|No Goblins Allowed
|[Vote] Healing Path
|Page 1 of 1|
|Author:||Huey Nomure [ Mon Jul 02, 2018 8:56 am ]|
|Post subject:||[Vote] Healing Path|
Required readings: Another Day, Another Fight [Part 1: Warming Up] [Part 2: Corruption]
Recommended readings: Just a Statistic
-First chapter: Panic attack POV
-Second Chapter: playful use of the word "slut"
-Epilogue: blood-related nightmare
Prologue: In and Out
Lava roiled in her veins, cyclically incinerating her thought processes in its ebb and flow.
Her skin ached, shrouded in biting cold.
Sharaka wondered if that was how a snow-covered volcano felt.
“You couldn't come up with something poetic if your life depended on it.” The roaring laughter of her friend Shari echoed from her memory, fondness overwhelmed by a skull-splitting migraine.
Death. That was a familiar concept. Was she supposed to be dead?
At that thought, the lava rose up and her whole body screamed in agony until the very concept of time turned to ashes.
…what had she been thinking about? Snow? Mountains? Death?
Would death bring her soul back to the Fire? She felt scars, sins within. Cold chains weighed her down from the outside.
Her nostrils found grassy smells beyond the crust of ashes. Spring already?
The burning faded, and with it her consciousness.
* * *
Sharaka had no hope of remembering how many lava tides she had suffered, but finally she felt more feverish than smoldering. The freezing cold became merely uncomfortable chill, sometimes replaced by itchy wetness. She still smelled herbs, but now she could find hints of old building lime, soap, human sweat, briny mana…
The last smell sent a shiver down her spine. She couldn't remember why.
* * *
Sharaka woke up as the chilly shroud was lifted from her face. Her eyelids felt heavy and greasy, and opening her eyes required a ridiculous amount of concentration. A blurry, white-ish human figure was lumbering over her, holding a rat-sized, weird-smelling shape near her head. Sharaka smelled a surge of human sweat and fear; the smelly thing fell with a wet noise and the figure disappeared, rhythmic footsteps tracking its retreat. Weariness closed her eyes again.
She woke up again at the sound of footsteps and a muffled conversation.
“…already be awake?” Warm, confident, tired. An old voice.
“I swear! It glared at me!” Shrill, trembling. Weak-hearted youth.
“She is probably more tired and confused than angry,” came the placid correction. Sharaka couldn't determine the third voice's age. “To answer your question, Mother Eliana, pyromancers tend to be unusually resistant to burns. And you surely remember how strong she proved to be when she first arrived here.”
“…I have to admit I had little hope for it-her- at first.” The old voice, Eliana. “Any human would have been as good as dead in that condition, but viashino are clearly made of tougher stuff.” Sharaka's chest swelled with pride, but deflated quickly as a jolt of pain wracked her torso. The weakest hiss escaped her lips.
“I believe Brother Cyrus is right; she may be awake,” the third voice said, now at the limit of her hearing. Had they heard her?
“Let me have a look,” Eliana said. A door opened, and footsteps came closer. Sharaka could play dead, but to what end? She was barely able to open her eyes to a slit, let alone sit up, and she didn't feel like the situation was going to improve soon. Something touched her neck. After a few faint heartbeats, the thing moved to her right eyelids and parted them, gently but firmly.
Sharaka stared at a black-skinned human, who raised a hand and snapped its fingers. A bright ray of light blinded her; she hissed again and tried to move her head away, with little results. After a moment, the light faded and her eye closed again.
“Weak as a kitten, but as healthy as anyone can realistically hope for,” Eliana murmured to herself absentmindedly. “And definitely conscious,” the human added more loudly.
The door opened again. “Can I-“ the third voice began, and the briny smell snaked into her nostrils, bringing back memories from her hazy mind-
-a human woman stepped away from her, the snowy smell from her hands intensifying as an unspoken threat-
-she raised an axe high above her head, towering over her mother-
-the vedalken’s thoughts forced themselves into her mind, violating the last part of herself she could consider her own-
-the shackles clicked shut, and magic stole her very body from her-
-Sharaka fell to her knees.
The smothering cold filled her lungs.
Time stretched into an endless agony-
Sharaka stiffened painfully.
Her breaths grew heavy and frantic.
She tried to crawl away, but she could only shake like a frightened hatchling.
She heard herself whine pitifully, but panic smothered shame.
Sharaka heard Eliana bark an order, and a soft warmth washed on her body. The warmth eased her pain and filled her nostrils with the smell of incense. Her shaking breaths slowed and the tension in her muscles melted as snow in spring. The terror was slowly eroded by drowsiness.
When Sharaka was able to think straight again, Eliana's voice was droning softly from above: “It's alright, liya, you can rest, you're safe now. It's alright, liya, just sleep and all will be better tomorrow…”
Some time later, Sharaka heard a sharp whisper: “Sunless Hell, liya, what did he do to you?”
Sleep took her before she could reply.
Chapter One: Down and Out
Sharaka found opening her eyes slightly easier the next day, but neither sight nor smell were able to find anything familiar about her cell. Barred window aside – the metal seemed even cruder than the Imperial standard - the walls were whiter than the ones in the prisoners' wing of the arena, and the lingering smell of humans was partly hidden by the scent of some kind of soap. Sharaka was confused. Nero had been clear: prisoners with disabling injuries were culled or sold as slaves with few exceptions, and judging by what Sophron had thrown at Sharaka – a widely renowned gladiator with a suit of armor specifically warded to counter her – the slaver wanted her dead, no two ways about it.
…Was she still trapped in the illusion? No, the Reaper would have ended the fight quickly. Was she dead? And doomed to be forever in the meddling hands of humans? Spirits couldn’t be that cruel. Hopefully.
Not that she had much going for her, Sharaka realized bitterly. Killing a fellow viashino… Trying to return to the Fire while still alive… Including several hundred humans in a sacred rite hardly helped her case either. She wouldn’t be surprised to be gnawed by the dragons’ cursed ghosts for the rest of the eternity… but spirits would never use humans to punish a viashino soul, Sharaka was pretty sure. She had dozed during half the lessons about the afterlife at the Forge, but she couldn’t remember Fireless beings involved. Eternal darkness, hail, blade-wind, lightning, and mad dragons, yes; fussy humans, not so much.
The realization didn't bring much solace. If she was still alive, she was still captive and morally obligated to free herself. Not that she enjoyed the prospect of slavery, but she was so mortally tired…
The opening of a door interrupted her trail of thought. The old black human and the young white one entered. Sharaka tried to remember… Mother Eliana and Brother Cyr-whatever: she and he. Mother and brother of whom, Sharaka couldn't begin to guess: the only things they had in common where the white clothes and a faint trace of soap in their smell.
“You look better today,” Eliana declared warmly after meeting Sharaka's gaze.
“Do you think it can understand us, Mother?” The spineless Brother asked nervously.
“It doesn’t matter, Cyrus,” Eliana replied evenly. “Remember the lectures about speaking to hurting people?”
Cyrus pondered the question as the old woman felt Sharaka’s heartbeat with two fingers. “Um… tone is more important than words?” the boy tried at last.
“Exactly, though I'll want a quicker answer next time,” Eliana said with the same tranquil voice as she kept Sharaka's eyelids wide open and pointed a narrow ray of magical light at her right eye, then at her left one. “I've lost count of how many crying babies I've set to sleep listing the medicinal properties of chamomile. If I had to guess, I'd say her kind of mouth is only able to articulate rather simple and brutal sounds, far from the complexity of human language.”
Now Sharaka had to say something, sand-dry throat or not. She tried to think of something witty, but she couldn't trust her numb tongue with long sentences. “You're not his… real mother,” she hissed, little more than a whisper, but Cyrus startled and even Eliana stared at her with wide open eyes for a moment. All in all, Sharaka was satisfied with the result.
“Not in the sense of physically giving birth, no,” Eliana said, recovering quickly. “A lesson for us both, Cyrus, hasty assumptions make for gross blunders.” The woman turned to the scared boy, who stole a quick glance at her and made a show of relaxing his stance. Sharaka still smelled fear, but Eliana returned her gaze to the viashino. “I'm sorry for speaking as if you weren't there. My name is Eliana; people call me Mother as a sign of respect. Nice to meet you.”
