7 years ago
Athbel Hide’n hadn’t been the youngest re’arch in history to be elevated to the rank of kev’arch at the age of twenty-five. He hadn’t been the youngest one to achieve the honour by far, but in certain ways, he hadn’t thought himself ready to take on the responsibilities required of the station. He’d come to Wingworth as a child, riding in the back of an oxen cart along with a jester and two men who’d been apprehended in one of the neighbouring towns for the theft of bread at a market. As he looked at the criminals and the heavy shackles they wore, he hadn’t understood why a man would rather steal bread than starve, no more than he’d understood why he’d been sent away from home. At the time of his arrival in Wingworth, he was already one of the most well-travelled people who had ever set foot there. There were numerous roads leading to all ends of the earth, but the inhabitants of the small town rarely ventured far from their place of birth. Most were content with their lives and looked forward to being buried above their ancestors.
The roads were mostly used by merchants and the like, peddlers with their endless array of trinkets, fae-women who crossed the grassy plains and plied the mountain paths which led from town to town and city to city with their sachets of rare herbs and substances which were precious to healers and alchemists. Hide’n had seen the roads which led from Wingworth to Amaranth, then to the Silent Sea. He’d seen the reticence of the Silent Sea itself, and the roads which led from the other side of it to the city in which he’d been born. He’d seen all these, had made the long journey, only in reverse. Till this day, he was unsure if he would ever cross the sea again and retrace the route he’d taken in order to get here.
Perhaps it had started when the cooking pot overturned, scalding his mother’s hands. It was always fear which drove people away, and the resentment which simmered below the fear that turned loved ones into bitter creatures. He didn’t remember if anyone had hit him. It was unlikely that they had not, afraid that he might retaliate.
Hide’n did not remember the first time he’d moved something with his mind. He’d been much too young to be aware that he was doing things others could not—should not be able to do, and that what came naturally to him was a horrifying secret his family had tried to lock behind the walls of their home.
They brought him out to see a troupe of travelling performers once, on one of the rare occasions that he was allowed to leave the home. He was given many stern warnings not to misbehave, and as a precaution, his parents had chosen a balcony high above the market square, where much of anything he could have toyed with or manipulated was out of his known radius of control.
He’d been seven or eight at the time, and delighted in the wonders he was shown—among them a wiry boy who looked about his age and earned his meals by clambering up and down a rope that hung down from thin air, men who sat in drums that were slowly filled with insects that had sacs of poison in their bottoms; young women who inhaled fire and exhaled swarms of tiny butterflies with shimmering wings. He watched them from under the hood he’d been made to wear, pretending that he was one of them. Not two weeks later, he discovered that he was able to speak directly into another person’s mind, able to look inside another person’s head as easily as one could flip through a book.
When he’d been in his adolescence, he often wondered why his parents had not sold him to the troupe. He’d written home just once, paid a courier handsomely to deliver the letter, but weeks passed, then years, and Hide’n never wrote again. The day he decided that he would never raise children of his own was the day he acknowledged that he was an orphan.
But it seemed that Fate enjoyed playing tricks on him. As kev’arch, he was required to oversee the upbringing of not just one child, but several. The first time he shrugged on his pale green robes and fastened the ceremonial belt round his waist, he realised that all this time, he’d been fooling himself into thinking that he’d be looked after by others for the rest of his life.
When he finally stepped out into the courtyard for the ceremony, he was greeted by three orderly rows of re’archs, some of whom had been his peers just the day before. They bowed, each presenting him with a small wooden box containing a small amount of unhusked grain.
Later, when half-light had fallen upon Wingworth, he sought out the lu’varch. No matter which time of the year it was, the air in Lu’varch Rothund’s room remained oppressive as a result of the various kinds of leaves and incense he was fond of burning. The room would never smell the same twice, as the lu’varch’s preferences were petals set adrift in the middle of a pond, with only the caprice of the wind to determine which direction they would take. One thing which would never change, however, was the cloying quality of the mingling scents. Once, Hide’n found himself wondering if Rothund would eventually succumb to suffocation, as irreverent as it was to have entertained such a thought.
There was an antechamber leading to the inner room, and standing at its centre, Hide’n paused to savour a last few deep breaths of clear, albeit slightly stale air. The doors leading directly into the lu’varch’s quarters were carved from a single piece of solid k’oa and featured an intricate tapestry-like design that must have taken the rise and fall of an empire to chisel out. About a year after Hide’n had arrived in Wingworth, there’d been a rumour circulating that one of the other re’archs had accepted a wager that they could get Rothund himself to divulge exactly how long it had taken the craftsmen to complete their work. The mystery was never solved, although a new rule prohibiting re’archs from betting appeared in the abridged Book of Tevh the next spring.
