ever that that reunion would lie further in the future than he’d hoped.
“Is—” He tried to remember the gardevoir’s name but failed. “Is the gardevoir here? Can I speak with him?”
“If you’re referring to Adn, then I’m afraid that’s another ‘no’. He’s not here right now and won’t be back before the weekend is over.”
Solonn sighed, vaguely wondering to himself what, exactly, he’d hoped to accomplish anyway in talking with Adn. “Could you tell me where Jen currently is, at least?” he asked as the three of them entered the waiting room, turning to face Teresa directly as he spoke.
Teresa gave no response at first. Then she took a deep breath. “He was declared abandoned,” she told him. “He was placed in another’s custody, and I’m sorry, but we’re not at liberty to mention whose.”
Solonn stared at her. That they’d decided Jen had been abandoned didn’t exactly come as a surprise to him, but he hadn’t expected to be barred from him quite so completely. “Is anyone?” he asked.
Teresa shook her head, insofar as she could. “I’m sorry.”
For a moment, Solonn couldn’t respond. The light in his eyes dimmed, and his throat threatened to close up on him. Then, “But… he’s safe, right? He’s being cared for?” He almost couldn’t continue. “…He’s happy?”
“I can assure you that he is,” Teresa said consolingly.
“…Good…” Solonn managed, very quietly. “That’s good… Now, what about the glalie we brought in, the one you called the authorities on?” he then asked. “Are you at liberty to tell us how that went?”
“Yes and no,” Teresa said. “I can tell you that they didn’t really get anything out of him beyond his name and the fact that yes, he was involved with whoever altered the snorunt’s memories. He passed away in their custody before they could learn more, apparently of natural causes. I’m afraid that’s all I can say on the matter.”
Solonn’s eyes widened a bit, his brow furrowing over them. He wasn’t too surprised to learn that they wouldn’t be getting much more information about the Sinaji from that particular source than they already had. It had sounded as though Oth had already found all that there was to find in the way of useful things that Anzen actually knew during their scan of the Sinaji’s mind. The reason why they definitely wouldn’t get any more now was considerably more of a shock.
He pulled in a deep breath and released it. “Well, it… sounds like they can’t tell us anything we don’t already know,” he said. “Could you send them our thanks for trying, at least?”
Teresa nodded. “I most certainly could.”
She then gave the two of them a quick rundown on where certain facilities were before departing. Solonn watched her leave, then sank to the floor.
He heard Quiul sit down beside him. “Hmm… sounds a little fishy,” she said. “The whole business of your captured enemy perishing before he really had a chance to talk, I mean.”
“It does, yes…” Solonn agreed. “Though I don’t suspect the authorities here of any foul play. I’m… not really sure exactly what I suspect, honestly.”
“I wonder,” Quiul said, “if perhaps a killing mechanism of some kind was implanted. Maybe by whoever brainwashed those snorunt. It could have been set to go off if he was questioned too rigorously about what these people have been up to.”
“I don’t know… It seems like it would have been triggered by Oth’s scan if that were the case. They learned more from him than it sounds as though the police did.”
“Hmm,” Quiul said again, then shrugged. “Maybe it really was just an unfortunate coincidence.”
“Maybe.” Solonn sighed. “More questions. I’d hoped to come back with more answers. And I’d hoped to come back with Jen.”
“I’m sure you would. But the way things have turned out here doesn’t mean you’ll never see him again, you know,” she told him gently.
“I know,” he said, though in a way it still sort of felt as though he definitely wouldn’t despite his knowledge that that wasn’t a certainty. “I just… wish I could see him with my own eyes. I wish I could really confirm that he’s all right… insofar as he is. And I wish I weren’t being treated like I can’t be trusted around him, for the gods’ sakes.”
Quiul laid a hand upon his back. “Someday this will be sorted out.”
Someday… Solonn drew in a breath that shuddered slightly, hoping that she was indeed right.
Eventually, Teresa returned with Oth beside her. Solonn and Quiul both rose to greet her.
“I’m afraid it was move deletion,” the chansey reported once she and Oth had entered the room.
<It is all right,> Oth assured everyone present. <I do not need to be able to teleport.>
Solonn supposed that Oth was right, especially what with Quiul on their side now. Still, he would have liked for at least some part of their endeavors in Convergence that night to have been successful. “Thank you regardless,” he said. “and give the hypno my thanks, as well. At least now we know for sure.” Teresa nodded in acknowledgment.
“I suppose that concludes our business here,” Quiul said then. “Unless you’re wanting to retrieve that glalie?”
“You’d have to speak with the police department about that,” Teresa said.
“I don’t think we have time for that,” Solonn said. “Zdir wanted us back as soon as possible.”
“Then we’d best not keep her waiting anymore. Thank you for your time.” Quiul said to Teresa.
“You’re welcome,” the chansey replied.
Oth joined Quiul and Solonn where they stood, and then the three of them departed.
In the wake of their vanishing, Teresa stood there for a moment, blinking the lingering flash out of her eyes, then turned and left for elsewhere in the Haven. As she walked, she felt a strange sense of something being off, and not for the first time in the past few months.
She frowned at it, wondering if she should see Adn about it. But that would have to wait. For now, she simply carried on about her business, as did everyone around her.
Ability: Battle armor, light metal (hidden)
Average height: 6'2"
Average weight: 505.2 lbs
Evolution: Aurcent -> Aurrade (Lv. 20 if attack and speed are equal)
Appearance: A centaur covered in gold-colored armor. What skin can be seen between the plates is gray. Its "helmet" has two bladelike protrusions at the sides that stick out in a V-shape, and there are hinged plates covering its mouth most of the time. Its eyes are green. Its tail is like a horse's and covered in long, golden hair. Shiny aurrade are closer to yellow-green and have purple eyes.
Additional info: Aurrade are able to generate and wield blades made of steel-type energy. They are one of three different evolutionary forms of aurcent, the others being aurrail and aurrow.
Ability: Healer, scrappy (hidden)
Average height: 5'0"
Average weight: 99 lbs.
Appearance: A lanky, red-furred biped with a hairless opossumlike tail and a stringy black mane growing from its long, low-slung neck. Its face is also hairless and resembles a long-snouted skull. It has spindly fingers and rodentlike feet, and its eyes are bright yellow. Shiny mercirance are blue with a bit more of a greenish tint to their eyes.
Additional info: Mercirance travels about in search of sick or injured pokémon and humans to heal using its abilities. It is able to tell when a patient is beyond hope of salvation and their spirit is longing to be set free; the mercirance will usually help it do so in that case.[/SPOILER]
Next time: The Sinaji are paid a little visit. See you then!
Last edited by Sike Saner; 11th December 2013 at 12:30 AM.