Sharaka had the impression the woman was using simple words on purpose. Eliana stared at Cyrus until the boy managed a strangled “I'm Cyrus.”
Eliana seemed to wait for Sharaka's name. The viashino tried and failed to guess a connection between her and Sophron. Until she understood her situation better, there was no reason to be confrontational. “Sharaka,” she said, trying to be as clear as possible. “Brutally articulated… enough for you?” Not excessively confrontational, Sharaka corrected herself.
Eliana didn't skip a beat. “Now that the pleasantries are accounted for, Sharaka, I'll explain why we're here. See this?” She asked, lifting a bucket to Sharaka's eye level; the viashino recognized the weird smell from the previous evening. Judging by the sloshes, Eliana was stronger than her thin frame suggested. “It contains a rare solution that should help with your burns, making your recovery faster and…”
…and Sharaka tuned her out; she had never been good at Healers stuff. More importantly, they seemed genuinely working to heal her. Why? Did they buy her from Sophron? Steal her? How? What happened after… the Rite? After a while the viashino noticed Eliana had finished talking and was watching her expectantly. “What?” Sharaka grumbled. Nice work; right when they'd started to treat her like something resembling a person.
“Are you hungry, Sharaka? Do you feel like eating something today?” Eliana asked; she didn't seem annoyed, but she certainly had more self-control than Brother Spineless.
Sharaka took a moment to listen to her body. In the chorus of pain, her stomach had a booming voice. “The sooner the better.”
“Good.” Eliana nodded and sent the boy to fetch some food. “In the meantime, I'd better put myself to work,” she said, picking a dripping sponge from the bucket. “Close your eyes, please.”
The itchy liquid was weirdly pleasant this time. Sharaka had the feeling her burnt skin was avidly drinking it as dripped between her thin, brittle scales; the viashino expected a very uncomfortable molt in her near future. When Spineless returned with a bowl of soup – without the faintest trace of meat, judging by the smell - and Eliana seemed about to spoon-feed her, Sharaka shot her a withering glare.
“Not a chance. Just pour it down,” Sharaka hissed, parting her jaws. “Ever seen a reptile eat?” she asked when Eliana hesitated. Sharaka opened her mouth wide, showing the humans her broad throat. “Couldn’t choke on it… if I tried.”
Eliana eventually capitulated; the soup was lukewarm and bland but her stomach appreciated the gesture. Her throat felt better too; time to test the terrain. “Better than nothing, but meat's best, if there's any.” Plants made her sleepy, for starters, but that's not something humans should know.
“There might be stew tomorrow,” Eliana said.
Sharaka suddenly felt air on her legs, and Spineless picked up another sponge. Itch time. Sleep began to creep on her while the humans worked, and Sharaka wondered what they were actually doing. Preparing for some mad experiment? She sniffed deeply, hoping to find scents from beyond the barred window: there were smells of suffering, blood, some trace of decay… but she couldn't bring herself to take them as evidence; viashino infirmaries smelled worse even in times of peace...
…and the stench of an infirmary after a battle was the stuff of nightmares…
-Sharaka forced her mind away from the war: weak and far beyond enemy lines, she had no way to help her kind. She had to learn more about her situation. Her captors' motives and goals. The term Eliana had used… “What's a 'liya'?” Sharaka asked, feeling her eyelids become heavier and heavier.
“It's a… term of endearment from our dialect,” Spineless replied after a while. “It's something like… 'little sunshine' or 'ray of sunshine', I guess. W-why do you ask?”
Sharaka, “little sunshine”? The viashino wanted to level an inquisitive stare at Eliana, but she was too sleepy to keep her eyes open. Spineless' curiosity could wait. Eventually the humans replaced the oily sheet on her snout and left the room. She had the impression they had forgotten something…
She slept fine until she dreamed about being stalked by Sophron; Sharaka slipped in and out of wakefulness, but constantly felt someone, something staring at her.
* * *
The next day there was, in fact, mutton stew; Sharaka smelled it long before Spineless entered the room with a bowl, along with… leather and armor polish. There were armed guards outside her room; the fact didn't surprise her, and failed to wipe her stupid grin from her snout. She noticed that the point of her tail was raised in excitement without hurting too much; she was regaining her strength. Sharaka took a good long sniff to make sure there wasn't some nasty surprise in the stew, then opened her mouth wide.
“It's… it's steaming hot,” Spineless objected to her unspoken demand. Sharaka glared at him, and her stomach grumbled loudly before her brain could formulate an intelligible response; the boy didn't argue and upended the bowl over her gaping mouth. She closed her eyes, and for a moment she was at peace.
“How long before I'm able to hold a bowl with my own hands?” Sharaka didn't exactly mind wolfing down food like that, but it wasn't the best way to taste it; the stew was no Goat-charcoal, but leagues above the hope-it's-not-rat meat Sophron was used to provide. And more importantly, the answer could shed some light on the humans' intentions. “Did Eliana tell you anything?” The old woman was likely to have more answers, but she expected Cyrus' lies to be easier to spot.
What she didn't expect was Cyrus immediately starting to sweat like a pig on the spit. “…w-with your own ha-hands, you s- you say?” The boy stepped back.
Sharaka gathered her strength, and with a small surge of magic she was able to prop herself on her right elbow; her back, shoulder and arm howled in protest, but she wanted to stare Cyrus in the eyes. The boy startled badly; he was really scared of something beyond her mere existence. “Yeah. Hands, claws, whatever,” Sharaka insisted, using another bit of magic – and suffering another angry jolt of pain - to extend her left arm and wiggle her fingers.
Except there were no fingers to wiggle.
Beyond her shoulder there was a short stump covered in bandages and dried blood.
Her veins filled with cold ashes.
She looked down the bloody stump, straight in the glassy, pleading eyes of Ruahs. The chest of the older viashino was covered in bandages; the human battlemage she was distracting had been quicker than expected, and when Sharaka had rallied enough pyromancers to boil it within its own warded armor Ruahs had already been tossed aside like a doll.
Sharaka turned to ancient Nati, wordlessly asking what she had been called for, and the wizened Healer shoved a spear in her hands. “What? I… no…” Sharaka stammered as she realized what she was supposed to do. Nati laid a hand on her shoulder.
“You're a bit young, but she requested her commander for this,” the Healer said, gently but firmly.
“I… I'm not even a Warrior… our Commander-”
Nati grabbed the back of Sharaka’s neck, the points of his retracted claws resting on her scales. “Yes, she's dead, Sharaka, I saw her die,” he hissed in Sharaka's ear. “Butyou are the one who led her to this, so Commander or not, show some respect and discharge her with the honor she deserves so we can leave this blasted pass before the humans overrun us. Got it?” Sharaka managed to nod. Nati patted on her back. “Good girl.”
Sharaka's hands were shaking. Ruahs was from the Inner Passes, a short and bulky Fighter with a talent for goldsmithing and a soft spot for hatchlings. In better circumstances, she could have become a Leader. Now, the most honorable thing she could aspire to was a culling from the hands of a seventeenth-winter makeshift commander she had met three days ago.
In better circumstances, Sharaka would have been the one wheezing on a blood-soaked blanket.
“You have honored me by fighting under my command, and set an example for all viashino with your bravery and loyalty,” Sharaka began with a trembling voice. “Ruahs Sharakak Dornati, I commend your devotion to the Fire, to the spirits, and to the living.” Sharaka lifted the spear, lining it up with Ruahs's eyes. Right when Sharaka thought she couldn't feel any worse, Ruahs's face broke into a weak, grateful smile. Sharaka fought back tears. “May your return be swift.”
“Do you know what you've done?” Sharaka snarled, her reason evaporated. She smelled piss. She sat up with a grunt, gathering energy out of sheer spite. The air around her was trembling with heat. “Do you have any idea?” she roared, instinct gathering fire in her lungs, then-
-a waft of blue magic, two hands on her shoulders, and her muscles gave out. Sharaka heard the scales on her back crunch like dry leaves, but she felt no pain. She felt panic rising up, but she fought it with anger: she would not submit to fear again. She tried to move her right arm, to no avail. She tried to breathe fire, but the mana just whirled restlessly around her; the hands twitched, but there was no further reaction. She snarled in frustration.