There was a bowl placed on the floor before the doors, filled with a liquid which had the appearance of a clear broth. Beside it on a ceremonial ceramic plate, a crimson leaf with tiny needles lining its edge, a kind of nettle. Hide’n picked it up and placed it into the bowl, watching calmly as contact with the surface of the liquid caused the leaf to ignite and its ashes to sink to the bottom. He closed his eyes and drank deep.
When Hide’n opened his eyes, he was in the inner chamber, seated across from the lu’varch.
The old man had many marks and spots of age on his skin, which was especially mottled at the loose flap of flesh at his throat. He had a neatly-trimmed beard, white as that of a mountain goat’s, and the ends of his eyebrows brushed against the top of his cheekbones.
“Why?” Hide’n asked. His hands were folded in his lap, and his knees were just touching the fringed border of the cushion upon which he was kneeling.
Lu’varch Rothund laughed. It was the sound of an avalanche, thunder rolling across the plains, wrapped up in a certain crisp fragility which was reminiscent of rice paper. “You are the one most in need of guidance. In learning to guide others, so you will learn to become your own guide.”
For the first time in a long while, Hide’n allowed himself to speak directly into the mind of another. “Pardon me for such an impolite enquiry but—“ And he closed his eyes, a deep shudder passing through his body as he relinquished almost every strand of control he had over this particular ability, tethered to himself only by a faint awareness. “I need to know if there will ever be enough guidance for the lonely.“ He opened his eyes to find the lu’varch staring right into him—mouth a grim line, irises the same pale, watery blue, as though he was constantly looking over events that were occurring on a separate plane of existence altogether.
“That,” Rothund said in a rasping voice, “is never a question one should ever ask himself. It is a query designed to be directed at others, and through their answers do we discover our own.” An odd twitch of the head and several rapid blinks, and Rothund seemed to descend back down from whichever ethereal lands he’d been silently traversing. He coughed into the square of silk he carried with him at all times, skeletal form convulsing as the force of his dreadful hacking rocked his body back and forth. The snowy tails of his eyebrows quivered, as did the dewlap at his throat as he shook his head. “Hide’n. You seek a cure for something which is not an affliction. You must understand that loneliness itself is a cure.”
“I understand.” Hide’n bowed his head respectfully, then reached into his sleeve to retrieve a single ascen branch, upon which was a single bud, shaped like a dewdrop. This, he placed upon the low table as a sign that he accepted the counsel he’d received. This was the first lie that Hide’n told.
He went straight to Caswin, with Rothund’s words at the tip of his tongue and a heavy feeling in his heart. Though the stars had long come out of hiding, he knew that the alchemist-in-training would be in the workroom, where he often stayed until even the last tavern attendant no longer had to warm another’s bed.
The summer air was as humid as the lu’varch’s room had been, and Hide’n felt a flutter of anxiety as he was reminded of the old man’s room once more. Though the lu’varch’s advice had indeed been rational and sound, his words had seemed to portend that there was more to solitude than Hide’n had ever known. He would never know the extent of the lu’arch’s travels, nor the true amount of time he’d lived, when he was able to spend a year dwelling in a breath.
Hide’n’s sandals scraped noisily against the ground as he strode across the courtyard, bringing to his attention that he was dragging his feet. Caswin would have something to say about that, but Hide’n wasn’t about to let him notice. Before he could hide this sudden attack of self-consciousness, he rounded the corner and saw the one he was looking for silhouetted in the light coming from the workroom.
“Saw you coming from miles away.” Caswin was leaning against the frame of the entrance, affecting the perfect aura of nonchalance as he caused the door to swing back and forth on its hinges with his foot.
Hide’n smiled. “I suppose you saw me walking in a manner most unlike my usual gait.”
“Would be impolite to comment, seeing as you’re the kev’arch now. You’ve even managed to snag some of Ia’s old beads. Nice robes, too. Colours suit you.”
“I wish I felt the same about them.”
“You will, in good time,” Caswin assured him with a tiny smirk and a meaningful narrowing of the eyes, though his voice remained deadpan.
Had Hide’n been more outwardly expressive, he would have snorted at Caswin’s words. Instead, he made another attempt to achieve the same effect by aiming a half-hearted kick at him. Naturally, he missed, and Caswin dodged, slipped back into the cool air of the workroom, giving Hide’n just enough time to follow him in before the door slammed shut behind the both of them.
“Taking lessons from July? He’s the reigning champion of Let’s Kick Caswin, a decent player though he still misses most of the time.”
Hide’n ignored the remark. “Where’s your table?” There were alembics and various burners and other glass instruments of fascinating shapes which were not usually on the floor where the table had been, not to mention an entire wall of shelves and their contents, which were also missing.