11th December 2013, 12:42 AM #19
Re: Communication [Chapter Seventeen Now Posted]
Oh my god, this chapter was fun to write.
Oh yeah, and it gets pretty violent. Just thought you ought to know.
Chapter 18 – Remnants
“So. This is it, huh.”
“So it is,” Solonn said, his eyes lingering upon the racetrack not far below. Already pokémon were gathering there. Soon he would join them.
The past few days had flown by, but they had been incredibly busy. With the aid of the defectors, the force now assembling to move out had constructed their plan of attack. Already, he could see it coming together. There were Grosh and Oth, along with a small team of fighting-types, all pooling their efforts to gather boulders, both conjured and found. There were Zdir and Valdrey with Quiul, most likely reminding the mercirance of her own roles in the mission.
And here was Zilag, and Solonn was about as certain as could be of what he was up to. “They say our chances aren’t too bad.” They’d said it more than once. He’d clutched those claims like treasures.
“I know,” Zilag said. “They really do seem to know their stuff. And you’ve got some great allies on your side. But… well, this isn’t really about them. It’s about you.”
He circled around to meet Solonn’s gaze. “I… think you’re going to do just fine. You, specifically. You personally. I’m not saying you could take them on all on your own. I’m just saying… well, I just want you to know that I believe in you, all right?”
Solonn didn’t doubt his sincerity, not exactly. But he could see the quiver in the other’s eyelight. The reassurance was for them both.
But he smiled all the same. It was the least he could do. “Thanks,” he said.
The noise amidst the bleachers had, by this point, all but entirely trickled down to the track. It would be starting soon.
Sure enough, <Your attention, please. Your presence is requested at the stadium floor.>
“And there it is.” Solonn knew that Zilag wouldn’t have heard it himself. Zilag, as well as Hledas, would be remaining behind with the kids. This was mostly on account of neither of them having anywhere near the amount of training as the ones who would be heading out—they wouldn’t exactly be dead weight, but their chances of surviving the mission were less favorable all the same. And nobody fancied the idea of possibly orphaning their children.
Zilag nodded in acceptance. He moved back around to Solonn’s side, clearing the way for him to descend. “Go make ’em pay, all right? I’ll keep you in my thoughts.”
If it happens, I won’t forget you, that might have also meant. Solonn couldn’t keep the flicker out of his eyes—just how much concern was Zilag holding back for his sake? But again he smiled, and he gave an assuring nod, and with all the confidence he could muster, “Will do,” he said. “Take care, Zilag.”
“You too, buddy.”
Solonn drew and released a deep, steeling breath, then closed the short remaining distance down the center aisle, taking his place at nearly the edge of the gathering. Over the heads of the people before him, he could see Zdir and Valdrey standing atop a winner’s podium that had been raised in the center of the arena, with Quiul waiting on the steps leading up to it.
“I trust everyone’s here?” Zdir spoke up. Even as she asked, though, her eyes were sweeping the crowd as they affirmed their presence; she’d surely know just fine whether anyone was missing, as well as if anyone wasn’t paying due attention.
Apparently satisfied with her findings, “All right. Now, I don’t need to tell any of you why you’re here. I don’t need to tell you what we’re about to do. But I do want to emphasize the value of your contributions today.
“The Virc, by and large, will never thank you. They’ll never know what you have done and will do for them. But no matter how their leadership might deny it, I am still one of them. I am still Virc. And on behalf of my people, I want to thank all of you in advance. For the lives we save, for the minds we put at ease, I thank you. Gods go with us all.”
“All right, let’s go kick some ass!” Valdrey said, bringing her hands together with a loud clank of armor on armor. “Split up, folks; it’s time to go…”
At her instructions, the crowd began swiftly parting. For the most part, the teams were already assembled, many of the departing fighters having automatically gravitated toward the ones they would accompany upon heading out, but fitting everyone into the general vicinity of the arena below had required some strategic positioning of some of the larger pokémon.
Consequently, Solonn had to pick his way through the crowd to join Zdir’s group. Grosh had been assigned to her team, as well, as if Solonn needed any help figuring out where to go. He took his place at the steelix’s side and soon found himself crowded against it as the rest of their team gathered close together in the loose semicircle marked by Grosh’s half-coiled body.
“Hey,” Grosh spoke up, at which six different faces turned toward him before following his own line of sight and figuring out who he was actually addressing.
“Hm?” Solonn responded, still keeping his sights trained upward as best he could; his horns and the close quarters made leaning too far back unfeasible.
“You’re gonna make us proud,” Grosh told him, a smile playing about his eyes. “Me and her both.”
Solonn’s eyelight flickered at the mention of his mother, and he averted his gaze. “I’ll certainly do my best,” he promised, and not only to those who were physically present.
“Of course you will,” Grosh said. “You’re your mother’s son. You’re gonna have not only your own strength on your side today but hers, too. She’s not gonna let anything else happen to her boys. And neither am I.”
The flickering intensified… but a smile, however faint, formed around it. Solonn didn’t doubt Grosh’s dedication in the least… and he was sure that if it truly were possible, Azvida would be lending her figurative hand in their mission, as well.
Solonn met his father’s gaze once more. “Thank you,” he said earnestly.
With the departing pokémon now divided almost cleanly in half, Quiul descended from the podium and insinuated herself into the group on the far side of the arena, squeezing in next to Valdrey. In the next moment, a golden aura swelled around the other team and took them away in a flash of light. Seconds later, Quiul returned for the rest.
As her lithe form slithered its way among his team, Solonn caught himself counting the passing moments. Counting his heartbeats. He tried to treat it as a countdown—not to their departure, but to their eventual victory. Soon, he told himself silently, it would be over. Or this part thereof would be, at least.
We will win, he told himself as he took one deliberate breath after another. We will make it. Still, as he and the rest of his team left Wisteria behind, those heartbeats grew no softer.
* * *
The sunlight was more than a few minutes in the past now, replaced by the cold, blue glare of dozens of eyes. Most of their owners hung back, Solonn included, as Grosh, a gurdurr by the name of Thuras, and a pair of machoke siblings named Daran and Kala worked to block off one of the exits to the Sinaji’s territory with their gathered boulders.
This was just one of four such exits. Each of the teams had already sealed one apiece; separately, as before, they were tackling the last pair.
They’d encountered little resistance to speak of thus far: just a trio of guards at each of the exits they’d hit, all of whom now lay lifeless at their posts. But the team’s current task was not silent work. Stealth was hardly a priority in this venture. Avoiding confrontation was not their goal, not this time. It wasn’t a matter of whether or not they’d be noticed by Sinaji further in but rather when.
