Chapter 9 - A Way Ahead
Mikaen lifted the glass lip of the ceramic stew pot and sniffed at the contents. He wasn't as good a cook as Kathryn, but the stew smelled good enough. After doling out a decent amount into a wooden bowl, he sat down at the table and said a quick prayer before starting on his dinner. He had only just lifted his spoon when someone knocked on his door.
"Come in!" He called out.
The door opened, revealing Jeronem. He was carrying his durien-tail staff over his shoulder, a wide grin on his face. The young vuestan changed little over the past seven months; if anything, he had become even more mischievous, thanks in part to his new staff.
The amber scales of the durien's tail had gradually fallen off, the flesh and bone within decomposing into a bluish crystal core within weeks of Mikaen's defeat of the previous owner. Clusters of crystals sprouted from where the durien's spikes once jutted, and the whole staff seemed to pulse with a gentle light.
"Hey, Mikaen! Mind some company?"
Mikaen gestured to the stool across from him. "Of course not. Have a seat and grab some stew."
Jeronem set his staff against the wall. "Thanks! Mom's cooking has been so strange lately."
As Jeronem started to sit down across the table, Mikaen commented, "One stopped by today."
The young vuestan was so surprised that he missed his chair and ended up on the floor. Recovering instantly, he was halfway across the table, his brilliant blue eyes shining excitedly. "Really? What did he do? What he say?"
"Nothing special; talked about the first time he came here, asked me how I was doing. Still, I get the feeling that he's here because of me."
Jeronem appeared thoughtful. "Frankly, I'm not sure whether you should be grateful or jump off a cliff to end it quickly."
Mikaen's right hand moved unbidden into his left pocket, where he kept the paper that led him to Jeronem and Homestead.
"I don't think he'd purposefully lead me astray," he said, choosing his words carefully, "I'm more worried about his motives."
"If he is the same One my father and Trystan used to tell me about, it's probably not worth worrying about. I wish I coulda seen him."Jeronem's pout was interrupted by a surprisingly loud growl from his stomach.
Mikaen pushed the ceramic pot toward Jeronem with his spoon. "Dig in."
Jeronem wasted no time in filling a bowl for himself. They ate in silence for a few minutes, pausing only to drink or to ladle out more stew.
Still slurping his soup, Jeronem glanced up. "What's One like?"
"Don't talk with your mouth full." Mikaen replied with a smirk.
"Oh come on! You've met him twice already. What's he like?"
Mikaen sighed and set down his spoon. He knew from experience that Jeronem wouldn't stop pestering him until he got a satisfactory response.
"He seems like a decent guy. After all I've read of the Dreamers, I thought he'd be dismissive, but he seems to be very understanding ... now quit talking."
Jeronem snickered. "Still can't communicate mentally while eating?"
"Not without wearing my dinner, no."
They continued the meal in silence. Jeronem was the first to finish, pushing his bowl forward as he sat back in his chair.
"Ahh! That was good. I was too busy packing to get a meal in today."
"Nervous about your exams?" Mikaen asked after finishing his own bowl.
Jeronem tried to shrug nonchalantly, but Mikaen could detect a quavering note in his friend's mental voice. "About my exams? Of course not! I've got this in the bag. Why would I be nervous?"
"Well, there's the hike to Muonsol for one thing. I know duriens and abscotts avoid the main road, but you never know. Then we'll have to find the Center of Knowledge, which neither of us has ever even seen. Then there's always the possibility that the exams are more difficult than you were expecting, and-"
"All right!" Jeronem threw his hands up. "I get it! I'm nervous already!"
"Well, don't be. I've seen firsthand your talent as a spell-shaper. You'll get your license, no problem." Pausing a moment to stifle a yawn, Mikaen asked, "What time we heading out tomorrow?"
"Noon. Don't worry; I'll come and wake you if you sleep in." Jeronem hopped out of his chair and retrieved his staff. "Speaking of which, I'm gonna go hit the sack so I can be fresh and ready to go tomorrow!"