As she kept glaring at the blue-clad human keeping her down, Sharaka smelled concern, distress and fear from it, as well as the leather and polish of the guards. Slowly coming to terms with the fact that she was unable to resist the magical bounds, Sharaka forced herself to breathe deeply and focused on analyzing her situation.
She couldn't move a muscle and she felt nothing from her neck downwards, but she could control her breathing; it was different from the shackles. The smell of blue binding magic – a penetrating briny stench – came from the human’s hands: they probably needed to remain in contact with her body to maintain the effect. Maybe she could get the human away from her by heating herself up. The guards smelled strongly of adrenaline, not a good thing when she was unable to lift a finger. The boy was blind fear and piss.
The blue mage – the only thing she could see from her position – was looking forward, probably at the guards, and speaking with a nervous tone. Before she could figure out what he was saying, the guards' smell faded a bit: some of them had left.
“I am starting to think I have some spectacularly bad luck, as far as first impressions go,” the human said. Sharaka started to smell Eliana's scent. “I apologize for barging in like this, but in my opinion attacking anyone around here, you included, would be unadvisable. My name is Elphimas, and I… we will have other occasions to talk, I hope,” the human added with a nervous smile, and Sharaka recognized it as Third Voice. The blue mage stepped back, lifting both hands, and a tingling sensation washed over her body.
“Elphimas, get away from her,” Eliana commanded, entering the room by stride. “Now. And what in the sunless Hell happened to you, Cyrus?”
“I know you asked me to stay outside, but Sharaka was about to-” Elphimas tried to explain.
“I didn't ask, I ordered,” Eliana hissed, “because the last time she heard your voice she had a wretched panic attack, you idiot! What did you do to her?”
“She seems fine now, all things considered,” Elphimas replied, “And she could answer your question herself.”
“Judging by her condition we should be grateful she's able to put together coherent sentences,” Eliana said, returning to her usual measured tone, “let alone relive traumatic-”
“Shut up!” Sharaka roared, and beyond her best expectations, the humans obeyed. “Stop bickering like brats and stop talking as if I wasn't here. And prop me up against something so I don’t have to talk to the thrice-damned ceiling.” Incoming migraine aside, Sharaka was far less tired than she thought she would be.
Eliana quickly regained control of the situation, but between ordering Spineless accompanied to his quarters and directing Elphimas to the farthest point of the room from Sharaka, the woman remembered to send for an old rolled blanket so the viashino could finally look at the humans without staring up their noses.
“We'll start with the most recent issue,” Eliana said as she positioned herself to look at Sharaka and Elphimas at the same time, and opened her arms. “Someone explain this mess.”
“I was waiting outside when I heard worrisome noises,” Elphimas said, smiling placidly, before Sharaka could even start to formulate an answer, “and I was afraid there might be an… altercation, so I came in and used magic with anesthetic effects to defuse the situation.”
Eliana shot a calculating look at the blue mage before addressing Sharaka. “You were about to attack Cyrus.” Her eyes were far colder than her level tone.
“You cut my good arm off,” Sharaka replied sharply, “I can play that game too. Brother Spineless is right-handed, isn’t he?”
“You will not make threats while under my care,” Eliana commanded, voice hard as steel, and Sharaka had to suppress a shiver. The next moment, the woman's tone became warm again. “I understand you're upset, but I'll have you know that every member of our Order has sworn not to bring any creature to harm under their watch. The most powerful healing magic we have was barely able to slow the necrosis in your left arm when you were brought here. I ordered the amputation myself before it could spread further; you wouldn't have survived the day otherwise.”
Sharaka lowered her gaze, remembering the last moments of the fight with the Reaper; she had felt the pain in her left hand as if it had been miles away. As if Sharaka had been miles and years away, lost in a bonfire of self-hatred. Eliana smelled sincere; the viashino wasn't sure she’d be able to smell the woman's lies, but instinct said her intentions were good. “I understand,” Sharaka said after a moment of somber silence. “I was lost to anger.”
Another long moment passed, and nobody seemed eager to speak. Eventually, curiosity had the best of Sharaka. “Where am I, exactly? Last thing I remember I… I was fighting for my life against the bastard who cursed my arm.”
“You are in the Abbey of Dawn, home to the Order of the Sacred Light,” Eliana said. “About a week ago, Elphimas showed up asking for our help. He told us he had found a gravely hurt viashino, and I sent men to bring you here, where we were able to treat your wounds thanks to the books he provided.” Eliana stopped to look meaningfully at Elphimas. “I know nothing of what happened before.”
“I found Sharaka exactly where your men did,” Elphimas replied. “I do not think I have ever seen her before, and I have mere hypotheses about how she arrived there.”
“Can she travel the Scars too?” Eliana asked. The blue mage shrugged, earning a critical look from Eliana. “We will talk about this later. Sharaka, could you confirm that? Have you ever met him before waking up in here?” She didn't trust Elphimas completely, that much was clear; which would be more convenient, fueling that doubt or placating it?
Sharaka sniffed deeply. Elphimas had an eerie marine scent on him that she had already smelled, but she couldn't place it. Magic aside, the human smelled very different from Eliana and Cyrus; did he come from a different land? It may warrant some wariness, but… “I don't recognize his face, but I can't say the same of his smell.” As soon as Sharaka had said it, Elphimas's smile faded a little, his magic subtly flared, and his human smell changed slightly to resemble Eliana's. The viashino realized where she had smelled that scent of his magic before: thick fog coming from the ocean. Sharaka's mouth split in a predatory grin. “That's not your real face, is it?” Elphimas's smile disappeared completely.
Eliana's brow furrowed. “Give me a good reason not to call for the guards.” A firm gesture, and a bubble of light formed around her and Sharaka, to the utter astonishment of the viashino. Sharaka had almost immolated Cyrus, and Eliana thought she was still worth protecting?
“I have no desire to cause you harm nor discomfort. Quite the opposite, in fact.” The blue mage closed his eyes and hung his head.
“Keep talking,” Eliana commanded. “Who are you?”
“My name is Elphimas, as you already know, the same that was cared for in this very abbey that time,” he explained. “If you think me a liar, I can recite the title of every single book I read in the library and the story of every person I spoke with before I left. I had this disguise on when I arrived, and then I thought it was easier to keep it up.”
“Why?” Eliana asked. “Were you fleeing from someone?”
“His racial guilt, maybe,” Sharaka sneered. “You're not human, right? You're vedalken.”
“Surprisingly correct, Sharaka. That corroborates my first hypothesis,” Elphimas replied with a faint smile, lifting his head slightly.
“And what kind of creature is ‘vidalken’?” Eliana asked, hints of frustration coming through her scent.
“You don't know…” Sharaka stared at her, nonplussed. “You bloody serious?”
“Mother Eliana, both Sharaka and I come from places you have probably never heard nor read about,” Elphimas said, dismissing the illusion and showing himself: a skinny vedalken with a robe very similar to the illusory one and deep dark circles around his closed eyes. “The ability I use to traverse the Scars allows me to reach well beyond them, to lands so far from here they have never heard of such catastrophes. I believe Sharaka has a similar ability too, albeit somewhat dormant. And before you ask, I think my biology is compatible enough with most human treatments that it would be very difficult to notice the difference just by watching the reactions.”
Eliana remained silent, taking in Elphimas's true appearance. Her surprise seemed genuine.
“Dormant or not, I'm not a teleporter,” Sharaka objected; when she had left the Forge, there were two known spatial mages out of millions of viashino with magical inclinations; if she had any talent for such magic they would never have let her volunteer for the front.
“I was not suggesting that,” Elphimas replied. The smell of fog flared again, and the human illusion reappeared. “I was talking about something more obscure; with any luck I will have time to explain myself better.”
“Are you really hoping I'll let you stay around after this?” Eliana’s frustration was sneaking into her voice.
“I am,” Elphimas replied innocently. “I have hidden that part of my identity to integrate better into the community. Is that so heinous a crime? I shared your food, your water, your library. I told stories to your children and in turn I listened to theirs. I carried missives and supplies beyond the Scars. I never sought to harm or to exploit you in any way. You healed me, and I owe you for that, but I will ask for one more favor: let me keep my disguise and live as I have lived until now. Please.”
“Should I lie for you? Is that what you're asking?” There was distaste in Eliana's tone.