There was nothing to do about that but to wait, and to keep a watch out for approaching trouble. Each of the teams was large enough to deal with being discovered, provided that the Sinaji didn’t bear down on either of them en masse—or so they hoped, at least. So Solonn hoped, as he mindfully kept his eyes glued to the path leading inward rather than on his father, making a conscious effort to breathe steadily, holding the key to a quick sheer cold at the edge of his awareness all the while.
Don’t jump the gun, he reminded himself. Fire when you have a reason to. No sooner.
Minutes passed, and no such reason came. Before long, “Got it,” Thuras announced. There was a momentary scraping of metal against stone as she retrieved her steel beam from wherever she’d set it down.
A few seconds’ delay; then, “So have they,” Zdir reported. With Zilag no longer reporting from Virc-Dho, Oth’s telepathic connection with him had been severed, and their connection to Zdir had been reestablished.
“Come on,” she then said, and began moving away from the now blocked exit. Her team filed out with her: nine glalie, herself included; the three fighting-types; Lirimi, an azumarill; and Grosh grinding his way along from the back, his heavy head looming above the procession. Quiul presently accompanied them, as well: a member of both teams, poised as she’d been all the while to teleport to the aid of either if needed.
The tunnel ahead of them came from the same place as the one leading to the fourth exit. There they would join the other team, and from there they would move forward as a unified force, able (one hoped) to withstand the full brunt of the Sinaji’s forces in a worst-case scenario.
Even given that they still could only guess just what, apart from glalie, comprised that force.
As they continued onward, Solonn gazed out over the heads of the ones before him, scanning for signs of life, friendly or otherwise, hoping that his team would reach the meeting place soon.
The enemy reached it first.
The deep blue light of protect auras flooded the room. A sheer cold volley split the air, innumerable shots fired in unison—but not by Solonn, and as far as he was aware, not by anyone else on his side. He heard one body topple over, saw another—gray and muscular and roaring her lungs out—hurtle through the air on her own power—
—But never saw her land, forced to dodge a speeding glalie barreling right toward him. He wheeled about, his horn catching her as her shield fell, at which she hissed in pain and shrieked in fury. A number of other voices—one bottomless and all too familiar—cried and screeched and bellowed out in nearly the same instant.
There was no time to turn and find out why. His attacker returned the favor immediately, her horn slashing at his temple, narrowly missing his eye. He roared, and a fresh protect shield came to his summons as she tried once more to blind him. She shielded herself again in the nick of time, as well.
Solonn caught her third strike with his horn, and for a fleeting moment after, the two were locked in a fencing match, trying to get their horns past one another.
Then someone slammed into him from behind—he felt and heard something crack apart against his back, accompanied by a short, gurgling cry—and the force drove his horn deep into the eye socket of the glalie before him.
A burst of yellow light filled his vision as he wrenched himself free of the now-dead Sinaji. Nothing and no one caught him as his momentum threw him backward; he spun about in midair, regaining control of his levitation just in time to avoid plowing face-first into the glowing, segmented tail that fell to earth like a hammer before him, splitting the skull of the glalie below. Blood splashed against him, turning into a briefly-obscuring cloud of mist that cleared to reveal a torrent of flame roaring across the opposite end of the chamber.
Valdrey’s team had arrived.
Solonn didn’t stop to gawk at them or at what had become of the glalie hit by the rapidash’s flamethrower—not that he wanted to find out. He’d spotted Alij with a small horde of Sinaji all bearing down upon him just as the latter’s aura failed him; without hesitation, Solonn charged to the rescue—only for the pair of glalie in his path to disappear into thin air as he struck them. Illusions!
Alij apparently recognized this at the same time; he dealt a sweeping strike against the “multiple” Sinaji as they closed in, destroying a pair of double team clones and revealing their maker in one stroke. Solonn wasted no time in driving the identified enemy straight into the nearest wall. The Sinaji fell to the floor and did not rise again.
As Solonn leaned in to make sure the illusionist wasn’t playing dead, his massive frame glowing deep blue all the while, he noticed that the shouts and shots and cracks of colliding bodies were dying down. He turned and was met by a scene that calmed right before his eyes. The fight, it seemed, was over.
Easily more than a dozen glalie lay before him, their blood-mist heavy on the air. Some quivered slightly in place, still breathing, while others were plainly dead—some more plainly than others. He caught sight of one who looked as though they’d tried to swallow a bomb. He ripped his gaze away in an instant, retching in spite of himself.
He discovered that Lirimi and Kala were down, as well, up against the wall near the Sinaji whom Grosh had smashed, their strange, opaque blood smeared across the floor. Quiul knelt before them, healing their injuries, while Daran, conscious once more, looked on.
“Will they be all right?” Grosh inquired from somewhere behind Solonn; the latter couldn’t help but throw a glance back to make sure the steelix was all right. To Solonn’s immense gratitude, he was, from the looks of things. But the golduck standing at his side, with pouches filled with medicine belted to his waist, left Solonn wondering how long that had been the case.
Said golduck then proceeded to offer Solonn a few berries for his own injuries, which he readily accepted. Within moments, he could feel the damage being undone.
Meanwhile Quiul wasn’t responding to Grosh’s question just yet, clearly focused on her work. When the multicolored aura surrounding her and her patients finally dimmed and vanished, “Yes… and no,” she answered. “You’ll live,” she said to the machoke and azumarill, “and you’ll heal. But not if you do any more fighting anytime soon.”
“I’m fine,” Kala insisted. She tried to push herself back up, but could barely get more than her upper torso off the ground before pain distorted her features and brought her back down with a snarl.
“No you’re not.” Daran laid a comforting hand on her shoulder. “Look sis… I know you’re worried about me. But I’m gonna be okay. I mean, look at us: we didn’t even lose any of our guys.”
“That’s… not true.”
Ronal’s voice carried a distinct and chillingly familiar gravity. Solonn didn’t need any further clarification on what had happened. It was only a question of just who had fallen.
The answer, he found, was Zereth. He lay face-up before Zdir, whose already dull eyelight was muted further still as she held him in her gaze. There was another dead glalie just a couple of feet away, whose face had been gouged so many times that they were completely unrecognizable.
“His killer,” Ronal identified; it seemed he’d followed Solonn’s line of sight.
Solonn looked away from the dead Sinaji, letting his gaze sweep across the room again in helpless, dreading curiosity over whether or not any of his other allies had suffered the same fate as Zereth. [Oth thankfully had not; they hovered near the center of the chamber with the luster of half a dozen cosmic powers making their dark hide glitter like the night sky and no injuries that Solonn could detect. But they were only one of the people he was concerned about. “Was anyone else…”
“No,” Quiul said. “No one else but theirs…” She goes quiet for a moment, staring into space. “Eight of theirs, to be exact,” she determines aloud “And the ones still breathing have a long nap ahead of them.”
“There’ll be more.” Zdir turned to stare down an adjacent tunnel leading deeper into Sinaji territory. “This isn’t over yet.”
