[FOR THE FIRST ELEVEN CHAPTERS, PLEASE CLICK ON "SEPTEMBER" IN THE BLOG ARCHIVES ABOVE]
“So, you each have a Space of your own…” I say, changing the subject, “and you need Nirav’s help every time you go from one to the other?”
God help me…
Lifting my head, I’m yet again faced with the light dot. What am I to do with you?
As I marvel at the endless range of beautiful shapes a mere depth of yarn has to offer, I sometimes get a glimpse of an unexpected object, another optical illusion, just by taking a step forward. So far I’ve managed to see a sort of tree – which disappeared as soon as I shifted, and would not reveal itself again, no matter how insistently I tried to retrace my steps – and a breathtaking silhouette of what looks like the statues in Vlad’s Mausoleum, floating upwards as we pass by.
I try to choke a smile. If that’s true, then it’s worked like a charm. Major points for Sam.
A few seconds go by with the both of us floating there, perfectly horizontal, perfectly parallel. The silver Elf's face keeps going from shock to wonder, and it's clear he's not doing anything to hold me there. But then… how? I can’t be doing it either, since I can barely move or think straight. What energy would I be using to fly, if I had none left?
The voice sounds like it's coming from the bottom of the sea, and yet I recognize it. But my eyelids... They're too heavy.
"Lily, can you hear me?" the voice urges.
It takes everything I have to unglue my eyelashes, and the first thing I see gives me a small but much-needed boost: an extremely worried, human-looking, bespectacled Elf.
Oh, so he's back now? Just like that?! I give him the most vitriolic and hurt glare I can muster. Despite how relieved I am to see him, I've never felt more like his hostage than I do know, while he's free to come and go to my world as he wishes.
He ignores me, and discreetly reaches for my cheek. But just as I attempt to turn away, he insistently lays his palm on my lips, and jams something into my mouth. Something small, round and melty.
Is this...? ...OH. THANK. GOD. FOR. CHOCOLATE!!!
It will definitely not give me all the strength I need, but I dare hope that in a few minutes, I'll be looking less like a vegetable.
I also quickly understand that my emotions are secondary right now, and that I should make sure none of the others sees what he gave me. I try not to chew, and look at him half-gratefully, blinking once. This brings a very fleeting smile to one corner of his mouth, and still, it's enough to get some of the breath stuck in my throat. I love you, you son of a bitch.
"How long was I out?" I whisper groggily.
"Long enough to worry the hell out of me," he says, with a cautious look in his eyes. If he thinks he's forgiven, he's way off. I give him an indifferent frown and look away.
He huffs lightly, and turns towards the others. "See? She's alright! Nothing to get worked up about!"
"But who's to say she won't lose the Energy like this again?" Indya questions him, too formally to reassure.
She's on her guard, and her distrust automatically sends her back into the non-accomplice group. My goodness... What an idiot I've been! I've felt too relaxed around her and her unsettling humanity, and even let her into my head, without knowing if she could rummage through it. And now there she is, doubting and inquiring... I should stop thinking that everyone here is like Sam, and would still be on our side if the secret were out! Stupid, stupid...
Peter stands up and turns his back to me. "She's no Invalid, Indy! She's...still taking form. I've also made some changes to her drawing, as I said I would. Besides, you've always known my Talent applied gradually, so why would it be any different with her?"
"Because she's just been accused by a student, Peter! If the least discerning see this, what do you think the Elders will perceive, regardless of the truth?"
I hear no ill intentions in Indya's voice, despite the questioning. It sounds more like protectiveness; the really adamant kind. Next to her, Vlad and Dem look pensive but clearly unwilling to get in the middle of this. Chloë, however, peeks from behind Vlad and waves at me. Wait... where is Nirav?
"The one you call 'least discerning' has been evading us and skillfully tempering his every gesture, when we've always known he took after Corbin! What gave it away at last?"
"He spoke about it, in Pi's Space..."
"Oh.... so much for discretion! Since when does Pi divulge anything that is said or done there?" They all share a wink-like glance.
"She didn't," Dem finally steps in. "His Butineuse did."
Oh for Pete's... That's it! I'm done not understanding!!! With a side-wrenching effort, I sit up and ask, without preamble, " 'Scuse me! Anyone care to tell me what is going on?"
Heavy silence. Exchanged looks.
"Who is Corbin? And what did Akäar take after him?" I insist.