“Have I ever lied to you?” Elphimas asked. “I looked like a human, so you believed me a human. You never questioned that belief, so I never had to say anything but the truth. In the unlikely event of someone inquiring about it, I would ask you to invite them to speak with me.”
Eliana stared at him for a tense moment. “You won't leave the Abbey until you explain to me the nature of your race and your powers.”
Elphimas sighed in relief. “I'll try to be as clear as possible.”
“You won't enter any part of the Abbey or the Cathedral again without announcing yourself to the guards.”
“As you wish.”
“And if I ever discover that you've lied to me…”
“I will try my best to convey the necessary context to the information I give to you.”
Eliana sighed and let the light shield fade. “Can't ask for much more, can I? Now go. We'll talk later.”
“I wouldn't trust a vedalken,” Sharaka said after Elphimas was gone.
“Would you take a member of another race under your roof and watch over him like one of you own children?” Eliana replied. “Would you let them stay after they threatened to dismember one of your own?”
Sharaka had the decency to look ashamed. “Point taken.”
“So can I trust you not to harm my people?”
“Yeah,” Sharaka replied with a lop-sided grin. “As long as they don't keep pruning my limbs like an overgrown grapevine.”
Eliana chuckled wearily. “Deal.”
Chapter Two: Up and About
“Good morning, Sharaka. What are you doing?” Eliana asked. The viashino had heard the door open, but hadn't bothered to look at the familiar guests.
“Speeding up my molt,” Sharaka replied, scratching out the last old scale from her jaw. She lowered her snout and met the boy’s gaze. “I apologize for yesterday, Cyrus; I wasn’t thinking.” Sharaka made a show of averting her eyes. “It won't happen again.”
Cyrus nodded, still tense, and lowered his bucked of itchy fluid to the ground. Eliana smiled warmly at the boy and the viashino. “That's good to hear. Are you sure what you're doing is healthy, Sharaka?” The woman stepped closer with a bowl of rabbit stew in hand, inspecting the patches of shiny new skin.
“Maybe? I've done it more times than I care to remember.” Sharaka rolled onto her right side with difficulty; she extended her tail behind her as support and moved her lower legs beyond the border of her oddly raised bed. “What I am sure of is that the itch of the old scales drives me crazy.” She tried to sit up like that – sitting with her tail between her legs was almost impossible without using an arm for support, and mighty uncomfortable besides - but her muscles gave out halfway there.
“You shouldn't exert yourself, Sharaka; you need to give your body time.”
“Screw that,” Sharaka hissed as she tried again, with the help of magic this time. The stab of pain from her back was so hard that her vision flashed red, but she was successful; she took a few deep breaths and beckoned for the food with her hand. “You can't use caresses if you want good steel.”
Eliana gave the viashino the bowl with a frown. “Judging by our smith's attempts at first aid, forging wisdom should remain in the smithy.”
Sharaka tried to take the bowl with her left hand; grimacing, she lowered the stump and used her right arm. “And here I thought throwing ill people into a bonfire and hammering them into shape was a valid healing procedure,” Sharaka mused as she savored the first morsel of rabbit.
Cyrus broke into laughter. Sharaka stared at him, nonplussed, and waited for the boy to stop as she ate. When he did he shook his head, out of breath. “I'm sorry, it's my nerves. It’s all so absurd…”
Sharaka smirked in return. “How come he laughs at my jokes and you don’t?” She asked Eliana.
“Because I make a point of not laughing at deflections,” the woman replied, warm as ever.
Sharaka rolled her eyes. “Yeah, alright, I'll make sure not to snap myself in half or something. Happy?”
“It would be in your best interest to respect your healing body,” Eliana said as she took back the empty bowl. “I can tell you enjoy physical exercise, but I see you're not used to being bedridden for more than a few days. Please keep in mind that the limits of your body will not be the same until you recover completely, which may happen weeks after you regain the ability to walk. In practical terms, if you try to do something and your body gives out, I suggest you wait a while before trying again.”
Sharaka thought about arguing, but eventually she just nodded; just sitting up for a few minutes had drained most of her energy, even without taking back pains into account. “Can I keep scratching off the old scales? They're really annoying.”
“Well, if you're already molting, it sounds like a waste to treat the old scales,” Eliana observed as she looked at the crumpled scales on the viashino's back. “We should probably just help you remove them. Is there a standard alternative to claws?”
“The most popular is using the back of a knife, but I think it's best for everyone if there are no blades pointed in my general direction,” Sharaka said with a grimace. “Anything with a sharp wooden edge is fine, though. Just avoid stakes, if you can forgive my pickiness.”
“Nothing resembling a weapon,” Eliana summarized. “I can hardly object to that.”
Sharaka nodded. “Did Elphimas told you about the obscure power I supposedly awakened?”
“He did,” Eliana said, “but we agreed you should only talk to him when you'll be able to walk on your own to the library.”
Sharaka knew that kind of ‘we agreed.’ It meant ‘I said it, and nobody had the nerve to cross me.’ “Afraid I might do something stupid?”
Eliana's silence was a clear enough answer.
* * *
Eliana continued to be surprised by the speed of Sharaka's healing, but the viashino was just disappointed with her own body.
The next day, her back showed its resentment by aching so much she could barely prop herself up on her elbow by evening.
The second day, Sharaka was able to sit up for a few hours and even managed to stand up for a few seconds, but she barely caught herself on the bed when her knees yielded.
The third day, she was able to walk to her room’s door, though it took an hour to do so andvshe wasn't sure she'd have been able to return to bed without Eliana's assistance.
The third night Sharaka awoke to a new smell. A human, unannounced, creeping up on her at night. Sharaka fought not to tense up, feigning to be still asleep, while she gathered mana and breathed deeper to learn more. The human smelled… young, afraid but very excited. Even younger than the small shepherd she had seen during her first raid, when Sharaka herself was little more than a hatchling. Even in her weakened state, such a young human could hardly represent a danger to her. Sharaka opened one eye.
The dark-skinned youngling was barely taller than her bed, with a big head full of black curls. It was staring at her tail, its eyes wide and its mouth half open. Its gaze slowly moved from her tail to her legs, then to her arms; when it stepped forward to get a better view of her head, the youngling noticed her open eye and froze, radiating fear like a cornered hare. Sharaka remained motionless for a while, and eventually the human's excitement surpassed its fear again.
“Um… hello?” it whispered tentatively.
“Hello yourself,” Sharaka whispered back; the young human’s eyes grew even wider.
“You're very big,” the youngling observed.
“And you are very small,” Sharaka replied, deadpan.
“Are you… a dragon?” The youngling asked, fear spiking.
Sharaka fought back the instinctive snarl. “My kind killed those beasts. I'm viashino.”
“Nice to meet you, Viashino,” the youngling said, “my name is Ilay.”
“No, my name is Sharaka,” she corrected, “and I’m viashino.”
“I don’t understand,” Ilay said.
“You are human, I am viashino,” Sharaka explained. “Your name is Ilay, mine is Sharaka.” She wondered if she had been that slow when she was Ilay’s size. Probably worse; she had always been big for her age.
“Ah. Got it.” Ilay remained for a while. “Wait, dragons are dead?”
“As far as I know.”
“I knew it!” Ilay said, snapping its fingers triumphantly. “My father said a dragon would swoop down and eat me alive if I was bad, but I never saw a dragon. I bet he never saw one too.”
“I bet he never saw one either.” Sharaka rolled her eyes at herself. Teaching a human youngling to speak, Sharaka? Really? What was next, adopting one?
“Yeah, that's what I meant,” Ilay blurted loudly, evidently disappointed by the fact the huge talking reptile was correcting its speech.
Sharaka heard muffled noises from outside. “Do the guards know you're here?”
Ilay looked at the door. “Do you think they're waking up?”
“They're asleep?” Sharaka chuckled. “I've got half an idea to laugh out loud now.”
“Please don't do that,” Ilay said, and tiptoed away from the bed. The youngling put its ear to the door. “I should probably go.”
“Yep,” Sharaka replied. Ilay slowly opened the door, looked one way and the other, then sneaked outside.
The next morning, Sharaka was able to walk to the door – she still had to keep her hand on the bed or against the wall to keep her balance - before Eliana could show up. When Sharaka stepped outside, both guards – one short, old, and white; the other tall, young and black - turned to stare at her, hands on their sheathed swords. She replied with the widest smile she could manage without showing teeth.