“It’s about to be,” Grosh said, and his spiked segments rotated restlessly. He shot a glare that seemed to burn despite its lack of light at one of the still-living Sinaji, baring his teeth at him.
Solonn wondered just how many of the Sinaji had already fallen to Grosh alone. Not enough, no doubt. At least not as far as the steelix was likely concerned.
Even after all was said and done, even if they made it out of this alive and triumphant and none among the enemy survived, it might never really be enough for him.
Quiul disappeared then, taking a very tired-looking Lirimi and a none-too-happy Kala with her.
Right before another rush of light filled the tunnels beyond.
Zdir and Valdrey’s forces promptly moved to intercept the incoming wave, to keep them bottlenecked at the entrances to the chamber. Several Sinaji poured in regardless before they could stem the tide, and a couple of them promptly burst into multiple illusory copies.
Solonn took out three of these in succession, then veered sharply out of the way as Haex the bisharp slashed a fourth into nothingness. His next target proved solid; he felt the other’s armor shatter against his skull. Someone tore into his side as they rushed past; he hissed sharply, but held his ground against the threat that chose to stick around.
The Sinaji he’d engaged lunged at him again at the first opportunity. Solonn lowered his face and took the impact in his heavily-armored head, then pulled back just far enough to rake his attacker’s face with his horn and fling him a short distance away with a toss of his head.
Solonn heard the other hit the nearby wall, but saw him come back for more. He spotted another pair of them coming at him from the right, but a barrage of ancientpower stones pummeled one of them into submission just as quickly. He threw himself out of the way of them both, then fired a sheer cold blast at the already-injured Sinaji as he came to a stop. The attack hit its mark, its target dropping from midair at the impact.
<They are breaking through!> Oth called out. They launched more stones toward one of the tunnels, catching one of the newcomers square in the face, but she endured the assault well enough to unleash a sheer cold parting shot before she was brought down by a steel beam swung upside her head.
Her attack caught Grosh in the midst of another iron tail attack. The silver glow faded from around the lower third of him, and he came crashing down, forcing Solonn and several others to scatter in his wake.
He’s alive, Solonn frantically assured himself, he has to be… He couldn’t afford a glance to confirm it, not with jets of something deep purple and foul-smelling peppering the floor bare inches away. He threw his shield up—only to take a toxic shot from another source somewhere behind him the moment it fell.
His hide tingled where it struck him, then burned. The hiss that escaped him turned to a groan as the poison started to kick in. Shaking it off to the best of his ability, he spun about to ram his assailant, hoping to spot Quiul somewhere nearby in the process. Had she even returned yet? Had she tried, only to be deflected back from whence she’d come by a body thrown or charging into her path?
Solonn let out a ragged breath as armor—both his own and his target’s—shattered at his heavy impact. The other glalie fell, eyes rolling back, and Solonn was sure he’d be following suit before too long if no one neutralized the poison, all too certain of just what the attack he had suffered had been. He let out a ragged breath, biting back a surge of nausea. His body wanted nothing more than to try and purge the sickness out and shut down to sleep the rest of it off… but the fight still raged on all around him. He was still needed…
He shook his head, trying to clear his mind, but to no real avail. Facing forward again presented him with the sight of two glalie—or one glalie and an illusion—charging him in tandem, horns first, and in his delirium he reacted on instinct, trying to raise a shield—but none came.
Then a powerful burst of water blasted the copy out of existence and its maker yards away. The golduck responsible dropped to a three-point stance in front of Solonn. Barely any sooner than he’d landed, he’d whipped a handful of berries out of his pouch.
He rapped on Solonn’s teeth with his free hand. “Open up, b—” He broke off mid-word to give the glalie he’d hydro pumped moments ago a second helping. But Solonn managed to get the message through the growing pain and illness, albeit barely. His jaws parted, but shuddered all the while; the golduck only just managed to get the berries past them before they helplessly slammed shut.
The last thing Solonn felt like doing right now was eating, but he had just enough sense left to force the medicinal fruits down. Their effects, while not instantaneous, were swift in coming nonetheless; in no time, he was back off the floor, alert and well once more, his wounds no longer bleeding.
He saw something huge and reflective swing back up into view, with something blue darting away from him—Grosh had been revived. Hope welled back up within Solonn, putting all the more fight back into him—the next Sinaji he singled out was charged full-force. Another caught the business end of his horn soon after.
The din began to fade out once more, individual shapes becoming more easily discernible amid the chaos once again, and he dared to wonder if maybe it was all nearing an end. Then something new began to creep into his vision: snaking, branchlike structures of ice invading into the space surrounding them, appearing to do nothing more than grow and fan out and dance rhythmically.
He wasn’t responsible for them, and he doubted anyone else on his side was, either. Not wanting to find out the hard way just what in the world the enemy could possibly have in mind with the display, he tried to will it out of being. The branches began withdrawing quickly, very quickly, suggesting more minds than his own trying to override their conjurer’s control… but then halted in their retreat. They quivered, as if uncertain… and indeed, Solonn found himself no longer sure he wanted their dance to end, and then completely convinced that he didn’t.
As he stared, transfixed, at the hypnotic ice formation, he began to want something else altogether. Something far less benign.
The will to fight within him transformed. Vindictive anguish took its place, and it pulled his gaze away from the ice branches at last and redirected it toward the rapidash a short distance away until the brightness of the flamethrower erupting from the latter’s mouth forced him to close his eyes. But no matter. He was already locked on to his target, already blindly speeding toward the alien creature whom he now viewed as the enemy, as one of those responsible for the death of countless fellow Virc, the death of his mother…
And then his barely-thought notions of vengeance blew apart, and he could have sworn the rest of him was doing likewise.
He screamed so loudly that his voice gave out almost immediately, leaving him gasping and choking. His eyes screwed even more tightly shut, but he could still see blazing orange light stabbing into them. He dropped involuntarily, rolling onto his back and shaking uncontrollably, still fighting to breathe, his heart racing painfully. Only one coherent thought endured the onslaught: the raw, primal, terrifying certainty that he was dying.
Until it, along with all the pain, all the terror, and everything else, simply fell away.
* * *
From out of the nothingness, a gentle pulsing came, nothing at all like the panicked hammering of his heart before everything had gone black.
A couple of beats later, Solonn realized that the sensation was coming from somewhere outside him, not within.
He subsequently realized that yes, he was still alive.
He opened his eyes—or tried to. They still stung terribly, making him hiss weakly.
“No,” a gentle voice instructed him. Quiul. “Not yet. Let me finish with you first.”
Solonn fumbled about mentally for a moment, still very dazed, trying to remember just whose voice that was. The image of the mercirance to whom it belonged finally answered the summons. She made it… Even in the midst of all this chaos, she had found her way back in.
