Naiyala was true to her word. She was up at the exact moment the sun graced her room, picking Nick’s brain within minutes. She didn’t even give him a chance to appreciate how she decorated her room. Now that there was light in it, he could see the grand tapestry the gems made across her walls. They were but stars in a constellation, glorious in their own right but a sum of the entire picture, which the picture these little beauties gave were of an epic. He didn’t know how she found out, probably through a multitude of trial and error, but she managed to make it so there were shadows in places, darker portions from the color abound that made actual human- in this case Reylon shapes. They wielded spears, flashing with a white glint as the sun allowed all the colors given to mix and shine upon that specific portion in all its magnificence, seeming to shift and move towards the other dark shadows, wreathed in fire and off-color hues. Nick wasn’t sure what they were, and was hoping to discern their shape a bit more than hulking brutes, but his attention was pulled so fast by the knowledge-hungry snake girl in the basket with him.
He couldn’t really complain, though. He was out of the basket until mere seconds before the sun rose, and was surprised with how comfortable it was to lay in it. He couldn’t get as relaxed as he could with a bed, but there was a sort of... coziness to the basket, akin to a hammock. It even rocked, but he’d rather not consider that at the moment. The smell the night before never really went away, instead seeming to compound on her. It even overpowered the stench that still wafted down the steps.
The others started to stir, rising, grumbling and groaning as they went to face that rot, but Naiyala seemed to have no want to join them. In fact, in his time being there, Nick remembered that she would be one of the last out of the mound. They worked together before, had a few fishing trips, but he often tried to work out on his own rather than having to deal with the burden of working around them. Including, and especially, her. She was one of the slowest workers he ever had the displeasure to work with, with an attitude to match. She would argue with the others about the tasks, complain that there had to be another way... while never, actually, trying or saying what that could be. And that was fishing; she was even worse with fieldwork, and he was not surprised none of them jumped down her throat for shirking her duties last night at the kitchen.
However, that doesn’t mean he was oblivious. He caught her looking his way on several occasions, and even talking to the others about him. She was usually the first one to stir the pot and attempt to raise any form of hate or anger against him. Speaking to him directly, though? Never.
Until now, that is.
He was right with his first prediction: the lady hath protested too much, as they would say. Though what prompted her to change to... this with him, this close to his plans come to fruition, he could not say. What he could, though, was that he didn’t have a “soul tender”, what the word she said yesterday roughly translated to, nor did he ever have one. He could tell her about Earth and the little corner of its Hell he came from, about his mother and father and how he couldn’t wait to get away from them when he went off to college, but even that little trip became an odyssey in between each part, a trip worthy of song for how many questions she had for each.
“Do humans have soul tenders?” “What’s a mother? A father?” “Why would you want to leave them?” “Why would you leave your family?” “Why was it so bad?” “What’s college?” “Why do you have places of learning? Shouldn’t knowledge be freely passed around by the elders?” “Why aren’t the elders in charge?”
On and on, and he could only skirt around so many. Thankfully, though, he managed to avoid the family ones, several times as she kept trying to bring it back up, with the last answered with external intervention. It was becoming quite apparent she was getting annoyed with how he danced around that subject, with how he completely shut her down at every turn to talk about family and everything it pertains to, but was quickly turned to fear as a thunderous crack thundered through the room.
Nick sighed, and craned his neck back to see the door to the room kicked into it. It laid on the ground, a dark claw print on it, fitting the feet of Sur Felo. Rylo and Goshu were behind him, with a small company of others looking beyond them, all ghastly and pale. Sur had the worst, even a touch of green, but that faded as warmth crept in its place, seeing Naiyala safe in Nick’s care.
“Unda Sur,” Naiyala whined, puffing her cheeks as she finally found the notion to leave the basket. She put her hands on her hips, tamped her foot, and shook her head. “You could have knocked.”
“I’m sorry, Naiya,” Sur said. His voice trembled, holding both sorrow, joy, and sickness in its warbling tone, and entered the room. Though he was hesitant; he stopped several times on the steps, looking between Nick and Naiyala. He made it down them, though, and let Rylo and Goshu rush in, closing on Nick in the basket. “Let me fix the door real quick.”
“There you are,” Rylo, meanwhile, stated, hoisting Nick out of the basket. He patted Nick on the shoulders, grinning from ear-to-ear... and Nick couldn’t help but notice his eyes were a bit bloodshot, nor the rough dark roads from them down his cheeks. “You had Goshu worried.”
“We thought-” Goshu began, but both Rylo and Sur Felo talked, at the same time.
“Lor Fenn went missing last night,” they said.
“Another, huh?” Nick said... and blinked. “Wait. Did you think I went missing, too?”
“And me?” Naiyala said, and groaned. “Unda... You knew we would be together.”
“Yes, and that’s what I told Rylo and Goshu,” Sur Felo said. “And we waited... but when you weren’t coming out for bierme at the usual time-”
“We were talking.” She moved over to stand beside Nick, still in Rylo’s grasp. “I wanted to know more about where he came from. His kind sounds so much more... passionate than ours. Though they don’t have soul tenders-”
“Not to butt in,” Nick said, “but I wanted to make it known that we do. I never had one.”