“Such valiant warriors,” Sharaka said with all the sweetness she could muster. “Did you have the night shift as well?”
The guards exchanged a look, then the older one spoke. “Yes?”
“I was just curious,” Sharaka replied innocently, “did you find it particularly…” She smiled again, this time displaying all her teeth. “Resting?”
The old guard harrumphed. “I don't know what you mean.”
“Oh, I'm sure you don't. Such vigilant guards…” Sharaka should probably have stopped teasing them, but it was too much fun. “There's no way anyone, especially a youngling, could sneak in here under your watchful eyes. Not a chance.”
The young guard caught up faster. “A child?” It scanned the room behind her, fear spiking, evidently looking for traces of blood and gore on the walls.
“You're misrepresenting my intelligence, my eating manners and the attractiveness of human meat, all at once. Kind of impressive,” Sharaka commented drily.
“Do you kill kids, monster?” The young guard half-unsheathed its sword, and Sharaka instinctively gathered mana in her lungs. Before the viashino could articulate an answer, the old guard put a hand on the other human's shoulder. “Stop right there, young man.”
“Listen to old age's wisdom,” Sharaka commented; the old guard harrumphed again. “I promised Eliana to stay put as long as you behave; unsheathe that sword, and someone will have to explain why there's blood splattered on her abbey's walls,” she added, leaving little doubt about who she thought would be left standing.
A moment of tense silence followed. Even the old guard was eyeing her warily now, though its hand was still on the other's shoulder.
Sharaka inhaled sharply as a jolt of pain came up her left arm. She had to learn to mind her tongue. “Listen, the kid came in while you were sleeping, we talked a bit and it left without a scratch. I just wanted to tease you. I get that we’re all nervous - I'm alone and surrounded by strangers, for one - but don’t assume I’m a bloodthirsty monster just because I’m scaly.” She had tactically omitted the Cyrus incident… and anything she had done before waking up in the abbey, for that matter. “So can you please sheathe that sword before Eliana comes and uses us for target practice?”
The appeal to higher authority seemed to work. The young guard stepped back and returned to its position, still openly glaring at her. As if summoned, Eliana's smell reached Sharaka's nostrils, and the old woman appeared shortly after.
“Good morning. Please step inside, Sharaka, I'm not going to wash you in the middle of the hallway,” Eliana said calmly. When Sharaka was about to protest, she added, “If you think going back to bed is a major setback, I seriously doubt you'll be reaching the library today.”
Sharaka rested for a bit after Eliana was gone, then climbed out of the bed and resumed her struggle with verticality. The guards were different this time; only one of them stepped hastily back, but both of them kept a hand on their swords. They were fair-skinned, red-haired and equally tall, but the smiling one was brawny while the skittish scowling one was lean. Sharaka realized she should have planned something to say before engaging them.
“Hello there,” she began. “My name is Sharaka. Has Eliana told you I'm supposed to go to the ‘library’?”
“She has said you might try, though she doubts you'll manage before next week,” the smiling one said. “I'm Lywinn, she's Lucita and yes, we’re twins.” They certainly looked alike, but while Lucita had the slightly rank scent of the constantly angry, Lywinn smelled… she smelled a lot like Nive. “Though everyone says I'm the pretty one,” Lywinn added smugly. Lucita scoffed at that, but the corner of her mouth turned up slightly. “Alright, we're both stunning, but most people become jumpy when you glare at them like you're about to bite their... appendages off. A few like, though; what about you, scaly hunk?” she asked with a winning smile.
Sharaka stared at the talkative twin, nonplussed.
“Are you flirting?” Lucita said, echoing the viashino's thoughts. The lean twin sounded vaguely horrified, but kept staring unblinkingly at Sharaka. “Please tell me you're not flirting with the giant reptile, Ly.”
“Nah, just messing with you,” Lywinn said with a wink.
Sharaka wasn't too convinced that was the case… and, surprisingly, she realized she didn't mind. “Taking advantage of the sick? The excitable elders must adore you,” she replied with an amused smile. “Which way to the library?”
“They do,” Lywinn laughed, and pointed her free hand at Sharaka's right. Good. Sharaka started to walk down the corridor, keeping her hand against the wall to maintain her balance. The twins stepped behind her; when the viashino looked back, she noticed each twin still had a hand on her sword. Smart girls.
“Barak told us a kid sneaked into your room last night,” Lywinn said after a while. “Did they tell you their name?”
“Yeah, but I'm not telling,” Sharaka replied.
“Because I want to see if they manage to sneak past you again,” Sharaka chuckled.
“A bit mischievous, are we?” Lywinn asked, amused.
“You have no idea,” Sharaka teased.
Lywinn laughed. Lucita made a disgusted noise.
“You're not worried for the child, I take it?” Sharaka asked after a while. Talking distracted her from her trembling, aching muscles.
“Eliana personally vouched for you, so that's settled in my book,” Lywinn said. “You gave us a big scare last week, though. I'm pretty sure Cyrus didn't deserve it, poor boy.”
Sharaka cringed. “Yeah, not my best moment. I was not feeling well.”
“So we can expect you to behave now?”
Sharaka nodded, too focused to talk. She was beyond exhausted by the end of the hallway. It “Are we halfway there?”
“Not even close,” Lywinn said apologetically. “A quarter of the way, maybe. More like a fifth, actually.”
Sharaka looked back. Her room was the fourth of eight, and the hallway as a whole wasn’t even twenty paces long. “Goblin icicles, hungry dragons, and uncaring spirits,” she swore.
* * *
The next day, Sharaka was able to reach what Lucita claimed was the middle of her route. “I counted the paces,” the human said.
“That's mighty sweet of you, sugarball,” Lywinn teased.
“Shut up, slut,” Lucita replied, with no real animosity. “Headless chickens have a better sense of direction than you do.”
“True that,” Lywinn admitted serenely. “Good morning, Aron.” The robed human froze at the sight of Sharaka, not an uncommon reaction, but relaxed a bit when it saw the armed twins. Aron gave them a wide berth anyway, and it was the twin’s turn to relax; amiable as Lywinn was, she tensed up like her sister whenever someone came within ten paces of Sharaka. The viashino thought of Nive again. Was she dead? Did they know each other? Sharaka shook her head. Elphimas had a lot of explaining to do.
“Time to head back,” Sharaka declared when Aron had left the hallway. This corridor was wide and tall, with high windows through which the viashino could see a big square space, two spear-lengths below, with a well and a few trees. Humans chatted or rested in the trees' shade. Sharaka was reminded of the few blessedly free afternoons in the Mother Forge's strict training. Sweet hours of friendly challenges, urgent mating, and lazy basking in the summer sunlight. Immersed in reminiscing as she was, the viashino barely noticed a twin asking something. “What?”
“Why stop here?” Lywinn asked again. “From here, the library is exactly as far as your bed.”
“Because I'm pretty sure I'll pass out as soon as I get there,” Sharaka replied. “So unless you want to drag my unconscious body all the way to my room…”
“Back we go,” declared Lywinn breezily.
* * *
“Stairs,” Sharaka said, disheartened. The library was apparently at ground level.
“Yep. You didn't warn her about stairs, sis!” Lywinn teased.
“Sun almighty, Ly, I’m going to strangle you one day, I swear,” Lucita snarled. It seemed to be a sore spot. “The library is just at the end of this flight. Is it a problem? Are your… feet too long for the steps, or something?” The grumpy twin eyed the steps critically. She smelled genuinely concerned.
“No, it's just going to be awful,” Sharaka replied, and climbed down the first step. She almost bit her tongue at the resulting pain.
“That was a lot of creative swearing,” Lywinn commented when Sharaka had arrived at the foot of the stairs. “Did you even stop to breathe?”
“Ingressive speech has its uses,” Sharaka hissed, her throat raw. “This door, right?”
The library was a very tall room that smelled of dust and old parchment, with undertones of ink and despair. The last part came from a small group of kids, bent down to scribble under the stern look of an old robed human. Sharaka collapsed on the closest bench, and the wood creaked pitifully; the young humans stopped scribbling and started staring at her in silent astonishment. The old human smelled more irritated than surprised.