Except… where had the chaos gone? He could hear no signs of battle any longer, could hear nothing at all except scattered mutterings and the occasional pained sound from someone or another.
“There,” Quiul said, sounding a bit winded, “there. That’s the best I can do, I’m afraid. But you are stable, rest assured.”
At her words, Solonn dared to try and open his eyes again, and this time he succeeded in keeping them open. No fighting greeted them, no colliding bodies, no stones or beams in flight.
“Is it really over?” he asked, his voice still terribly hoarse.
“Don’t know,” Quiul responded.
“God, I hope so. You had me worried out of my mind there…”
Solonn turned his face upward, grimacing at the wave of dizziness that accompanied the motion. His expression softened at the sight of his father looking down at him from above, tears shimmering in his crimson eyes.
The steelix’s expression, meanwhile, did nearly the opposite as he cast a glance across the room. More gently than he’d moved before, Solonn rolled to face forward and follow it, and he saw that rapidash there, talking to Valdrey about something. She was reassuring him, from what Solonn could make out of the conversation.
Quiul looked off in that direction, too. She sighed faintly. “Grosh… you do realize it wasn’t his fault, right? It wasn’t anyone’s fault but the one who hijacked his brain.”
Hijacked his brain… Just as had happened to him, Solonn recognized. “They did the same to me,” he reported.
“And to half of the rest of us. At least.” Valdrey’s voice and hoofbeats drew Solonn’s attention next; he found the aurrade striding in slow circles around another glalie who was lying on the ground—a glalie like none he’d ever seen before. A row of spikes ran along each of the stranger’s brows, and while it was difficult to tell for certain with their light extinguished, the eyes beneath them didn’t look blue.
“I see you’ve noticed our late arrival here,” Valdrey said. “We think he’s the one who made you turn on each other.” She gave him a little kick with one of her forehooves. “Fried his own brain in the process, though.”
“He was dead inside his own skull,” Quiul said, and she almost sounded pitying. Almost. “The rest of him just hadn’t cottoned on yet.”
That likely answered the question of what, and whom, had killed the stranger. But a multitude of questions still lingered about him. He was a hybrid of some sort, Solonn suspected… but what sort of parentage could he have possibly had to give him abilities like those?
Solonn gave the slightest shake of his head, sighing bitterly to himself. They’d known to expect a mind-controller among the Sinaji, of course. They’d been prepared to prioritize any non-glalie they saw who wasn’t on their side.
He would never have guessed that such a threat could come from one of his own kind. And apparently he wasn’t the only one who hadn’t. “I’m so sorry,” Moriel said quietly. “I had no idea they had any such thing on their side—I’ve never seen a glalie like this in my entire life.”
“I don’t think any of us have,” Evane said. Alij and Viraya both gave confirming nods.
<You are not at any fault,> Oth said. <There is much your leadership did not see fit to tell you.>
“That… that is true,” Moriel acknowledged. But the way she still frowned uneasily at the hypnotist, guilt dampening the light in her eyes, told that she wasn’t altogether consoled just yet.
Solonn turned his attention completely away from the glalie with the spiked brows then, and though his body and especially his head protested, he rose from the spot, intent on finding out just how much that oversight had cost them—more to the point, to find out if it had cost him anyone close to him.
The first such question he had in mind came with a welcome answer, at least. Oth had once again made it through all right. They leaned in midair against the wall near the tunnel through which Zdir’s team had entered, their levitation a little shaky, but they looked fine otherwise.
Solonn moved over to join the claydol. “How many?” he asked. That was as far as he could stand to elaborate on the question, and not only because his throat was still so sore. He hoped that the claydol and their many eyes could assess the situation, or had already done so, more quickly and thoroughly than he could or wanted to at this point.
<All but eleven of the Sinaji who entered this cavern have now been slain,> Oth reported, though their tone made it sound almost as much like a confession, <as well as five among our number.>
Solonn fought back an urge to do a quick head count. Too many bodies. Too much mist, drawn into his lungs on every breath… He tried to shake off the unbidden, imagined sensation of it seeping into his veins, consuming him from within. It came right back.
He shuddered. “Who?” he managed to spit out.
<Three of the Hirashka: Arkhiah, Ahsrishasa, and Ghirath. Alisari and Daran were also slain.>
The thought of Kala waiting back in Mordial for her brother to return when he never would entered Solonn’s mind at the last name, and he felt something sink inside him. The preceding name clicked soon after, at which it sunk further—Alisari was the golduck, the one who had likely saved his life by neutralizing the poison. And the Hirashka soldiers, so willing to put themselves on the line for foreigners they didn’t even know—such a far cry from what the Virc forces would have offered them…
<Three others among us have been put out of commission,> Oth went on. <Zyuirilziurn, Taldira… and Zdir.>
Solonn abruptly turned to face the claydol directly. “How serious is it? Will she be all right?”
<Quiul gave a favorable prognosis,> Oth replied, <but her recovery is expected to take a considerable amount of time due to her age.>
Her age. The shock drained out of Solonn almost all at once. Of course… of course she had taken a beating. It’s a wonder she wasn’t killed outright, really. But with all she’d done for them, with all the time he’d spent training under her… even now, some tiny part of him was surprised at the reminder that no, she was not invincible.
“Heads up, we’ve got company,” Valdrey called out, and nearly every eye in the vicinity turned toward her. Past her, hesitating just outside the chamber, there hovered another of those thorn-bearing glalie. This one’s eyes still burned bright, though their light flickered at the sight before them, and there was no question about it this time: they were green, luridly so.
Hooves were thundering and glalie were surging and a bellowing steelix was lunging toward the new arrival in an instant.
“No, stop!” she cried out, only just audible over the horde closing in on her. “Please, I surrender!”
“Hold it!” Valdrey shouted, and her voice was far louder and clearer than usual. A glance in her direction told Solonn that her faceplates had retracted, revealing her gray, humanoid face.
One of Haex’s armblades split the floor in front of the newcomer, making her dart several inches backward. Grosh brought his head very, very close to the green-eyed glalie, growling deep in his throat.
Valdrey began striding closer, waving pokémon out of her way, her luminous sword at the ready all the while. As she moved forward, Oth began following close behind.
“You’d best be telling the truth,” Valdrey warned the newcomer, her head tilted back to peer down at her. “Otherwise it’s gonna get a little hazier in here.”
The newcomer nodded, her whole body shaking even as she met the aurrade’s gaze once more. “We’ll all surrender, I promise you. Just… please…” She tried to look st some point beyond where Valdrey stood, but it was clear that someone was in the way. “Let me see him, just one more time.”
“We will,” Valdrey said, “after Oth is done with you.”
“Oth? What…” Her green eyes flitted about, trying to determine who Valdrey could mean. “What are you going to do?”