“You never had a soul tender?” Goshu said. “At your age?”
“How old do you think I am? In fact, how old are all of you?”
“That is a discussion for another time,” Rylo said. “What is important is that you two are both safe.”
“And very late for your meal,” Sur Felo said, sighing as he finished replacing the door. It wasn’t that hard a process, but making sure the clay was still rigid around the “hinges” was paramount. They were little more than four “spokes” that jutted from the carved bone, slotted into the soft clay and pressed hard enough to keep them there but also loose enough for them to slide and allow ease of use. He wiped his hands together, turned to them, and shook his head. “Luckily, you two are both on mining detail today so you can go to work as one.”
“After I get a bite, of c-” Naiyala began.
“Fine.” Naiyala huffed, and stormed off, leaving Nick with them. His focus was on Sur Felo at that moment, seeing the grief, the fear, the pain in his face from having to act like such a strict... uncle? Grandpa? How old were these people, really? They were commenting on his age -which, admittedly, he did look old for his age from all the stress and drain that his peers back home caused- but he did really look that old?
Sur Felo shook his head, and finally noticed that Nick was watching him. Once more, that look of concern crossed his face in the middle of embarrassment and anger, but another emotion was there... Was it... gratitude? Trust? Whatever it was, Nick did not like it nor what today was looking to be. For once in his life, he took his sweet, slow time going to do his tasks, relishing the peace and quiet on the wind, going across the fields towards the mound. He couldn’t smell that putrescence, which had gotten significantly worse overnight up there.
But it paled compared to how it fermented in the mines.
It might not have had much a chance to make it down into those depths, but even the smallest fragment held and flourished in the dank, cooler environment. They might not have liked it, but the mushrooms did. It was almost blinding in those tunnels from the infestation, even crippling some areas to work as they grew so dense to block paths until they were chopped away. Out of curiosity, Nick ate one of them... It wasn’t deadly was the best he could say. Flavor-wise, it didn’t really have one aside water and... mint? However, the looks the other gave when he crunched into it told him they expected him to fall over as soon as he was finished.
But that was a few weeks back, before they vegetated to such a degree. Now, more than ever, he wished he could burn them all away. He already had a wicked headache from the lengths he had to go for mental gymnastics when talking to Naiyala, and all this light and rock being picked wasn’t helping. His own cracking into the rock soothed it some, the feel of the pick making contact, how it reverberated in his hands from the force, how his arms guided it home was all cathartic, but it was quickly stolen away as he heard another pick grow ever closer.
It wasn’t long until her voice returned, her continued questioning in between each crack against the wall and every grunt.
“So,” she said. “You never had a soul tender? Ever?”
“Truly? You never felt a connection to another?”
“I’ve had my fair share of connections. On a soul level, though? Can’t say I have.”
“Why? You never felt that close to someone, that need to nurture and care for them even into the next life?”
“Again, can’t say that I have.”
“That’s... sad... Maybe that’s why the Daiso brought you here.”
“Yes. The Daiso, our holiest of beings, our grand makers and creators.”
“Ah. You mean God, one. Even then, I can’t really say I’m that big on religion.”
That caught her off-guard, threw off her strikes a moment, but it returned as she chucked, nervously.
“A joke. I get it... After all, if what you say happened to you is true, there is no denying that the Daiso are real. How else can you explain how you were brought here?”
“I don’t really care about the how as much as I care about the why.”
“I’ve been thinking on that, too, and I think I’ve got an idea.”
She nodded, still in rhythm with her pick, head going down as she struck, raising as the pick did.
“The Reylon are soft. They, as a whole, would rather focus on small, consistent improvements rather than dramatic change. They would rather play it safe than throw caution to the wind and try things that go completely out of the ordinary... Meanwhile, you have already shown great willingness to do something within seconds, whatever the consequences may be. Things that go against the norm, that might cause harm-”
“Do cause harm.”
“And aren’t afraid to do it... You were brought here as a messenger, to teach our people to be more open to change and self-expression.”
“‘Self-expression’? Does your kind have a problem with that?”
“Everybody adds something to the whole. There is no room to be one’s self since we all must work together and move as one... My mother was one who didn’t like that, who wanted to be more her. My father encouraged it, and both of them were... were...”
Nick sighed, resting his pick between his feet as he leaned on the bony handle, and cast a bored look at the teary-eyed survivor of truth and expression and- he already had a picture of her before, an understanding of how she stood up to her uncle. The way she acted, how she looked; she was a privileged, entitled princess. She didn’t press any more after that, and both of them mined in peace until night rolled in. Once more, he was kidnapped to her room, more agitated that the people didn’t crack than at the priss resting on his chest... Which, after what she described, he doubt that would ever come to be. This sounded like communism to the extreme, with a philosophy that put Buddha to shame.
No... Regardless of what happened tomorrow, he would have to be the one to ignite the fuse. What a coincidence at that: that would be the day Nosu would have to leave... Maybe this was for the best. He always preferred getting the job done himself.