“Eliana told me Elphimas would be here.” Sharaka's words echoed in the silent library. Lucita winced.
“Viashino or not, I expect you to follow the library's rules,” the old thin human’s voice boomed. “Be quiet.” The kids looked at the robed human as if it had just transformed into a dragon.
“Listen, I lack both the energy and the will to stand up now,” Sharaka whispered at the twins. “Can you find him, please?”
“If Elphimas is here he's on the third floor, I'd bet my ass on it. I'll fetch him,” Lucita whispered back, and left.
“Third floor?” Sharaka hissed. “Why did I have to climb down those damned stairs?”
“You can only get there with Eliana's permission,” Lywinn explained, “and the only doors are on ground level anyway.”
Sharaka made a face, then glanced at the woman and wagged her brow. “What if Elphimas is not on the third floor?”
Lywinn stared at her for a moment, then snorted. “You're positively nasty, Sharaka, I thought I was your sweetheart,” she said with mock indignation.
“I'm all for sharing,” Sharaka replied innocently.
Lywinn barked a laughter, which died ingloriously under the robed human's glare.
“Here they are,” Sharaka said, smelling Elphimas's illusion.
The blue mage was carrying two large books - Lywinn had explained the concept to Sharaka the day before, since viashino used scrolls – while Lucita had a whole stack of them. He laid the books on the table, across the table from Sharaka, and gestured for Lucita to do the same.
“I planned to go through these books before sunset,” he said as he sat down, the familiar faint smile on his lips, “I would like to read while I speak with you, if you do not mind.”
Sharaka shrugged. “How and where did you find me?”
“Straight to the point,” Elphimas observed, opening the first book. “Lucita, Lywinn, can you please take a few steps back? This is going to be a very private conversation. And not related to… intimate encounters, Lywinn, regardless of my choice of words.” The talkative woman showed Elphimas her tongue, and both twins backed away slowly, their hands laid loosely on their swords. Elphimas kept turning page after page as they did.
“I found you on an ordinary patch of grass not far from here,” Elphimas began once they were out of hearing range. “I could bring you there, but I think it is mostly irrelevant to your tale. How I found you, on the other hand… I sensed your arrival through magic. The movements of inexperienced planeswalkers are not hard to track if one knows what to look for, so to speak.”
“Walking? That's the big dormant power I have?” Sharaka sneered. “That's a bit underwhelming.”
“A name can be misleading, indeed,” Elphimas conceded, “though that is not our only one. In some planes, we are remembered as Starfolk, in others-”
“Wait, Starfolk?” Sharaka said. “The Starfolk I was taught about were almost omnipotent shapeshifting spirits who can travel anywhere in the blink of an eye. Those Starfolk?” Sharaka didn’t feel very omnipotent at the moment, with legs on the verge of cramps and an aching back.
“Sounds accurate, except that most of us are not literal spirits,” Elphimas replied, “we were incredibly powerful, so much so that some of us ruled on dozens of worlds as monarchs and gods. The ability to change form has disappeared together with most of our power, though we still retain our characteristic ability to travel through the planes of existence – that is why we are called ‘planes walkers,’ by the way.”
“Talk about being late to the feast,” Sharaka commented. A moment later, an idea struck her mind. “Wait, does that mean I can come back home?”
“Exactly,” Elphimas’ smile widened slightly. The blue mage turned another page. “Once you are healthy again, I will gladly help you to return to your home plane.”
Sharaka's hope turned to fury. “You could have taken me back from the beginning and you left me here?” She snarled, opening and closing her right hand. Her left stump prickled.
“It is complicated,” Elphimas tried. “The Blind Eternities, the space – which is not exactly a space – between worlds, is-”
“Screw your complications!” Sharaka roared, her claws leaving long carvings the table. The robed man cleared its voice. “And screw you, smug scarecrow! Elphimas, give me a good reason or I’m going to eat you alive,” she growled. “Did you want to study me, you sick excuse for a person?”
Elphimas winced, and stopped turning pages. Bullseye.
“That's what I am to you! A bloody specimen!” She stood up, her muscles fueled by pure anger, bench clattering behind her. “You're no better than Sophron, you disgusting-”
“It might kill you!” Elphimas screamed. Sharaka smelled adrenaline, and heard swords being unsheathed-
- two armed humans – step outside reach – breathe in - gather mana – no magic on foes – armor - no helmet – easy prey - ignite and NO!
Sharaka’s staggered backwards as the blast of fire ricocheted from her closed nostrils back to her throat. She coughed dark smoke and waited for the white spots on her vision to disappear.
Lucita was right in front of Elphimas, shielding him with her body; Lywinn was at her sister's side, sword leveled at Sharaka's throat. The table had been toppled, the books scattered on the ground; the kids were long gone. Sharaka looked away from the swords, not eager to pit her self-control against her fighting instincts again.
“Back away,” Lywinn ordered, her tone glacial. “You're going to disappoint Mother Eliana, you know?” she added, half-joking. Lucita had a betrayed look in her eyes. Sharaka smelled tears.
Sharaka thought about sitting back down, but she had knocked the bench away, and wasn't able to pick it up in her condition. She slowly stepped back, her legs trembling from the stairs and the fading adrenaline, until she was able to use the wall behind her for support. “Explain,” she hissed.
“I am s-sorry, I really am,” Elphimas eventually stuttered, his words broken by sobs. “I followed the tr-tracks of many… many of us, and… it feels jus-just s-so meaningless...” Elphimas sniffed and gently moved Lucita aside so Sharaka could see him. The vedalken had dropped his disguise; unsullied by magic, the sorrow he radiated was so pure and hopeless Sharaka had to fight back her own tears. There was no place for deception in that misery.
“The experience-ced ones push me away or hide their tracks, but th-that I can underst-stand… ‘sick excuse for a pers-son’, as you s-said…” Elphimas's illusion fell back in place. “But the neophytes… their tr-tracks end so abrupt-t-tly, and s-s-s… s-sometimes I find th-their bodies…” his voice was strangled.
Sharaka did not want to think of what she would feel like if she returned to the Forge only to find an endless trail of blood and smashed eggs, thank you very much. Lucita looked sick. Lywinn’s sword, on the other hand, was perfectly still, her eyes wary and emotionless.
“S-some want to travel away from the gutter where they live, and get mauled by wild animals in forests they had only dreamed about. Some want to flee war, and land in a world that slays them as monsters,” Elphimas said without pause, as if telling those tragic tales was somewhat comforting. “Some want to return to their beloved ocean, and end up drowning it its depths… Even after decades of ex-experience, the Eternities are not s-safe for a weakened mind.” That last sentence sounded personal. “Do you unders-stand, Sharaka? Please, please, don't th-throw away your life…”
“I won't,” Sharaka blurted. She would have said pretty much anything to make him stop talking; she also wasn’t thrilled at the idea of ending up fried in the Forge’s belly. “I’ll wait.”
Elphimas crumpled on his seat, covering his face with his shaking hands. “Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you…”
Lywinn gestured for Sharaka to exit, and patted Lucita on the shoulder. Elphimas’ droning followed them out of the library until Lucita mercifully closed the door behind her.
Climbing the stairs back up was torture, and the thought of the unsheathed swords behind Sharaka kept her taut as a bowstring. She collapsed on her bed as soon as she reached it, and didn't try to move for the rest of the day. She only wanted to sleep and rest, but she couldn't help thinking back to Elphimas's words.
Was she able to return to the Forge alone? Elphimas thought it possible, if dangerous. Sharaka had said she would wait, but what if her kind needed her? The day she had been captured… it was very hot, well past midsummer. How many weeks in the arena? Nive had also lost count. Thirteen? Whenever Sharaka tried to count her opponents, her memories became blurry. She went with thirteen. Almost a season, plus the days Sharaka had spent in the abbey… it was close to winter. But here the weather felt like late spring... Elphimas probably had the answer. Were they so far from the Forge the seasons were different?
Anyway, winter turned the Inner Passes in a nightmare for any attacking force, and the tribes were ready. The humans would be stopped by the first snow, and then any division caught among the Passes was as good as dead. Furthermore, there was no way the humans had reached the passes if the rest of skirmishers were still alive and keeping them busy.
No. It was impossible. The mages keeping those warrior spirits material had to rest and could be killed, Sharaka was the living proof of that. The Forge was safe.