“Oth’s just gonna have a little peek into your head.” Valdrey tapped at her helmet with her free hand for emphasis. “Just to make sure you aren’t trying to pull a fast one on us. I can’t speak for anyone else here, really, but personally, I’m not a big fan of liars.”
The newcomer’s eyes widened, and her mouth dropped open slightly. “I’m not lying,” she insisted, sounding more than a little offended. “There are so few of us now, and so many of you and your… your monsters…” Grosh snarled in warning at that, at which the newcomer flinched, but then resumed her affronted stare up at Valdrey.
“If that’s true,” Valdrey said evenly, putting a hand to her waist, “then you have nothing to hide.”
“It’s in your best interests to allow this,” Ronal told the newcomer. “Your safety—your life—is on the line.”
Her face twisted, the light in her eyes wavering all the more as she hung there in place, still quaking. Finally, she closed her eyes and nodded in acquiescence.
“Have at it,” Valdrey said, extending an arm toward the newcomer.
Oth placed themself before her, silent and still in their work even as their subject hissed and shuddered. She only stopped doing so once they backed off, but even then looked no more comfortable than she had since arriving there.
“So what’d you find?” Valdrey asked the claydol.
<Sathir is being sincere,> they confirmed.
Valdrey held the newcomer in her gaze for a moment more before sheathing her sword. “Then today’s your lucky day,” she said, “relatively speaking.”
The discomfort in Sathir’s expression turned to something distinctly bitter. “Can I see him now?” she asked coldly.
“He’s all yours,” Valdrey said, and stepped out of the way.
Sathir drifted forward, casting distrustful looks about at the unfamiliar creatures among the small crowd of glalie. She soon came to a stop, sinking to the floor before the other of her kind who lay dead. A hiss shuddered through her gritted teeth, then gave way to sobbing.
“Someone you knew?” Narzen asked. His tone told that he had already guessed the answer, really.
Sathir looked to him with disgust written all over her features. “I don’t owe you any more answers,” she said, her voice hitching mid-sentence. But then she sighed, turning back to face the fallen glalie again. “But you’ll just take any answers you want from me, won’t you.”
Before anyone could affirm or refute that statement, “My mate,” she informed them, “and the father of my child.” She sighed again, more bitterly this time. “There are so few of my people left in this world. Even fewer now, thanks to you.”
“Hey now. It was his bright idea to try and brainwash the lot of us at once that landed him in that position,” Narzen retorted.
Sathir’s head shot back up, and she leveled the sort of wild, furious stare at him that suggested she wanted to call him a filthy liar. But it quickly faltered. “Damn it, Averin…” she said almost voicelessly to her lifeless mate. “I told you not to try it…”
“Well, he didn’t listen, I’m afraid,” Valdrey said. “He really should have kept that little trick to himself.”
“You all should have,” Solonn spoke up. “Why?” he demanded. “Why did you do this to my brother? He doesn’t even recognize me now.” His face contorted with anguish, his eyelight going shaky. “He’s been stranded across the ocean, and if I ever see him again…” He drew in a rattling breath that seemed to turn to stone in his throat. “…I’ll have to tell him that both his mother and his father are gone. Because of you. Why,” he hissed again, his eyes momentarily blazing.
Sathir wilted almost imperceptibly under his gaze. She swallowed audibly. “It was never supposed to go this far,” she said in a brittle voice. “When we sought refuge with the Sinaji, we had no idea how dangerous they were… They were outcasts, like us. We thought we were one and the same, or almost the same… We were stupid,” she spat.
She lowered her head. “We began bewitching a few of them, their leaders… just enough to make them safe company. We used their territory as sanctuary from the Virc, with the Sinaji as guards… but at some point, that ceased to be enough. We became resentful of the Virc for making us live the way we do, the way we have for generations… the fact that so many of us never hatched and so many have been born sick and stayed sick… All at once, we were waging war on the Virc, using the Sinaji as our soldiers. The Virc children they captured for us… would have joined them.”
Solonn just stared agape at her as she sat there shaking, at a loss for words in the wake of her confession. Those children could have been sent to kill members of their own families, or to be killed by them. He might have been forced to kill Jen—and with the latter having surely evolved in that scenario, he might never have known that the blood on his horns was his brother’s, that it would have been by his own figurative hands that he and Jen would never truly reunite.
The thought of what his mother would think of that came to mind, and he snarled. “Where are the rest of your people?” The demand seemed to come out of its own accord, surprising even him.
Sathir hesitated to answer, still shaking.
“We will do them no harm, provided they agree to surrender as you have,” Quiul said. It sounded as though she were genuinely trying to sound reassuring, but her tone was missing a little of its usual warmth.
“Whereas you’ll harm me if I don’t give them up,” Sathir surmised aloud.
“No,” Valdrey said, shaking her head. “You surrendered, fair and square. We won’t change our minds unless you do.”
Sathir looked from one alien face in the crowd to another, still silent as she assessed the situation. Then she rose. “Follow me,” she said quietly, and began to return from whence she’d come.
Everyone else present began filing after her immediately, with Valdrey directly behind her. Solonn could see her hand move to hover near the hilt of her weapon as he moved out himself.
They proceeded in this fashion for some time, finally arriving at a very thick, opaque ice wall. Four Sinaji hovered before it, and wasted no time in shouting in alarm at the approaching pokémon.
“Silence,” Sathir commanded wearily. “They’re allowed to enter, all of them.”
The guards didn’t argue. Nothing about them suggested that any of them even thought to disagree. “Bewitched”, most likely, Solonn guessed.
The four of them moved aside, lingering against the walls “Stay there,” Sathir ordered them; then, “Remove the barricade,” she called out to whomever was beyond it, “and don’t be alarmed.”
There was a delay before the barrier showed any changes. Muffled, uneasy-sounding voices could be heard from the tunnel outside. Then, slowly, the wall came down.
“There they are,” Sathir all but whispered. “The last of the Rannia.”
Within the chamber that was now revealed, two other glalie like Sathir huddled against the far wall. A very small snorunt, her eyes as green as the rest of the Rannia’s, leaned against one of them, looking very listless. A third Rannian glalie hovered a bit closer to where the barrier had stood, but the look on her face suggested that she had forgotten why she had come forward.
And with them, staring in bewilderment, were Sanaika and Kashisha, with a number of blue-eyed and plainly frightened snorunt hiding and shaking behind the two of them and another pair of Sinaji.
Not taking his eyes off the strangers for even a second, “Sathir…. what the hell is going on here?” Sanaika demanded.
“Party’s over,” Valdrey responded. “Your forces are down, save for you—” She sweeps a hand across the room, indicating the entire enemy presence therein. “—and those four out there. Your hypnotist friend here has surrendered unconditionally. I’d follow suit if I were you.”