“It’s in another room now,” said Caswin with a shrug. “Seeing as this room no longer belongs to me, I’ve been given two days to clear out.” Then he laughed at Hide’n’s subdued look of horror and reached out to tug the older man’s sleeve. “You assume the worst, Kev’arch Hide’n. Has the lu’varch’s doom and gloom been rubbing off on you? I passed. I’m an alchemist now, at the ripe old age of two-and-twenty. No more running errands for old Arcendo—maybe he’ll even let me have my own little trainee.”
Despite the relief he felt, Hide’n could not find it in himself to congratulate Caswin. “Are you sure you’re ready? I mean you didn’t—”
“Cheat?” The dark-haired man’s eyes grew hard, but it was only his gaze that seemed to have turned stony, as his body language only became more relaxed. He didn’t answer the question, keeping his eyes on Hide’n all the while, slowly backing into a low chair and sinking into the cushions with a sigh. “Again you assume the worst. Is that what to expect of the kev’arch? How many more years before you become the lu’varch himself and spend your days shut in a room that smells of rotting flowers and boiled cats? Is that what you want, Athbel? To see the flaws in every person who dares to meet your gaze as an equal, and to read misfortune in their cards? Do you really think that people are so resistant to change?”
“But they are.” Hide’n stared out of the open window, and the light coming from a fire in a bracket on the wall threw shadows upon his face, giving him a rather hollow mien that he, frighteningly enough, seemed to wear well. Caswin was unnerved to realise how gaunt Hide’n looked, though he prudently decided that it would not be the best time to point this out.
“Wisdom and happiness are a mutually exclusive pair, Cas-iriseyh. Though they may cavort with each other, though we may wish them all the best and then send them on their merry way, they are not meant to be. The wise and the carefree are not meant to be together, the wise and the wise even less. The only path ahead is towards solitude.”
“So you don’t want to be happy.” Caswin’s voice was dangerously low, his anger grating his tone and giving it a harsh edge. “You don’t want to be happy, and you think that you’re wise. And of all things, you want to be lonely.”
“I am already lonely.” Hide’n’s voice rang through the room, echoing more than ever now in the room that had already started to look empty and forlorn. He felt more alone than ever. “But not wise. I am lonely and I can’t stop it, and this is why I would rather tread the path towards wisdom than to chase a fleeting dream. More than anything, I want to be able to let go and- and- I can’t. I was not born this way. I was not born to happiness. I was not born in happiness.”
“Neither was I.” Softness crept back into Caswin’s voice as quickly as his temper had risen. “Look away from the darkness of all this, Athbel. At least you know the circumstances you were born in. You know who you were born. There are many of us who were born no one. Loneliness has been in this town, living in more people than you will ever know. It has been going on long before you even set foot here. And the Gods only know how you can be so fucking blind. Do you even realise that your being here saves some of us from that?”
Hide’n’s breathing quickened, reminded of the lu’varch’s grim words. “Loneliness,” he said, digging fingernails into his palms, “is not an affliction.” He could have laughed at Caswin’s confusion, if only it didn’t feel like the words he’d just uttered were eating away at him like a disease.
“What do you mean?” Caswin thew his hands in the air, visibly frustrated. “Are you alright, Athbel? What exactly have you been inhaling? Did the lu’varch get into your head and poison your mind?”
“In a way, I believe he has,” Hide’n admitted shakily. It was a good thing that Caswin was used to the other’s indirect way of speaking, and gathered that the confession was merely a figurative allusion. Hide’n went on. “The lu’varch has not poisoned my mind. He has, however, supplied me with the ingredients, and it was I who foolishly combined them and drank the vile brew.”
“I don’t understand.”
“As plainly as I can say it: I am meant to be alone. I am kev’arch because my life has been marked by solitude. It is why I was chosen to guide others. So that I may set them upon the right paths, the paths they themselves have chosen, without changing them.”
Caswin stood up then, cursing as he stepped on a thin glass tube which shattered beneath his weight. “You are truly the most insincere, stubborn, Vorten-touched little bastard.” His voice had grown brittle again; he was the glass at his own feet, transparent and fragile. “Is that what you think being kev’arch means? Is this what you think the Gods want of you? Oh it is so fitting then, that you have chosen to devote the rest of your life to the thrice-damned Twins of Destruction. You want to die worshipping Death and Disaster themselves.”
“We do not worship the Gods we speak for.” Hide’n chose his words carefully. “That would imply that we have lost sight of our very sense of purpose. As you are aware of this, we do not pray to them. We acknowledge their existence and ensure that they are accorded the respect they deserve.”