Mikaen hid his smirk as he showed Jeronem to the door. Much like his father, Jeronem was anything but 'fresh and ready' in the morning, no matter how much he slept the previous night.
After they exchanged their good nights, Mikaen watched as Jeronem skipped down the path toward the Thistlethorn home. He had come to think of Jeronem as a little brother. Like any good little brother, Jeronem had a knack of getting into trouble; fortunately, big brother Mikaen was there to help him out.
Mikaen shook his head as he closed the door and turned to find an inconsiderate Dreamer sitting in his chair and sniffing at his stew.
Smiling wryly as he took a different seat, Mikaen said, "Help yourself."
"Oh, no thanks. I just came from dinner with the Thistlethorn family." One patted his stomach, adding, "Whew, Kathryn's a good cook."
Mikaen chuckled. "Believe me, I know."
There was a tense moment of silence before Mikaen finally asked, "So what brings you here?"
One replied, "You. I'm here to help you, after all."
The directness of that statement surprised Mikaen, but he was careful not to let it show. "What exactly are you helping me with?"
"Your problem. What else? Nice job on the house by the way. Not much in the way of furniture though."
"Don't change the subject, One. What exactly is my problem?"
"Oh, nothing horrible or complicated. You've just lost your way, that's all."
Raising an eyebrow questioningly, Mikaen asked, "Do you practice being vague?"
"I'm trying to help you find your way home." One told him, putting his hands behind his head and leaning back. "That's what you wanted seven months ago, right?"
"Yes, well …" Mikaen flushed, feeling suddenly very awkward at the prospect of telling the Dreamer his reservations. "Seven months is a long time."
"True, that." One hopped up out of his chair and turned to address Mikaen directly. "However, we both know that as long as you have that chip, you're gonna try your best to deliver it. I'd do it for you, but I know you don't trust me."
"-say anything, I know. It's okay; if I was in your shoes, I wouldn't trust me either. Weird guy, keeps popping in and out all the time. Look, the only reason I popped in tonight was to let you know I'll be around for a while. Need some advice or help, feel free to ask. Can't promise I'll actually help, but you can always ask."
If One noticed the sarcasm in Mikaen's voice, he didn't say anything about it. With a smile and a bow, he said, "Well, I guess I'll head out for now. Later!"
With that, the Dreamer disappeared. Shaking his head, Mikaen started to clean off his table when One appeared again.
"Oh, and say hello to Elduran for me when you go to see him tonight, okay?"
"How did you know I was ..." Mikaen let his voice trail off, as One was already gone.
Snorting, Mikaen resumed cleaning up. Once the last dish was washed and placed back in the proper cabinet, he grabbed the quilted cloak Kathryn made for him and headed for the door.
As he walked through the streets of Homestead, Mikaen realized just how much he liked living there. He was a respected and valued member of a community, he had many friends, and he had a home of his own. More importantly, Mikaen had peace, a peace he never possessed back on Earth, even with Maria.
A group of young women passing by Mikaen began to whisper among themselves, a few flashing glances at Mikaen's muscular form and handsome face. He flashed a smile at them, sending the group into a fit of giggling as they hurried past.
His eyes followed the group as they continued walking. An image of himself living in his home with a vuestan wife and children passed through his mind. He could be happy; he could have a family.
Mikaen forced the thoughts from his head, angry at himself. He never shirked his duties before, and he wasn't about to start now. If he gave up and chose the easier, more pleasant route, it would be like ignoring every unjust death brought by the hands of the Revs. He needed to see this through, not because he was one of the four founders of the Knights of the Star but because he owed it to everyone who hadn't made it to see the Revs fall.
Lost in thought, Mikaen did not notice the robed figure in his path until he literally bumped into the fellow.
Once the shock had worn off, Mikaen glanced at the symbol on the man's blue robes, a triangle with three differently colored points and a circle of black in the center. Mikaen hadn't spent much time on studying Vinta's religions, but he recognized the symbol as belonging to the Celestial Church.
"My apologies, brother." Mikaen said, bowing his head slightly. "I was lost in thought."