I know who Corbin is; Sam told me. I just want Peter to finally speak about his estranged brother. He turns around to face me, with a wary frown. "Corbin is an Aelfric who left nothing but destruction and smoke in his path, a few Raedes ago."
"How? And most of all, why?" I push. I've got him talking now, and I'm not letting go.
Sensing Peter's stress, Vlad steps in and in a second, puts on his historian's mask. "It was a very dark time for the Aelfric kind, as everything revolved around the Gardens and what our role was, relatively to their inhabitants. It was more of a grey area then, than it is now." I feel he wants to look at Peter to confirm the jab, but he's conscious enough of how Indya and Dem would perceive it. "We had already piled on a series of unfortunate experiences with them, so the general tendency was to reduce our function to one of mere observation. Some Aelfrics, however, disagreed..."
"They wanted more interference?" Careful Lily, don't get too brave.
"It's not that... The most dangerous things our kind has done throughout the Raedes, have all stemmed from good intentions. And the intention was to embrace the Indigenous people - as an inferior species of course - but a cherished one. To teach it what we know, and give it a taste of our culture, intellect, values.... The most ardent supporter of this cause was Corbin. He saw no point in observing the Garden Folk if we were to leave them to their ignorance and wait for them to gain knowledge at their own rhythm. What is their reason for being, if not advancing and transcending their feeble nature? We were never given the actual reasons why the Great Elder created the Gardens, but they seemed obvious to Corbin. Why wait for the Garden Folk to take the fall into darkness, and then choose to remain good? This detour was at the heart of every Garden trouble we've ever witnessed, and Corbin found that absurd.
"So he tried everything. He pleaded with the Elders, developed his Talent enough to be a worthy Herald one day, and rallied a large number or Aelfrics who were under his charm... He had a way of defending his views which was terribly convincing. At one point, he even managed to have a voting majority on the Council which comprises all our living Elders.
"Only three resisted him: Danielle, Elyä and Onnica; and they took action rapidly. Elyä asked that Indya be substituted by Peter as a Herald, for the obvious reason that new Heralds could not be replaced before a minimum of five Raedes. This helped them gain time, and they also knew that Corbin would never hurt Peter, as they were close friends."
Brothers. They were Brothers. How could you not know what that means?!
"Onnica, on the other hand, entrusted Nirav with a Key, without which the passage to the Gardens would be impossible. A Key that only Nirav and the Herald can identify."
"But what's to say that Corbin wouldn't exert his 'charm' to pressure Nirav or Peter?" I ask, with a heart thudding so fast it's pushing against my ribs. They're finally telling me everything!!
"Well, that's what Danielle did. She had Peter make the sacred oath, the same one you did when the Sentinels were here, which makes it impossible to lie..."
Then how come I could lie while swearing to it?... Although, technically, I'm not an Invalid. I'm just... hungry.
"She also knew how attuned Peter was to Corbin, and how it was unlikely he would fall for any of his tricks. As for Nirav, he was given a very good reason not to be intimidated by Corbin..."
Is he seriously making pauses to increase the suspense? Spill, you blond blabbermouth!!! "And what is that?" I inquire with hardly concealed frustration.
"Danielle made him an Elder."
Ah!!! Well... that sure explains it!... The way Peter walked on eggshells around him, and why he could never express any anger towards him. And that's probably why Nirav's so tall. But... I can't believe this! From the very first second I was brought to this land, I've been in the presence of a member of the Elders Council. That same Council that will probably sentence me to death! Not only was he there all the way, he also went to Earth to get me... risking his own position, and probably his life too. I must really remember not to slip up about Nirav and Vlad tagging along with Peter on that fateful night...
Suddenly, a very dark thought hits me: what if Nirav has been reporting to Danielle all this time?!... What if he's the one responsible for her knowing about me and sending me the Lume to the brooding bubble?... No. No, no, no. I refuse to think that, although it would also explain why Peter was uncomfortable anytime Nirav got too close to me... No, the thought of him betraying us is just unbearable. I really wish I could confront him somehow! But all this talk about the tall Elf, when he's not even here to give me one of his dark yet understanding looks. Where is he?!
Oblivious to what's going through my mind, Vlad continues the story.