“You speak of Gods and entitlement in the same breath? As though they are about to emerge from wherever it is they dwell and personally thank you?” Caswin was livid now. “Then we are truly done now, Kev’arch Athbel Hide’n. I thought I knew you better. Get out.”
“Get out,” the alchemist repeated. “Or you can take another step towards me, and I will take my anger out on you.” The sudden movement he made, as though to swat something invisible out of mid-air, had the appearance of being completely instinctive, though Hide’n knew that it was quite the opposite.
“I do not trust you to have such restraint with others, but I am quite certain that I am the last person you would hit.” The air in the room was suddenly too cold, and his hands felt icy. He hadn’t wanted to be affected by the demand, but cracks had started to appear in the walls he’d put up.
Caswin closed his eyes, refusing to look at the other. “Do you see it now, you bastard? Do you see how you have proved yourself wrong? You’ve changed me. And as ridiculous, as ludicrous as it sounds, does knowing that make you happy?”
Hide’n froze, completely caught off guard. Something inside him felt as though it had snapped, and he’d only just become aware that whatever it was had had a breaking point. He felt trapped in his own head, and for a moment, he saw Rothund’s face floating in front of his mind’s eye, a flash of recognition before he blinked it away and realised what it was like to be living in a single moment for a blank, painless eternity. Then the moment passed, and Hide’n tried to speak, only to discover that he could not.
Caswin noticed his distress and reluctantly pointed a finger at his own temple to indicate that it was fine for Hide’n to use mindspeech.
“It’ll hurt you,“ Hide’n finally replied, his mindvoice a pained whisper. “More ways than one. And I am not happy, no. I am not happy, because you have not changed at all.“ This was the second lie that Hide’n told.
He was ashamed of himself for expecting Caswin to hurl things after him as he left, but he did not turn to look back at all. In the distance, a Ko-atwor screeched its rusty mating call into the trees beyond the trees. Hide’n headed straight for the room which had belonged to the previous kev’arch, Ia Tzicaugh. Caswin wasn’t the only one who would be settling into his new quarters tonight.
There had been countless things Hide’n had wanted to talk to Caswin about. Among them, the ceremony, the string of beads, and, most of all, he’d wanted to repeat what had been said to him in the lu’varch’s room, had wanted to know what the alchemist thought of them. Only the latter had been achieved, though it had been done all wrong. He’d upset Caswin, and had also done himself a disfavour with his spontaneous and pessimistic interpretation of Rothund’s words.
He tried not to think about that as he collapsed onto the bed, lying face down against the rough-spun cotton sheets. Overwhelmed by a torrent of emotions he was unused to, he felt like a stranger in his own body, yet he dared not fight for control of himself. In his current state, it was possible that he might find himself the centre of a destructive spiral, and it wouldn’t be favourable to his reputation to have the levelling of his quarters in the temple be recorded in the Books as his first major act as kev’arch.
Thankfully, the room was as bare as Tzicaugh had left it, or rather, it was the work of the group of re’archs who’d been assigned to remove her belongings ten whole days ago. Ten days. It seemed like such a long time. Hide’n missed Tzicaugh. She’d had a sparse wit and cutting sarcasm that made her the perfect foil to Rothund. Although the two had rarely been seen in the same place, the comparisons were inevitable.
While Rothund seemed to exist somewhere which likely could not be described in any known language, Tzicaugh had seemed to exist two steps ahead of present time. She’d worn her iron grey hair cropped short with the exception of her fringe, which was usually swept behind her right ear. She’d also been known for having the sharp hearing of a hare, and upon catching a malicious rumour on the wind, her eyes would flash and more than one re’arch would swear upon the Book that they’d seen her ears swivel to face the direction of the gossip.
Though the rules had stipulated that no modifications were to be made to the sets of robes that were given to all who served in the temple, Tzicaugh was known for the strings of beads she wore around her waist, attached to her belt. At the end of each string, there was a tiny bell, ten in total. When she walked, she would sound out a merry jingle, as though to warn anyone in her path of the impending future—two steps ahead, always two steps ahead of everything.
Perhaps it was only fitting then, with an irony that Tzicaugh herself would have appreciated, that she had not see Death swooping down upon her, as Tevhlen took no steps but the form of a massive ko-atwor. At her burial, when it came to his turn, Hide’n spoke only of his predecessor’s laugh, which he described as a frozen stream melting in the spring. Rothund had nodded and for once, seemed to be entirely of this world as he looked at the body of his old friend, tears streaming down his wrinkled jowls. That had been ten days ago.