Startled, the monk asked, "What are you doing here?"
"I live here." Mikaen replied, slightly taken aback, "What are YOU doing here?"
The monk opened and closed his mouth in silence for several moments before bowing his head. "F-forgive me if I offended you."
Another monk stepped forward, this one wearing blue robes with green trim. "We are merely surprised to see a brother Galden among the vuestan. Please do not take offence."
"It's no problem." Mikaen said politely.
The monk bowed his head to Mikaen, saying, "Our apologies, but we must be on our way. May you always walk in the Creator's light."
He turned and began to walk away, the first monk following quickly.
Mikaen watched the two as they moved off. The sight of monks in Homestead wasn't particularly unusual; a few showed up every few months to spread the word, as it were. From what Mikaen could glean from their preaching, the Celestial Church was all about balance between the forces of Light (representing Creation), Void (Representing Destruction), Chaos (Representing Life), with Balance serving to ensure no one side became dominant. Most surprising to Mikaen was that each of these forces was allowed representation within the church, meaning that there was ultimately no set 'good' or 'evil' sect. Even stranger, they didn't deny the other religions of Vinta.
Mikaen found them surprisingly tolerant for a religious order. Still, something about the two monks bothered him in a way he couldn't put to words. Shaking his head, Mikaen pushed the incident out of his mind and continued toward the Thistlethorn home.
Kathryn met Mikaen at the door, the same pleasant but strangely secretive smile on her face that she'd been wearing for the past few weeks.
"Evening, Missus Thistlethorn," Mikaen said politely, slipping off his sandals and hanging them on the rack by the door.
"Good evening Mikaen. Do you need to speak with Jeronem?"
"Actually, I want to speak with Elduran, if he's not busy."
Kathryn nodded and pointed to the study door. "He's still poring over his books, but I'm sure he won't mind."
"Still trying to find a way for me to get home." said Mikaen, feeling a bit guilty that Elduran put so much on hold just to help him.
Kathryn smiled kindly. "I'm sure you'll find your way. Want me to walk you to the study?"
"No thanks." Mikaen replied. "I know the way."
Kathryn nodded and headed toward the stairs, humming happily to herself. Mikaen paused a moment to wonder about this before shaking his head and opening the door to the study.
"Good evening, Mikaen." Elduran said, not looking up from his tome.
Mikaen nodded politely at the pleasantry. "Good evening. Any luck?"
With a weary sigh, Elduran closed the book and rubbed his forehead. "Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I'm sorry, Mikaen; I've checked every book in this library as well as a mountain of literature from the Center, but I've got nothing. I'm sorry, but I can't find anything that could've brought you all the way here or send you back home."
Despite his attachment to Homestead, Mikaen felt a pang of disappointment. If nothing else, he missed Syrin. She wasn't just his leader; she was like a mother, an older sister, and a close friend.
Keeping a smile on his face, Mikaen said, "It's okay. You tried your best."
"But it wasn't enough." Elduran sighed heavily. "After all you've done for Homestead, I was hoping I could give you a better answer than 'I don't know'."
"You've done more for me than I will ever be able to repay." Mikaen told him truthfully.
"I'm just sorry it wasn't enough to get you home." Elduran stopped, snapping his fingers. "Which reminds me: take a look at this, would you?"
He rustled around on his cluttered desk a moment before pulling out a partially crumpled letter, which he handed to Mikaen. "I received this today."
Mikaen pulled out the letter and shook it open. He was surprised to to find it written not in the spellscript typically used by vuestans, but in Vintan Common. It read:
How have you been, old friend? How are Kathryn and Jeronem doing? I hear that your boy is about to register at the Center. He's even younger than you were when you registered, as I recall. I'd say I hope he'll stay out of trouble, but we'd hardly be the ones to talk about that, eh?
I wish I could say this letter is just to catch up on old times, but work must intrude; the Council date has been set two weeks from now. I can't promise this year will be any more exciting than the last, but you know how it goes with these official functions.