Kashisha gawked openly at the crowd, shocked or furious or both. Sanaika just stared in silence for a moment, an unspoken dare to contradict Valdrey etched into his features.
“It’s true,” Sathir said sullenly. “We have to cooperate. If we don’t… Look at them, Sanaika. My family can’t defend themselves against such creatures. They’ll slaughter us.”
“Maybe they can’t,” the Rannia who still hovered in the middle of the room said. Her eyes were wild and blazing, and her jaws quivered in the gaps between words as if itching for something to sink their teeth into. “But I can, and you can, and…” She shook her head fiercely. “No, I… I can’t give in. I won’t give in!” A snarl of erratically-twitching ice tendrils burst into being around her, forcing nearly everyone around her to leap or dart out of the way. “I won’t—”
There was a sound like a small thunderclap, and down she went, alive but insensible. Her ice sculpture vanished into vapors in an instant under the control of another now, any hypnotic command they might have carried extinguished before it could really take root.
Sathir gazed upon her pityingly for a moment, then moved toward Sanaika. “I need to know if you’re going to do this of your own accord or if I’ll have to make you do it. I don’t want to, but I will if you leave me no choice.”
“I’m not answering that question,” Sanaika said. “Not until I know what’s going to become of us if we surrender. We die if we keep fighting; do I understand correctly? The kids, too?”
<No,> Oth said. <The snorunt pose no appreciable threat. They will be relocated, as will any of you who agree to our terms.>
“Speaking of the snorunt… were these stolen, too?” Narzen asked.
“No, they most certainly were not,” one of the other Sinaji said. “How dare you even insinuate such a thing; these children belong to our people and always have.”
“Mind letting us confirm that?” Valdrey asked, signaling Oth to move forward once more.
“Just say yes,” Sathir said wearily.
The Sinaji who had spoken hesitated at first, but then nodded, closing her eyes. Moments later, <These children were not kidnapped,> Oth said.
“That’s good…” Moriel said.
“So you’re… going to take us away… Where?” the fourth of Sinaji glalie who were present demanded. “Do we get any say in the matter?”
“You can come with us to the Hirashka nation, if you wish.” Roskharha came forward, at which a couple of his surviving countrymen cast uncomfortable looks his way. Solonn did likewise—the thought of these mind-controllers and dangerous exiles headed for the same destination as one of his best friends and the family thereof didn’t sit very well with him at all.
“Captain… are you sure that’s advisable?” one of the Hirashka asked.
“They’re few enough that we can handle them. Yes, the green-eyes, too,” he answered preemptively; Sathir glared and hissed at him in response. “We’ll involve the Sisterhood if need be.”
“Hopefully that won’t be necessary,” another of the Hirashka said, and gave a faint shudder.
“It’s up to you,” Valdrey said. “Do you wanna move to Sinnoh with these nice, gracious glalie?”
<You may not get another opportunity to live among your own kind in the foreseeable future,> Oth advised the enemy.
“…I’ll go,” Sathir said. “And my family will go with me.”
Sanaika exchanged glances with Kashisha, at which she gave a melodramatic sigh that made her opinion of the circumstances all too clear. Nonetheless, she nodded in assent.
“Fine,” Sanaika said, “fine. And I suppose we have to leave right this instant?”
“Sounds good to me. What does Zdir think?” Valdrey asked.
There was a brief silence as Oth consulted with Zdir—if indeed she was in any fit state to respond at the moment. But apparently she was; <Zdir is in favor of this course of action.>
“Roskharha?” Valdrey prompted next.
“I’m ready,” he responded.
“Quiul? You up to another jump right now?”
“I’m up to several more, if it comes to that.”
“That’s good—I think it’ll take at least two. Wouldn’t want you working yourself to a twitching heap. Thuras? Go tell the boys back there to round up the live ones so we can head out.”
The gurdurr gave a quick nod and headed back down the tunnel at Valdrey’s request.
Sathir, meanwhile, had drifted off to join the three Rannia who were still awake. “Mother? Father? We have to go with them.” She spoke very slowly and deliberately, as if concerned that they wouldn’t understand her otherwise.
“Have they returned?” her mother asked, her somewhat pale eyes unfocused, her tone awed. “They’ve come to deliver us; the Vanished Ones have come to…”
Sathir held her tongue, apparently waiting for her mother’s ramblings to resume, but they did no such thing. “No… no, this is someone else. Our… our new saviors.” She didn’t bother to conceal the bitter sarcasm that accompanied those words, but it seemed lost on both of her parents.
“Oh… all right,” her mother said, then began moving unhurriedly toward the invaders along with her mate; Sathir not missing a beat, conjured a cradle of ice to catch the infant who’d been leaning against the former. The cradle rose on a stalk like a sprouting plant, then moved forward to lay the child down on top of Sathir’s head and shifted to secure her there.
Sanaika moved forward next, with Kashisha grudgingly following. The other Sinaji glalie in the room shepherded the snorunt along to join them, with some difficulty; some of them were still too terrified to move at first. Solonn couldn’t help but regard them with pity—they hadn’t asked to be here, and they’d had no hand in the Sinaji’s crimes. They probably weren’t even aware of them.
It’s over, he told himself. They don’t have to be afraid anymore. None of us do.
Or so he hoped. Trusting it… was harder. He wanted to believe that yes, the Hirashka and their “Sisterhood”, whatever that entailed, could keep them in check, and that the Sinaji who had yet to wake up would cooperate just as the ones in this room had. That Zilag and Hledas and their daughters would be safe. But with no way to know with absolute certainty that they would, true comfort eluded him.
To say nothing of the effect that a certain loose end remaining in Convergence was having on his ability to really, truly feel as though the struggle was over.
It was then that Thuras returned. “Job’s done,” she reported.
“Good. Go back and stay with them, all right? We’ll be back for the rest of you here shortly,” Valdrey said.
As Thuras departed the scene once more, “Gather together, everyone,” Quiul instructed, motioning toward everyone present to draw closer. The Sinaji and Rannia complied, though not quite in unison; a couple of the children resisted up to nearly the last moment. Once they and everyone else were finally corralled, the former territory of the Sinaji disappeared from view in a golden flash.
* * *
“And you’re sure that’s all of them?” Hledas asked.
“All of the survivors, yes,” Solonn confirmed. “Oth made sure of it.”
Across the field in a snowy valley in Sinnoh, the remnants of the Sinaji—minus two of the survivors of the initial battle, who had refused to be taken alive and who had subsequently been dispatched by Sanaika himself—muttered to one another and surveyed their new surroundings with varying degrees of apprehension.
“I’m sure they’ll be kept in line just fine,” Zilag assured her. Even as he spoke, however, he eyed Kashisha uneasily. That, Solonn imagined, was a reunion that his friend would have rather avoided.