At the ceremony earlier in the day, during which Hide’n had been offered the role of the kev’arch, he’d also been appointed the task of reading out Tzicaugh’s will. In the yellowed roll of parchment, the contents of which must have been written at least a decade ago, Tzicaugh had stated her wish for all her belongings to be buried beside her, with the exception of items which could be used as ‘tools for personal development’. These were to be given to anyone who served the Tevh, as long as they had been the first to voice the desire to take ownership of a particular item, limited to a single piece per type of item, and a single item per person.
It was a cheeky demand which no one had been surprised at, despite most present not knowing what to make of it. A piece of parchment with the full list of her modest possessions was passed around. Hide’n had respectfully asked for a single string of beads, which he now wore on the belt that had been worn by Tzicaugh and the countless kev’archs before her. He’d been the first one to make a request, and by his example, more had raised their hands, made less hesitant by the apparent confidence of their new kev’arch. Immediately following the ceremony, he and the few re’archs and trainees who’d each made their respective decisions known were led by Rothund to a side room directly behind the main hall. The door was hidden in the shadow of the statues of Tevh, which made the meeting seem rather covert and ominous.
Hide’n had taken a long time to choose from the ten strings of beads laid on a square of jade-coloured silk. They were completely identical, and Hide’n, holding each one up to the light, confirmed that there were no discernible differences. Each bead had nine other siblings which looked exactly like it did, and the order in which the beads were arranged on the string was exactly the same. Uncomfortably aware that all eyes were upon him, Hide’n squared his shoulders. His posture made his silhouette suddenly foreign to all who were watching. He stretched his right hand out, slowly moving it across the table and over the piece of silk. As he made a repetitive sweeping motion over the strings of beads, he coaxed his mind into the familiar state of uninhibited control.
Eight of the strings did not appear to have strong signatures. He could have easily lifted any one of them right off the surface of the cloth, but he had to be sure that the one he left the room with was truly the one that he’d sought. The remaining two pulsated with equal amounts of kiven, the dark energy which manifested in certain objects and on occasion, even people. They served as warnings, a sort of prophecy if one knew how to read them, foretelling events that would rock the very foundations of the continents. Though the temple in Wingworth was home to the Twins of Destruction, Hide’n was the only Voice of the Tevh who possessed the ability to sense kiven, along with a very mild talent for foresight. This, he’d kept a secret from all but the lu’varch.
Between the two strings which had caught his attention, there were subtle differences. The first, third from the left, had a tenuous, trembling energy, as though it was distilled fear from a young child. The other, which was first on the right, emitted kiven in fluctuating, pendulous waves. It could not decide, playing catch with itself, wanting to disappear into the pride it had in its own disguise.
Instinctively, Hide’n chose the one on the far right. It jumped straight into his palm and he curled his fingers around it, his entire body tensing up momentarily as he shut his powers away, drawing them back into the depths of their source.
Clutching the burden, he’d left the room without a word.
Hide’n woke in pitch black darkness, completely disoriented. He’d fallen asleep in his robes and they were stuck to his back with perspiration. He’d not slept restfully, neither was he able to recall much of the shadowy occurrences that had drawn him into their dreams, a wandering figure without agency, without identity.
He knew that there was a window in the room, but he’d forgotten to draw the blinds, still very unused to the new surroundings. He visualised a candle’s flame in his mind’s eye, seeing first the white-blue core, then adding the warmer glow around this. The flame shook in an imaginary wind but grew steadier with each passing moment, until Hide’n was certain that he’d maintained it for long enough. It was probably safe to be using his powers again.
Sitting cross-legged on the bed, he felt for the cord with his mind and wrapped tendrils of energy around it. The wooden slats made clacking sounds as they knocked against one other, revealing the empty courtyard. Moonlight flooded the room, and Hide’n saw his own outstretched hand. He’d never been too concerned with the state of his own body before, but in the dim lighting, his wrist looked much too bony, and his fingers were dried twigs. Since the passing of Ia Tzicaugh, he hadn’t been eating much, choosing to settle any gnawing sensations in his belly with plain bread and copious amounts of yven tea. For the first time since he’d been taught to strive for complete mastery over his powers, Hide’n felt like he might be losing control of them again.
He found himself leaving the room, his hair matted and untidy. There was a mirror mounted on a wall on the way out, just beside the side door which led to the courtyard. Hide’n paused before it, frantically raking fingers through his hair and trying to neaten it by the light from a torch in a wall bracket.
The path which led to the fer’endel looped around the lake, passing through an abandoned field which was overgrown with wild grass. The burning trees had been the first thing Hide’n had seen from the cart, the day he’d been brought to Wingworth. The orange glow could been seen for miles, a beacon of sorts, only, no one really knew how it had come about. In his first few years as a trainee, Hide’n had perused as many history books and scrolls as he could get his hands on, hoping to find hints about the origin of the fer’endel. As time went by, the mystery lost its pull and he no longer desired to know the reason for its existence. Just as he’d accepted that he would never again return home, he accepted that he now lived in a place which was known for a forest that had been burning to the east of it since the beginning of time, challenging the dawn each day without fail when first light came upon the town.