"Corbin was invited to speak to the Council again, and was told about the changes. He...didn't take it well. You see, he had a very peculiar Talent. He could build things just like the rest of us... Except he did it with his eyes. All he had to do was concentrate, and the invisible Energy would flow from his eyes, to the Matter. It was quite remarkable, as he could create material and move the earth at will, without raising a finger. But this time... he was furious. Furious enough to reveal something he'd been hiding from us. His Talent had grown, so much so that all the Energy of his anger, all the power of it, was concentrated in his eyes. The second he lost his temper, his eyes went completely black, and an instant later, a searing jet of dark smoke came out of them, and filled the hall. We...," he stops for a heavy minute, "we lost many Elders."
"I'm so sorry..."
"The grief is still present, although we're glad many escaped. Danielle, it pains me to say, was the sole survivor who was wounded, but not enough to make her an Invalid. Everyone else who'd ever faced the scorching Smoke, was killed."
My heart drops. Not out of sympathy for them, but from a vague memory I kept from my days as a Human: "Lily, you know there's still a place for people like us," the song went. Us, assault victims. These lyrics got Peter to confess to me, in very Human terms, that his mother had been attacked. His mother. ...Danielle!!!
"Before we could all catch our breath and think of what to do with Corbin, he had already sown terror, Fumes and destruction on his path. Regardless of being invited in or not, he went through the Spaces looking for the Key. He first targeted Indya's former Space - the one right next to mine - and it is now in Fumes. He knew that Peter would never give him the Key, so he hoped to find out more about it from the previous Herald, obviously. He found nothing, and ended up letting his anger explode again, completely annihilating her Space and life's work. Luckily, Indy was here, at the School, and she's now practically living in it with Dem, as she has yet to rebuild a Space of her own.
"Corbin then went to a few of the deceased Elders' Spaces, desecrating them as he went, and hoping to find more clues there. His desperation got him all the way to Nirav's, where he came across a rather major hurdle: Nirav's Space is an infinity of wind and ice, and this considerably weakened Corbin's fire. He finally found himself forced to retreat to his own Space, as the Sentinels had closed in on him from all sides.
"He put on a very long and violent fight, and many were burnt, until Peter stepped in. He made a drawing that was meant to render Corbin powerless. However, just as it was starting to apply, the unthinkable happened: in a final, desperate act, Corbin filled his own Space with Fumes, burning himself in the process. And this was the end of it."
I gaped at him, eyes wide open... It was all I could do.
"These incidents were sufficient to bring most Aelfrics back to the principle of reducing our interference in the Gardens. However, from time to time, young and foolish ones, who weren't even born when this happened, pretend to understand and sympathize with Corbin's ideas. This in itself is reason enough for the Sentinels to take them in. It should explain what happened to Akäar, and why it had to be so brutal. Do you understand now, Lily?"
"Y...yes, I do. Erm... thank you," I mumble, and suddenly notice Peter's eyes boring into mine. He can see how this is overwhelming for me - and for him too I reckon - and decides to put an end to the conversation.
"Thank you, Vlad. Dem, Indy, I think we have profited too much from your gentle hospitality, and I'm sorry for the Sentinel Check... I think we should move along now, so as not to put you in that same, delicate position again, should they return. Thank you, so very much."
For some strange reason, both professors automatically turn and look at me, with a tinge of regret in their eyes.
"We are sorry, young one," Indya says, "You don't deserve this. In normal cases, we would have made sure your education were completed. Or at least some of it."
I smile and shake my head softly, while trying to stand up. One tiny chocolate was definitely not enough. Out of nowhere though, Dem appears at my side and helps me up, taking advantage of the closeness to give me one more forehead-to-forehead moment. "We are here for you, don't forget it. I am here for you," he says that last part slowly and clearly.
Still lost in thought, I smile to both and thank them, then realize that Dem had passed my hand over to Peter, for support. I'm still too mad and too weak to forgive my green-eyed Elf, but touching him again, with finally a good excuse to do so, feels like being home. I stretch my other hand out to Chloë and she willingly grabs it. She's never really burdened by anything, is she? Peter and Vlad say farewell, and we all start walking away from that colossal megalopolis of a school.
A familiarly awkward silence weighs on the four of us as we walk past the last megastructures, and reach a sort of dusty no man's land. Peter hasn't let go of my hand, except to slip me a few more chocolates. I could give him a hard time about each and every one of them, if I weren't so friggin’ hungry. I do, however, decide to break the silence once I feel that the school is too far behind for anyone to be eavesdropping.
"Where is Nirav?"
"I haven't got the slightest," Peter replies, "He sent me to the Garden, waited for my return, wished me, ...us good luck with Danielle, and went his way."