“So now what?” Zilag then asked. “Are you gonna stay here with us, too?”
Solonn’s thoughts briefly drifted elsewhere, his eyes following soon after. His geographical knowledge was a bit rusty after so many years between him and his schooling, but he suspected that Hoenn lay in that direction.
He and Zilag were of very different minds when it came to seeing their siblings again.
“Ultimately,” he finally answered. “But first… I have to go back to Convergence. I have to find him.” He didn’t bother to elaborate. He knew he didn’t need to. “Even if we have to live apart from now on… I want to try and give back what was taken from him. He deserves to know that there’s something left of his family, his real family.”
Zilag smiled. “I had the feeling you’d say that. I wouldn’t mind going with you and getting a better look at that place, you know? From what I remember, it was pretty crazy, heh. In a good way,” he clarified quickly. “But… yeah. I’d really feel better sticking close to my family right now, all things considered.”
“Of course,” Solonn said, nodding in understanding. He rose. “I’ll go find out if and when Quiul’s ready,” he said, “and let the relevant parties know where I’m going. I suppose this is goodbye, for now.”
“Suppose so. Goodbye, and good luck,” Zilag said, at which Hledas echoed his farewell and Ryneika attempted to do so.
With that, Solonn set off in search of Quiul. Before he got very far, however, “Um… hey. I overheard what you were talking about there, and…”
Solonn turned and saw Moriel there behind him. Alij, Evane, and Viraya were with her. “Yes… what of it?” he asked.
“We were wondering if you’d be opposed to us going with you,” Moriel said. “I mean… from what I understand, there has to be some sort of funny business going on where your brother’s concerned. First he mysteriously can’t be cured of his bewitching, and then the Sinaji you brought over there mysteriously dies? Something’s up.”
“Something is very likely up,” Solonn agreed, and as he zoomed out from his goal in this endeavor and looked more intently at the process that might be involved in getting there, having these people accompany him started to look like a good idea. Possibly a very good idea. Having very many more than that was probably ill-advised—the Hirashka nation would do well to have at least a little more than a skeleton crew keeping a watch over the Sinaji and the Rannia, Sisterhood or no Sisterhood. But surely, or hopefully, they could spare a small handful.
“You’re absolutely welcome to join me,” he said. “Thank you.”
“It’s the least we can do,” Moriel said. Evane nodded in agreement, while her sister and Alij looked on in silence but showed no signs of dissent.
Solonn began leading them away, but not toward his original target. He was all in favor of having the defectors accompany him back to Hoenn for a bit, but a bad idea was a bad idea, and on the chance that pulling them away from here counted as such, he decided to seek a second opinion.
When he reached the person he had in mind, he found a potential third opinion there along with her. Good. Roskharha sat there by Zdir’s side, the latter still looking worse for wear but clearly stable and on the mend.
“Yes?” Zdir inquired somewhat weakly, taking in the small pack of glalie that had come before her.
“We want to go back to Convergence for… well, for an indeterminate length of time,” Solonn told her. “But… only if the people here can spare us.”
Zdir gave Roskharha a questioning glance. He sized up the would-be rescue party for a moment, seemingly in thought. “I’d say so,” he finally decided.
“Go and get your brother, then,” Zdir said.
Solonn lowered his head, relieved. “Thank you, he said,” and resumed his search for Quiul.
By the time he caught up with her, he had run into both Oth and Grosh. Upon informing each of them of his plans, they had requested to go with him and insisted on going with him, respectively.
After confirming that the Hirashka nation and its new citizens could afford their absence, he’d agreed to their wishes, and now the lot of them hovered or coiled before the mercirance, with Solonn ready to ask for her assistance.
But she beat him to the punch. “Let me guess: you’ve all got somewhere you need to go, right?” she asked a bit playfully.
“Yes,” Solonn said. “We need you to take us to Convergence, if you would. Jen’s still there, and he might still need help recovering his memories.”
“Well… I’m afraid I’m not much use to you where the latter’s concerned,” Quiul admitted. “But as far as the former goes, sure thing.”
<If I might make a suggestion…> Oth spoke up then. Everyone turned to face them. <I think we would do well to establish a link between the two of us,> they said, pointing a turret-hand toward Quiul. With less need for Zdir to dispense orders to her forces now, the claydol was no longer telepathically connected to her, thereby freeing the link up for another. <We would thereby be able to call upon you when we are ready to return.>
“Was just about to suggest the same thing, actually,” Quiul said. “And don’t worry: I can keep the ghostliness to myself just fine,” she assured them.
<I had no doubts that you could,> Oth said. If they actually did have any, they concealed that fact very well.
Quiul made a beckoning motion, and Oth apparently interpreted the prompt correctly; <It is done,> they announced.
“Okay then, away we go!” Quiul said. And with that, she transported them all to Convergence, and to the hope of undoing the last lingering crime of the Sinaji.
Fun fact: I was listening to Bond during one of my writing sessions for this chapter, and guess what song decided to come on just as Solonn was getting flamethrowered. Yep. “Fuego”.
I laughed for quite some time after that, heh.
Next time: Solonn’s efforts to reunite with Jen get him mixed up in another rescue effort altogether. See you then!
Incidentally, on that note, I have an announcement to make:
No further chapters of this fic will be posted until all of the remaining chapters have been written.
Why? Well, if you knew me before I started posting my fanfics publicly, you’d notice a significant difference between the way I wrote then and the way I write now.
Well, okay, several differences. But the one relevant to the hiatus-but-not-really I’m taking is the fact that back then, I wrote faster. Way faster. And I’ve determined that part of the reason was because back then, I didn’t spend so much time editing the heck out of the chapters in a too-desperate, excessive effort to make sure they were fit for eyes other than my own.
Not that I didn’t bother to do any proofreading or editing back then, of course. But back then, I waited until after the whole story was written out. The Origin of Storms wasn’t edited in the slightest until the last word of the last chapter was down on paper. Since going public with this stuff and nonsense, however, the wacky notion I got into my head that I just HAVE to release every chapter one at a time as it’s written has caused me to go into editor mode sooner and much more frequently than in the past.
I think it will work wonders for my productivity if I can put my focus back on writing first rather than splitting it between writing and editing. Especially since my editing-mind has a nasty habit of crowding out my writing-mind when given too much room to roam. And while it’s obviously too late to hold off on doing any editing at all until this fic is fully drafted, I can, at least, put this policy into effect for what remains to be written of it.
The good news is that there are only three chapters to go at this point. And it’s my hope that this new/old policy being (back) in place will mean the difference between waiting, oh, maybe a year for this story to finally reach its end as opposed to waiting perhaps three times that long—if not longer.
Happy holidays, folks, and I’ll see you when I see you.
- Sike Saner