There was a clearing somewhere in the forest, and Hide’n was sure that there were only three people who knew how to find it. The first had stumbled upon it during her night-time wanderings; the second had found it in his search for the first, and had returned the next night to make a trail of marks so that he would know how to get to it again. Hide’n was the third. It was rare for the inhabitants of Wingworth to venture beyond the edge of the lake and into the trees. The more superstitious of the lot believed that those who did would be possessed by evil spirits, and the ones who weren’t superstitious in the least were convinced that anyone who entered would be torn apart by wild wyverns and have ko-atwors feasting upon the scraps of their remains.
Hide’n reached the edge of the forest and started to keep an eye out for the start of the trail when he was sure that he was in the right location. The beginning was marked by the dark imprint of a leaf, aligned with the ground and seared onto one of the massive roots of a particular tree. This one fer stood out from the rest due to the colouration of its bark, which was unusually light and thus glowed just a little brighter than its neighbours under the flames which danced in the canopy. Using the tip of the leaf-shaped imprint as a directional guide, Hide’n found the next tree. There was a similar imprint on this fer as well, and following the trail, he was able to get to the clearing before much time had passed.
Caswin was resting against the bark of a tree, his legs draped over the roots. He was smoking a bit of dried okoba leaf wrapped in a bit of wood-parchment—the kev’arch recognized the acrid-sweet scent before he noticed the thin stream of smoke coming from between Caswin’s lips on what seemed to be a deliberately slow sigh. Hide’n approached him carefully, fully aware that there was no way he’d be able to announce his presence without startling the other. The continuous crackling sounds from the burning branches above him hid his footsteps as he walked stiffly towards Caswin, wondering when he would finally appear in the far right edge of the alchemist’s periphery.
“Cas-iriseyh…“ The words slipped out before Hide’n could stop himself. He saw Caswin drop the stick of okoba and look around wildly. He’d taken up a combative stance, jumping into position like a trap that had been sprung.
“Oh Gods. Gods. Vorten take me,” muttered Caswin as Hide’n stepped out into the clearing. “Vorten take my blackened heart. You,” he said in a voice that was almost a snarl, thumping a fist against his own chest. “You,” he repeated in a less hostile tone. “Gods. I thought you’d gone through the doors of Tevhlen. Thought I was being spoken to by your shade. Why are you here?”
“I… I did not expect to find you this easily.“ Hide’n kept his mindspeech uncoloured by his emotions, not wanting to hurt Caswin any more than he already was by speaking directly into his head. “Seeing as I have never been here before—“
Caswin winced involuntarily, jamming the tips of his fingers against his temples and rubbing them in circular motions to ease the shooting pains. “Of all people to come looking for at a time like this, Athbel.” The one person who was inexplicably affected by the other’s talent for mindspeech. “We’re done,” said Caswin curtly. “Have you forgotten? Stop with the endearments. Stop with the Cas-iriseyhs.”
The words would not come. Hide’n thought about how pathetic he must look, mouth gaping soundlessly like that of some reptilian creature’s. His hands were shaking, the extent of their trembling hidden by the long sleeves of his robes, which covered all but the tips of his fingers. The ground beneath his feet rumbled, as though about to erupt into a network of miniature faults, swallow itself up and take him with it. He fell to his knees and squeezed his eyes shut, trying to calm himself before he destroyed a part of this beautiful hideaway. His fingers raked the ground and he could feel the wet earth getting trapped under his nails, could feel its dampness seeping into the fabric of his robes. He clawed at the ground again and again trying to re-absorb the energy that was leaking from him, obviously to no avail. In his mind, he saw Caswin flee the clearing, the fer’endel’s glow dancing with shadows upon his face.
Hide’n barely heard the alchemist swear, but flinched when Caswin grabbed his shoulder and shook it hard. “Gods damn this all,” Hide’n heard him say. His voice seemed to be coming from across a huge distance. “Not here. Don’t you dare blow this place up. Don’t you dare. Mother’s favourite place. It was her haven, it belongs to her. It’s her’s it’s her’s it’s her’s.”
“Can’t- control- Don’t tell them,“ Hide’n pleaded.
“Won’t be able to anyway if you kill the both of us!” The fear in Caswin’s eyes was genuine, his voice high-pitched with hysteria and the stabbing pain in his head. “Stop this- this tantrum thing and just talk to me, alright? Yell into my head if you want but just—” He curled his fingers into the front of Hide’n’s robes and shoved the kev’arch onto his back. The ground ceased its trembling, although there were evidently some traces of energy in the air—judging by the disturbance in the grains of dirt around them, moving in circles as though chased by a persistent breeze.