As for the other matter you spoke of in your last letter, I agree that it merits some attention. We will discuss it in greater detail upon your arrival.
Mikaen was, of course, curious about the 'other matter' that Cygros mentioned, but it sounded private and Mikaen didn't want to pry into Elduran's business. Still, the name ''Cressia' made One think of his friend and next-in-command of the Knights of the Star, Jyle Crestorm. Mikaen wondered how his old buddy was doing in Mikaen's absence.
Shaking his head, Mikaen asked, "What is this 'Council'?"
"It's a meeting of the Allied Nations of Vinta: Jai Vye, the Cleftan Region, Homestead, Ronisgald, Longshore, Wenapaj, and Rimstak. We meet every so many years and discuss the state of the world: economic forecasts, possible problems, and that general sort of thing."
"Oh, I get it. Sort of like the Knight's Forum on Earth." The Knight's Forum was a yearly meeting of the heads of the various chapters around the globe to coordinate against the Revs.
"Yes. However, in this case the representatives are of different races from all over Vinta. The Council will be held seventeen days from now, and two members of the vuestan are expected to attend. Under normal circumstances, I would leave immediately. This time something has come up that will prevent my attendance." A smile spread across Elduran's face. "Kathryn is with child."
Pleasantly surprised, Mikaen shook Elduran's hand. "Congratulations! That's great news!"
His face suddenly fell when he realized Elduran's dilemma. The mental presence of both parents is considered crucial to the growth of a new child. Most surprising is that the noktal trees in which the vuestan live know that as well; once both parents are aware of a pregnancy, the tree will not allow either to leave. Mikaen knew this first-hand, as he'd been responsible for delivering groceries to several expectant parents during his time in Homestead (while the special fruits the noktal produce during a pregnancy are extremely healthy and tasty, most prospective parents are ready for something different by the third month).
"Well, I'm sure the Council will understand, considering the circumstances." Mikaen said, "I mean, from what Cygress wrote, it's just ceremonial anyway."
Elduran shook his head. "You don't understand. Two members are expected to attend, no exceptions. If Kathryn and I can't go, I must choose two to go in our stead."
"Who are the lucky two?" Mikaen asked, considering friends he would recommend.
"I've decided to send Jeronem since he's heading that way anyway for his exams at the Center, but I'm having difficulty with my second choice. I have someone in mind, but I don't know if he will agree to go."
"Who do you have in mind?" Mikaen asked, wondering why any vuestan would reject such an honor, even if it was just ceremonial.
Elduran looked him straight in the eyes. "You."
Surprised, Mikaen started to object only for Elduran to immediately cut him off. "You've made your own home and lived here for over a season. According to our laws, you are legally a vuestan."
Mikaen was startled at the abruptness of this decision but he managed to say, "I've no objections, but why me? I'm sure there are natural-born vuestan more qualified to represent Homestead than I."
"I find it difficult to believe that you won't act in the best interests of Homestead. You've done so much for our people during these past seven months." He smiled warmly at Mikaen. "I know you will represent our interests well."
Honored by Elduran's praise, Mikaen said solemnly, "Well, if you're sure, then I accept."
"I'm sure. You'll do fine, I know it." Elduran paused for a moment before snapping his fingers. "Oh, while you're heading that way, could you take these books back to the Center for me?"
Mikaen glanced at the sizable pile with skepticism. "You do know that we're going on foot, right?"
Realizing the obvious problem, Elduran chuckled. "Right. I'll lend you my bottomless pack. The enchantment's fresh, so there shouldn't be any problems."
"If there is, I should be able to fix it." Mikaen didn't have the same knack for spell-shaping as Jeronem or Elduran, but he wasn't by any means unskilled.
He started to reach for a stack of the books, but Elduran stopped him. "I'll pack them, Mikaen. It's the least I could do."
Shrugging, Mikaen occupied himself by taking a look at the books that currently littered Elduran's desk. Out of the corner of his eyes, he could see the piles of books taking to the air like birds and flying into the open pack.