It had to be.
* * *
“Good morning, Sharaka. How do you feel today?” Eliana's tone was as calm as ever.
“Better than yesterday,” Sharaka replied, cautious.
“Good,” Eliana said, putting the bucked of itchy liquid on the ground. “Would you mind explaining what happened in the library, then?”
“Long story or short one?” Sharaka sighed.
“Give me the necessary context, please,” Eliana replied after a moment, quoting Elphimas.
Sharaka took a deep breath. How far back should she start from? “Six months ago, the human army invaded my land. I volunteered to join the groups who fought to slow their advance. After what I thought were the worst three months of my life, I was captured and sent to the arena as a slave, where I was forced to fight to entertain other humans. I was fighting a wretched rigged duel to the death when I…” Another deep breath, to keep her voice level. “I lost control and ended up here.”
“Humans taking slaves?” Eliana smelled slightly shocked.
“Yeah, you're a different kind of humans, I'm sure,” Sharaka commented flatly. “Anyway, that should explain why I don't respond well when I discover humans cut my good arm off while I was passed out, or when I'm told I could have been taken back home but I wasn't because theoretical nonsense, or when two armored humans draw weapons on me while I’m already worked up.”
“The twins said they had to act to prevent you from killing Elphimas,” Eliana said in a conversational tone.
“Prevent me from what?” Sharaka shook her head, nonplussed. “I thought Elphimas was keeping me away from home because he wanted to study me, so I figured he deserved a couple of choice words. That's it. Then they drew on me and that was when I had to work to keep my fighting instinct in check.”
Eliana considered Sharaka’s words for a moment. “Didn’t you threaten to, and I quote, ‘eat Elphimas alive’?”
Sharaka tried to remember. “No? Maybe? As I said, I wasn’t at my best,” she admitted. She sighed and scratched her neck nervously. “It’s not that serious of a threat among viashino, but I should have known better.” She hung her head. “I'm an idiot.”
Eliana shook her head. “No, you're adjusting from a situation of complete hostility to one where many try to help you in flawed ways. Please forgive me for my insolence… have you ever had human friends? Positive human acquaintances?”
Sharaka thought of Nive. “Maybe one tried, when I was a slave. I didn't trust her.” The memory of the young woman's enthusiasm was weirdly bittersweet. “Before then… nothing I can remember.” She had very few memories of the Outer Range before her mother's incident and since then, she had lived in the Forge.
Eliana nodded. “You're also living every hour of your day surrounded by humans. Even when you sleep, I bet that the awareness of this fact keeps you on edge. This not a suitable environment for you to heal, or even relax properly.”
Sharaka shrugged. “This place is fine, really.”
“Better than a cell, I hope,” Eliana commented with a lopsided smile, “but can you really feel comfortable here? Is this a place where your mind can rest and heal? I know you're tough, Sharaka, but absence of pain is not comfort.”
Sharaka opened her mouth to reply, but the words died in her throat as she noticed her hand clenching the corner of the bed. It had happened before; she was resting, or casually chatting with the twins, and she would realize some muscle had tensed on its own. At first, she had dismissed it as an effect of the pain, but… “I'm still an idiot.”
Eliana took a deep breath. “Do you want to know what I think you are?”
Sharaka shrugged. “Impress me.”
Eliana flashed a sly smile at that. “You are an impulsive and physical young woman that likes to be strong and tough, and likes being perceived as such even more. You don't equate strength and toughness with worth in other people despite those being among the very few traits you appreciate and respect about yourself.” Sharaka made to reply, but Eliana raised a hand to signal she wasn't done. “You are able to keep an open mind despite your upbringing. Finally, you own up to your mistakes, sometimes to a fault since you're quick to insult your own intelligence.”
Sharaka stared at Eliana silently for a while, listening to the old woman's words echoing in her head. “Count me as somewhat impressed. Your point being?”
Eliana smiled again, this time more warmly. “You are neither particularly flawed nor stupid. You carry significant physical and mental wounds, however, the healing of which is hindered by staying in a distressing environment.”
“I see no remedy to that until I learn the way back home,” Sharaka replied.
“I concur. Still, I'd advise you to be more patient and forgiving in the meantime, especially with yourself,” Eliana said smiling patiently. “As I said, sometimes people are just trying to help in flawed ways; they may be grateful if you teach them how to help you better. And there are situations where time is an irreplaceable requirement to get better. This advice has helped me more times that I can count, and I think it could serve you just as well.”
“Yes, but...” Sharaka tried and failed to find the right words, and eventually she just shook her head. “It's all so frustrating.”
“I don't expect you to become a paragon of patience and forgiveness,” Eliana replied with a peaceful smile. “And learning to relax in a place that makes you tense is at least twice as hard. Just try to give others a chance to help you on your own terms.” Eliana locked eyes with Sharaka before continuing. “And more importantly, respect your need for rest and comfort. You deserve it, Sharaka. Make a truce with yourself; mistakes should be occasions to learn, not tools to self-flagellate. You are worth the time and the effort, don't tell yourself otherwise.”
Sharaka looked away, her breath suddenly ragged, blinking away tears she couldn't explain. Words failed her.
“I'll let you think about it," Eliana said warmly. “I'll come back in a few hours to check on you, if that's alright.”
Sharaka closed her eyes and nodded. When the door closed behind Eliana, Sharaka buried her head in the bed and let the tears flow.
Epilogue: Onwards and upwards
Uras, grant me drive. Itkerai, grant me resolve.
Breathe in. Uras.
Breathe out. Itkerai.
A shimmering heat grew within as the surroundings faded.
Something prickled far away, something different from the thinning tie with flesh and bone.
A warm sun bloomed within. A familiar name… spoke by a familiar voice… echoed faintly. The sun flickered.
“Sharaka,” called Nati's distant voice. The sun's light waned.
“Sharaka, you're burning!”
That couldn't be Nati. The voice was coming from outside, not from inside.
Sharaka took another deep breath, reaching outwards toward her own body, walls of sensations with their entwined memories pressing against her skin. She held them out for a moment, her Fire stretching deliberately beneath her skin, easing back into its sheath. Even with an incomplete Inner Sun, she felt… whole. Weird, considering her missing arm. The corners of her mouth curled slightly.
“Sharaka, wake up!” Eliana's voice had the slightest hint of fear.
Sharaka opened her eyes. Eliana’s figure danced before her, distorted by the human’s glowing barrier and the scorching air in the room. The burning smell came from the bed, covered in small flames. Sharaka inhaled two, three, four times, gathering the heat in the room and wrapping it tightly around her core. The flames consuming the sheets died out one after another, until Sharaka smothered the last one with her palm as she stood up.
“Sorry, I didn't exactly plan on that,” Sharaka said in a distant tone. She felt for the last itchy patches of skin and the old scales crumbled down like dry leaves, leaving healthy ones behind. “I have to talk to Elphimas.”
Eliana sized Sharaka up, maybe looking for new burns, and let her light barrier fade. “Can you explain to me what you were doing first? That looked dangerous.”
Sharaka shook her head. “No real danger, it’s just a meditation routine to forge… well, skipping the lore, it’s great to resharpen yourself.” She looked at the bed again. “Not so great for the flammable furniture, unfortunately; it has always been like this, though this is the firs- the long and short of it is: the more heat I produce, the more energy I have, so it's a good sign.”
“I can see it did you good, you seem to have grown a span taller overnight,” Eliana commented with a warm smile, sizing her up once more, then turned serious. “You want to meet Elphimas again.”
Sharaka tensed. She knew Eliana wouldn't keep her against her will, but... “It's time for me to return home. I'm grateful for all you've done, and if I have any say in the matter I'll come back to make things right, but now the best thing you can do for me is letting me go.”
Eliana held her gaze for a long, tense moment – Sharaka felt like it was her soul being sized up this time - before nodding solemnly. “You’re no longer a patient of our Abbey, Sharaka. Don't worry about the sheets. You can wait in the courtyard while I let Elphimas know.”
Sharaka's stomach started to protest as the tension faded. “Could I get something to eat before being officially dismissed, please?” she asked casually.
Eliana smiled graciously. “Our refectory is always open to a traveler in need. Come, I'll show you the way.”