A beat passed, then another. Hide’n lay face up where he’d been pushed off balance, appearing motionless aside from the erratic rise and fall of his chest.
Caswin was shaking. He collapsed gracelessly to the ground and folded into a sitting position beside Hide’n, one leg curled in front of himself, thigh against the dirt, and the other propped up so that he could rest his chin on his knee. After a moment, he reached into his pockets to retrieve his tin of okoba leaves and scraps of wood-parchment so that he could roll himself a new stick. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed how well the white-gold of Hide’n’s hair caught the only source of light, reflecting the intensity of the flickering orange and making it seem as though his head was aflame. “You look like your hair’s on fire,” Caswin said to him. He selected a few tiny pebbles to toss at the other man’s feet.
Hide’n stirred. His left elbow and shoulder were especially sore, and he knew then that he’d somehow managed to brace himself for the earlier fall. He opened his eyes, and Caswin’s face swum into focus.
“You never seem to have a kind word for me,“ Hide’n managed to jest, mindvoice subdued though he made no effort to iron out the playful intonation. It came as a surprise to himself that he’d recovered sufficiently, enough to be teasing the other.
“I never have a kind word for anyone,” Caswin replied. “At least that’s what you said about me, the day we first met. Remember that? Gods know what you’d heard, which choice rumours you’d been fed… Think I told you to fuck off and fuck yourself with your preconceived ideas about me.”
“I am quite certain that your exact words were a little more colourful than that.“
“Shut up.” But he helped Hide’n to sit up all the same, patted dirt from the other man’s robes and straightened them, as they were in danger of slipping down his shoulders. “You’ve no idea how much my head hurts right now, iriseyh.” Hide’n remained silent, until Caswin held the stick of okoba out in a familiar gesture.
“You would trust me with this?“
Caswin shrugged and clamped the slightly narrower end of the stick between his teeth, smirking around it. “Trust yourself,” he said simply. Hide’n nodded and stepped into the centre of the clearing. He reached deep into the source and drew a single stream of energy which he fed into the same point in mid-air until it started to glow with a dull vesperal hue. The ball of light swayed and flitted about like a firebug as it grew brighter, white-hot at the centre. Hide’n gave it a wide berth, taking great care to ensure that that it would not collide with anything.
Caswin plucked the okoba stick from between his lips. “Lovely!” He called out. “I could use that heat for welding.” Then he replaced the stick and, as though he’d been holding it in, gave a short chuckle from behind clenched teeth. In response, Hide’n doubled his efforts to restrict the energy flow. Precision was still an area he did not have much confidence in, but Caswin had been supportive of his constant training. Hide’n usually practised with a set of exercises he’d had come up with for himself, and the occasional challenge such as this one which Caswin had added for variety.
The sphere of light was considerably less intense than before, now emitting a comfortable crimson glow that had begun to resemble a proper flame, with the blue-white at its centre and a quavering, tapered, upward-pointing tip. It no longer moved this way and that like a wild thing, hovering obediently above Hide’n’s cupped hands.
“If you’re ready, you can bring it over now.” Caswin smirked, looking entirely too pleased with himself. He’d been watching from a reasonably safe distance, leaning against the very same root he’d been resting his legs upon when Hide’n had seen him earlier.
Hide’n would have liked to reply, but at such a time, still feeling exhausted and shaken from the events of the past ten days, he decided that even the most intelligent of quips would not be worth risking a break in concentration. His face was a mask as he walked towards the other, softening just a fraction when he was directly in front of the alchemist. Lit by fire from above and below, everything around them was enveloped in a reddish-orange that Hide’n was sure was the same one all children who had yet to be born curled up to sleep in while they waited. He raised his hands, guiding the false flame to the tip of the wood-parchment roll until it caught and started to smoulder gently. Caswin took a deep drag of the smoke, and Hide’n closed off the channel to the source, allowing the ball of concentrated energy to dissipate.
Okoba smoke was Caswin’s scent. It had a bold, straightforward smell which could either be described as an aroma or a stench, depending on how one happened to be feeling towards it. It was unmistakeable, clung to clothes and the darkest corners of rooms, lingering like the shade of some poor lost soul. It was a scent that lingered on tongues and lips, a distinct taste, a faintly bittersweet one which Hide’n had always thought suited Caswin.