Mikaen's eyes caught on the cover of a book lying on the very edge of the desk. The cover of the book displayed a woman with feathered wings hovering in the air, a rather vacant smile on her otherwise beautiful face. Curious, he picked the book up and skimmed through the pages.
The book was filled with illustrations of winged humanoids, some appearing angelic, others demonic, others simply strange. There was text as well, but it was a bit on the technical side for Mikaen.
Elduran pocketed the crystal containing the spell he used to squeeze the rest of the books into his pack. "Well, that should do it."
"Hmm? Oh, yeah. Thanks."
Elduran glanced over at Mikaen. "Find something interesting?"
Mikaen flipped back to the cover and read the title aloud. "'Twelve Tribes: a study of Sentientera Ancientes' by Trystan Gelanis."
Elduran looked curious. "Huh. Must've been one of the books that came in this morning. May I?"
Mikaen handed the book to Elduran reluctantly. "Are the Sentientera native to Vinta?"
"Indeed. We just call them sentients for short. They're isolationists, aside from two or three tribes. Most of them live on a series of floating continents we call Rising Star."
"Oh." Floating continents? Mikaen had read something about that in one of the Dreamer-related fairy tales, but he'd assumed it was just fiction.
After browsing through the dusty pages for a few moments, Elduran's eyes went wide. "I can't believe I didn't think of it before! By the Creator, it's so obvious! It wasn't teleportation at all! It was a portal!"
"What?" Mikaen asked, coming to stand behind him.
Elduran was so excited he could barely contain himself. "Teleportation is essentially tricking reality into thinking that you're somewhere other than where you already are. It's a basic magic, so basic that some animals can even manage it. The Harmonius Effect, the Ol' Switcheroo: there are dozens of things that can lead to teleportation, accidental or otherwise, but portals are different. Portals are harder! A portal links two locations together to allow near-instantaneous movement from one point to the next, but it's difficult to stabilize! It doesn't just happen; it needs complete directed will and an incredible amount of stream energy."
Mikaen didn't bother trying to keep up; Elduran was difficult to follow when he got excited. "That's interesting, but-"
Elduran turned the book around, stopping Mikaen short.
A lovely female sentient with the wings of a monarch butterfly hovered before a swirling circle of light, the edges of reality bending around the rim. Looking at it, Mikaen had a vivid memory of being surrounded by colored lights and swirling strands of the blue-green energy he now knew as lifestream.
Staring intently at the image, he whispered, "I've seen this before."
Elduran looked as though he wanted to be smug, but was trying his best not to show it. "Still, we have to be sure before we jump to conclusions. I don't want to give you false hope, not again."
Now thoroughly confused, Mikaen asked, "What are you thinking?"
"I'm not sure myself, but I bet Trystan Gelanis would. He's the Seed at the Center of Knowledge. Knows more about sentients than anyone on Vinta without wings. If I'm wrong, he's still the best person on the planet to help you find a way home." Elduran handed the book to Mikaen, saying, "Here, why not have a look at it yourself during the trip? I assure you, it's definitely an interesting read, once you get past the technical bits. I'll send Trystan a message saying that you'll be entering the Center with Jeronem."
"Sure. Sounds interesting." Mikaen took the book gladly. It was hard not to be curious after Elduran had become so worked up over it.
Yawning, Elduran rose from his chair. "Well, I'm turning in. You'd better get some sleep too; you've got a long trip ahead of you."
Mikaen bowed his head respectfully. "Goodnight Elduran."
"Ahem." Elduran pointed at the pack in which he stored the books from the Center.
Smiling, Mikaen hoisted the hefty pack on one shoulder. He was almost out the door when he thought of the two monks he encountered.
"Elduran," He said, turning back to the elder vuestan, "I ran into two monks from the Celestial Church earlier."
Elduran snorted. "Oh, them. They wanted me to form a tree for a monastery here. I wouldn't have minded, but they were rather pushy about it. I told them I'd consider it, then told them to leave before I showed them out the window."
Suppressing an urge to smile, Mikaen said, "Sorry I brought it up. Good night Elduran."