"How does that work anyway? The return trip I mean? Are you able to communicate with him all the way from the Garden? In all cases, it doesn't sound like him to just leave," I throw, with as dry a tone as I can manage, "I rather imagine you two having a strong enough disagreement to drive him away once and for all."
"You seem to think you know him so well," Peter says icily. "Then it must have been quite the surprise for you to find out he was an Elder, wasn't it? If you really knew what that meant, you would surely realize how much he's already done for us, when he shouldn't have. The way I see it, he's probably getting ready for the Council meeting. You could see him then, sitting in his high chair, and acting all Elder-like, as he should. Just make sure you act as if you didn't even know him, unless you would like to put him in as much danger as we are in."
I let go of his arm. Besides him not answering the first set of questions, I know his words make perfect sense, and I would do anything to keep Nirav out of trouble. But if I didn't know any better, I would think most of that was the rambling of a jealous guy. I'm no big fan of childish outbursts of jealousy, especially when I'm the only one whose anger is based on real reasons here. Oh, and I'm not done questioning him.
"They said you were 'attuned' to Corbin, and that you were close friends. Were you also a supporter of his cause?"
Peter's face darkens, and I know I'm pushing him to the very limits of patience. Good. Because I'm eons beyond mine.
"Yes, of course I was, but I'd never reached the same level of radicalism he approved of. And all it took was living with the Garden Folk to realize that they were not an inferior species. Not entirely. I suppose Elyä knew I was too close to being one of Corbin's followers, and giving me the Heraldry must have been her way of saving me. It did."
Huh... He might be over the idea of teaching us lowly Humans how to live, but he sure still believes in interference, obviously.
I'm temporarily distracted by the first patches of colour appearing in the horizon. As we walk on, I realize they might be flowers. I could just reach out and pick them, but I've learnt to beware of optical illusions in this world. A few more steps forward end up giving me confirmation: they really are flowers, of probably gigantic proportions. They're mostly red and white; the white ones are either open or closed, whereas the red ones are all closed buds and... sort of glowing from the inside. It's nice, but I don't yet see the use of living among giant flowers.
We end up reaching the border of the Space, and I get a neck ache from looking so far up to see the sheer giganticness of the strange flowers. They have no stalks or leaves, but seem to rather spurt right out of the ground itself. Still not seeing the point though.
"Vlad, you know Pi's got a thing for you. How about you send her a Lume?" Peter teases, while Vlad rolls his eyes so wide it's comical. Soon, his lovely snowflake-shaped Lume bobs up and disappears between the flowers. He then kneels and looks Chloë in the eye.
"Okay, you little monster, you know you can't go in there, don't you?"
The tiny Elf kicks and glares at him, but he's completely unmoved by it. So, in her desperation to stay with us, she grabs my forearm and hides behind it.
"Come on... you know you need to go now, little one. I'm sorry," he insists.
Chloë squeezes my forearm tighter, expecting me to stand up for her. But since I have no clue why this is forbidden, I don't dare. I so hate letting her down though...
I bend down and carry her, then whisper in her ear that it will all be alright, and that we might see each other soon. Not that I really believe it, but I want to so bad that I'm willing to lie. She puts her forehead on mine, and for the first time ever, I hear her tiny voice say, "I like you!"
"I like you too sweetie!" I choke, and put her down before any actual tears reach my eyes. No need for this sort of trouble again. She stares at me for one last second, then goes to Peter and gives him an actual high five. I giggle, although he must really stop teaching her Human things. Finally, she goes to Vlad, looks up at him, and suddenly raises her Vans-clad foot and brings it down, with all her tiny power, on his toes. He pretends it didn't hurt, but it's obvious it did, and Peter and I tactfully choose to laugh out loud. My laugh fades quickly though, as I see my little Chloë walking away from us, without even looking back.
Goodbye, little one...
A short minute later, a strange sight makes me focus again. I was expecting a Lume - probably red - to appear in return for Vlad's, but instead, I'm surprised to see three very fine, small silver goblets floating towards each one of us. Too hesitant to touch the one intended for me, I give Peter a puzzled glance.
"Erm... It's not mandatory... but I really think you should drink it," he says, seeming positively uncomfortable.
"Why? What is it?"
"Uh... it's... Well, it's... sort of like... contraception."
My eyeballs pop out.
"I'm awfully sorry for this. Truly," is all Peter manages to say, as his face sinks even deeper with embarrassment.