* * *
Elphimas led her outside the Abbey and toward a small wood.
“I'm really sorry for lashing out in the library,” Sharaka said as they walked along a lightly worn trail.
“As I said earlier, there is no need to apologize,” Elphimas replied, “I am prone to digressing and overusing technical jargon, an unfortunate trait when I have to relay essential information to individuals who are stressed, laymen or both.”
Sharaka stared at his back. Was he used to being berated? Threatened? To being brought to tears like that?
Elphimas' destination appeared to be a small clearing. Aside from a creek, it was unremarkable: no weird landmarks, no significant smells.
“Why bring me here?” Sharaka was only slightly worried. She didn’t expect Elphimas to attack, but she was sure she could take him out as soon as she smelled a suspicious flare of magic. Apology or no, she had every reason to be wary around vedalken.
“It is somewhat secluded; figuring out how to deliberately planeswalk may require many attempts, some of them potentially dramatic, and I suppose being away from prying eyes might be beneficial,” Elphimas said, apparently oblivious to his own presence.
“In case I set something on fire?”
“It might happen,” admitted Elphimas idly. “Isolating planeswalking from magic is not trivial, not even from an academic standpoint. There might also be a catalyst – something that helps you focus – like, for example, fire for a pyromancer.”
“Could you please lose the illusion? It's a bit distracting.” She hesitated. “And if the smell of blue magic is a ‘catalyst’ for me, I'd like to learn to do without.”
“Understandable,” Elphimas said as he complied.
Sharaka took a good sniff as he did. Elphimas smelled faintly of… casting bones, except he smelled nothing like old bone. Divination? She noticed his closed eyes. He also had closed his eyes before revealing himself to her and Eliana. Was he blind, and using magic to compensate? But there was something else. Sharaka had little experience with vedalken, but male and female mammals had rather distinguishable smells. Sophron had smelled plainly male. Elphimas… not quite.
“Are you really a man?” Sharaka asked before she could stop herself. She slapped herself on the snout. Like she had the right to talk.
Elphimas's brow twitched, his smile brittle. “What do you mean?”
“It’s just… you don’t smell like… I’m sorry.” She grimaced. “That was stupid of me. Just forget it, please.”
Elphimas stood motionless for a moment. “To be completely honest,” Elphimas explained carefully, “I have always found genders… confusing. Not on paper, obviously, grammar is easy, but in relation to… um. It is… complicated? So when I meet a stranger, I just… um…”
“Wear your illusion and let them believe what they want,” Sharaka concluded, fascinated.
“Something like that,” Elphimas admitted meekly, smelling miserable. “Sometimes appearing as a certain gender lets me move unnoticed, unquestioned, or both, so… I use different illusions.”
“Wish I could to that,” Sharaka commented without thinking.
Elphimas straightened up, eyebrows raised in bewildered curiosity. “Really?”
Sharaka cleared her throat. It was hardly fair to deny now. “It's complicated, like you said.”
“It really can be…” Elphimas sounded relieved and grateful. “If… if you wish to ever meet me again… I will talk to Eliana, she will give you the means to contact me,” Elphimas added hopefully.
Sharaka stared at Elphimas, diffidence kicking in again. Was there some kind of trick? After all this? She thought about Eliana, Nive, Sophron. She eventually nodded. “I'd like that.”
Elphimas’ smile slowly broadened. “I look forward to it. Now, to return to the original topic…”
Sharaka had to interrupt Elphimas multiple times to keep the explanation linear, but the vedalken didn't seem to mind. It seemed to her that planeswalking had very few universal rules, and even those admitted exceptions.
“All this to say I have to find the way that works for me,” Sharaka concluded.
“…Basically. Until you figure out the mental protocol to optimize the process, I advise focusing on the most emotionally charged sensations relative to the place you want to visit, then contemplating them until you feel your Spark showing the way, so to speak.”
Sharaka nodded, knelt down and closed her eyes. She recalled the smell of the first snow, the brine in the stiff eastern wind, the scent of viashino basking in the summer sun… She tried to put all the smells together, to distillate the scent of home.
“I got something… I think.” Talking made the feeling waver. She had lost track of time.
“Excellent. Describe it, please.”
“It's…” Sharaka focused again. “It's some sort of tugging, but… not in a specific direction. I may be imagining things.”
“I do not think so. Imagine it’s leading you in a direction you never experienced before, and try to follow it.”
Sharaka took a deep breath. Uras, Itkerai. She tried to drift away from her body and toward that strange feeling… closer… closer… clo-
Sharaka was on her feet, nerves taut, instincts primed for fighting. She was still in the clearing. Elphimas was on the other side of the creek, and the grass around her was yellow and brittle; other than that, nothing had changed. “What was that?”
“Chaotic, overwhelming, and immense?” asked Elphimas, unfazed.
“The Blind Eternities. You told me.” Sharaka passed her hands over her eyes. “It's like… like I was following a torch in the darkness and suddenly I found myself at the edge of a crevasse.”
“The chaos between worlds, the senselessness between stories, the sea of madness circling the islands of order… Planeswalkers have come up with many picturesque descriptions for it in the centuries,” Elphimas mused. “Intimidating as it may be, it will not cause you harm as long as you do not lose yourself in it. You just need to focus on your destination and remain in control.”
Sharaka nodded, bounced a few times on her feet to release the tension, and went back to her meditating stance. She tried again, this time without losing contact with her body, and cautiously followed the torch. Sharaka didn’t falter when the abyss opened beneath her. This is not a real direction, she thought. I won’t fall.
Sharaka jumped toward the torch. As fast as she felt she was, the distance seemed to grow instead of shrinking. She steeled herself; it didn’t matter how fast, she was moving. Reaching her goal was just a matter of time and resolve; what she had felt as a roaring legion of dragons the first time was hardly a whisper in her ears now. She would return home. Just as she was about to touch the torch, now bigger than the sun, a nightmare surged from the back of her mind-
-blood, gore, bones and shattered eggs drenched her up to her waist. The Mother Forge was filled with dead viashino, its heart snuffed and silent. She had abandoned the Forge, and the Forge had left her behind. She tried to swim away, but her right arm had no strength left and her stump kept vomiting blood and the level of the bloody slime kept rising until she was neck deep, and then it was over her head and all was black-
Sharaka gritted her teeth and powered through it, toward the approaching sun…
She reared back, gasping for air. Cold filled her, and she coughed as she staggered upright.
Sharaka blinked, stunned.
Sharaka looked around in disbelief. On her right, the jagged profile of the Saw hid half of the dawning sun. Far to her left, she spotted the twin peaks of the Dragon's Skull, and her vision blurred as her lungs filled with the smell of home.
Sharaka fell on her knees, laughing and sobbing in joy and relief.
-Special thanks to Brentain for the extensive edits and tips.
-A "spear-length" equals to the speaker's height.
-The "you didn't warn her about stairs, sis" is a kinda-Homestuck reference.
-The "Some want to flee war, and land in a world that slays them as monsters", on the other hand, is a reference to Yissva I had in mind since I first conceived this piece.
|Author:||RavenoftheBlack [ Thu Jul 19, 2018 11:53 am ]|
|Post subject:||Re: [Vote] Healing Path|
Sorry it's taken me so long to get to this, but it's been a surprisingly busy month.
Anyway, as I've stated in the original threads, I'm a big fan of this story and especially of Sharaka. There are so many little moments throughout this story that I like, like the kid sneaking into Sharaka's room, the bit with the stairs, the flirtatious twin, all of it. But the over-arching story of Sharaka coming to terms with, well, everything, is what really carries the whole thing. I'm also very fond of Elphimas in this story, more so than in previous stories, and especially that moment in the library that is so humanizing for them.
There are some phrasing things that I'm not a huge fan of, moments where Sharaka sounds just a bit too "modern" for my taste, but that is purely a personal preference thing. Others, I'm sure, would disagree, and anyway, it's not nearly enough for me to give the thumbs down.
Easy "Yea" from me!
|Author:||OrcishLibrarian [ Thu Aug 09, 2018 3:05 pm ]|
|Post subject:||Re: [Vote] Healing Path|
I feel awful about missing this vote, and I know it doesn't much matter at this point, but, for the record, I think this story is wonderful, and I'm delighted to have it in the Archive. So a big, belated "yea" from me.
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