It wasn’t Caswin who’d been waiting, but Hide’n. He watched his iriseyh, knowing that it was not about looking for an opening, but to overcome the tendencies towards restraint that were so deeply ingrained in him. The opportune moment was found in a held breath; when Caswin parted his lips to allow the smoke its lazy escape, Hide’n stole it with a breath of his own. He pressed his mouth to the taller man’s, body tense until he felt the alchemist’s arms around his waist.
“I was foolish today,” Hide’n murmured.
“So was I,” replied Caswin evenly. “Suppose I paid for it,” he mused. “Couldn’t concentrate much on anything, ‘s why I came out here.” He inhaled more okoba, offered the stick to Hide’n, who declined, as he always did.
“You must regret the countless times you mentioned this place. You must regret talking about the signs you left,” the kev’arch said.
“No. Secrets are a burden for two.”
Hide’n smiled, stepping away from Caswin, in search of a comfortable root of a suitable height, which he could use as a seat. “And you never thought twice about gifting me something which might weigh heavily on my mind.”
Caswin shrugged, settling down beside him. “You know why I told you. You know what you mean to me.”
“Who I am to you and what we are to each other might soon be in danger,” said Hide’n. “The truth is that I have not felt attuned to myself since Kev’arch Tzicaugh’s passing. My thoughts and my mind have been elusive creatures in each other’s presence.”
“Do you really think all that escaped my notice?” He took another deep drag, blowing the smoke out through his nostrils and watched them curl upwards, seeking the flames as though they desired to crown the fire that burnt and burnt but did not really burn at all. “You’re not the only one feeling a stranger to himself. This morning, while moving things from the workroom…”
“You looked down at your hands and saw the hands of an alchemist.”
Caswin scowled. “Vorten take you, iriseyh. The sentence was meant to be mine to complete.” He inched away from Hide’n to lean against another larger root and drape his ankles across the other’s thighs. “So, I expect you were pacing the courtyard and found yourself staring at the toes of a kev’arch.”
“That is not entirely incorrect.”
“Well, you’ve got one more place now, to walk in those circles you are ever so fond of walking in.”
“A circular path does much more than appear to be eating its own tail,” Hide’n said. His hands were already resting on Caswin’s ankles so he flexed his fingers and started to massage the tense muscles in the other’s legs. “It puts one in a meditative state, which is ideal for confronting difficult thoughts at a leisurely pace. Perhaps it also signifies an act of avoidance. I do admit that ruminating may not be healthy. Going in circles is, after all, going in circles around something. The path which leads towards the centre is often the one which we ought to be taking instead.”
“And you seem to be talking in circles,” Caswin observed. “Does that mean that there is something you’re trying to avoid?”
“That is very astute of you, to make such a connection.” Hide’n paused, head tilted in thought.
“You can tell me.”
“It concerns this string of beads which was once Kev’arch Tzicaugh’s,” said Hide’n, absently fingering the object in question.
“Which is yours now,” Caswin replied with a shrug. He flicked his gaze upwards, pretending to admire a sight that was almost as familiar to him as the surface of his work table. But the pull was too great and he found himself staring at the beads which hung from Hide’n’s belt.
“Perhaps you have noticed that there is something quite unusual about it. As you know, we all recognized Kev’arch Tzicaugh by the sound of her bells. I can hear them in my head, even now. I am haunted by the phantoms of her steps. I had expected the sound to be a collective effort of all ten, but when separated from the rest, this lone child does not sing. I have examined it as closely as it is possible to, and though it should function as an ordinary bell does…”
“Must be cursed.”
“By your habit of making pessimistic assumptions?” Hide’n teased, though he sounded uncharacteristically exasperated. “Hear me out, Cas-iriseyh. Something isn’t right about them. Two of the ten contain kiven. I have willingly adopted a kiven-astraeyah.”
“Cursed, then,” said Caswin. He chewed on the end of the Okoba stick, worrying it with his teeth. It was just a stub now, and he flicked it into the undergrowth.
“It matters not what befalls me as a result, but I would like to be able to decipher the mystery of these beads without having to rob a grave.”
“Now where did that come from?” Caswin frowned, pushing his hair back out of sheer habit. “We’re talking about beads one moment, and desecration the next.”
“The rest. The nine other strings. They are in the ground beside Tzicaugh, where they were left to lie in the earth shortly after her own burial. They would do well to remain undisturbed and to never see the world above again, and yet I believe that there is something in there which has been buried alive. The kiven-astraeyah has a twin, and I feel it call for its sister.”
Caswin pursed his lips, suddenly itching for another stick of okoba. “This is all kinds of creepy. I don’t like it. And if you’re asking me to dig up what was put in the ground for you, I’m not doing it. I was taught to have respect for the dead.”
Hide’n nodded. His grip on the string of beads tightened, and their inscrutable carvings pressed imprints into his palm. “I was not about to make a request of that sort.”