Chapter 18 - Tests
"Question 531: Do you occasionally have the urge to inflict violence on other living beings for pleasure?"
"I'm getting there." Mikaen muttered.
The nurse glanced up from her desk questioningly.
Grimacing, Mikaen shook his head. "Just talking to myself. Sorry if I disturbed you."
Returning his gaze to the clipboard, continued the truly herculean task of checking little boxes on mashed up bits of dead trees. He had just about reached the end of the stack when another nurse came over with an armload of paper.
Huffing from the exertion, she said, "Here's the last set. I'll stop back and check up on you after I take a break."
Mikaen stared at the stack of papers as though it had personally insulted him. He 6could stand the blood work and the physical exam, but the only thing this 'yes' or 'no' questionnaire was testing was his patience.
"Question 832: Do you believe in a supreme deity?"
"I did until questions seven-hundred and five."
The head nurse looked up from her paperwork with a frown.
Mikaen looked down at the question again. It was hard not to get sarcastic after over so many questions, especially given the fact that the only options were 'yes' and 'no'. With a sigh, he checked the box labeled 'yes' and continued on to the next question.
"Question 833: Do you think there's really a point to all this 'yes or no' bull-crap?"
Mikaen stared at the question. "What the …?"
The nurse glared at him again and put a finger to her lips.
Looking back down at the paper, Mikaen nearly leaped out of his seat when the letters merged together to create a picture that was unmistakably Narrator Number One.
"Sorry to interrupt," A little text bubble above his head read, "but you look like you could use a break."
Glancing up to make sure the nurse wasn't watching, Mikaen whispered, "What are you doing in there?"
One shrugged, the text box above him reading, "I was kinda bored, and wanted to see what you were up to."
The Dreamer looked distastefully at the question below him, reading aloud, "Have you ever engaged in sexual intercourse with a non-humanoid? Who the hell writes this crap?" With a leap, One stomped on the 'no' box, filling it completely with ink.
"Hey!" Mikaen objected.
One looked up at him questioningly. "I'm sorry; did I answer that one wrong?"
Blushing, Mikaen shook his head.
One sat down on the next question and started absently kicking the period with his foot. "I had to take this test once. Halfway through I just started just picking answers randomly. I wouldn't recommend that, by the way."
"Look, One," Mikaen whispered, "I'm grateful that you want to help me out, but if I don't get to work on this."
"Oh, well go right ahead. I'll be quiet."
One hopped off question 835 and sat down on the end of the sentence.
Mikaen tried to continue the questionnaire, but it was disconcerting to see One watching him out of the corner of his eyes, especially given the nature of the questions being asked.
When Mikaen reached the last question on the page, One coughed gently and asked, "So, what did you think of Tirinia?"
Mikaen's eyes narrowed. "Now how do you know about that?"
"I'm a Dreamer, dude. I've been keeping tabs on you."
Mikaen continued to look at One suspiciously.
Sighing, One said, "Fine, so I might have switched her anti-thrall medication out, but it was only a matter of time before you two met anyway. She's one of the representatives for the Council, y'know."
"Jeronem said that if I would have to marry her since I kissed her. Is that true?"
One shook his head, saying, "From a cultural standpoint, no. There's no law or rule about that kind of thing, so I wouldn't worry about it just yet."
"You didn't answer my question."
One grinned. "So you do like her, eh? I knew you would. She likes you too, y'know."
Crossing his arms, Mikaen said, "I'm waiting."
The nurse glanced up at him, asked, "Who are you talking to?"
With a final glare at One, Mikaen turned the page toward the nurse.
"Oh, you've finished."
As the nurse rose from her desk and moved to collect the papers, Mikaen realized he was holding the last page. The rest of the pages had been neatly stacked beside him. He turned over a few pages to see that every question had been answered. They were, in fact, answered as he would have answered them.
He looked back up at the nurse at a loss for explanation. The nurse raised an eyebrow at him, a wary expression on her face.
Tossing the paper on top of the stack, Mikaen muttered, "Never mind."
A student aide led him to a fairly uninteresting room, where he ate a fairly uninteresting meal before he lay down for bed. It had been a long day, even with One's help filling out the quizzes, and Mikaen felt exhausted.
It felt that he scarcely had time to close his eyes before he was awoken by a loud knock. Peering out from under his pillow, he was startled to see that it was already morning.
Still feeling exhausted, he begrudgingly sat up in bed and called out, "It's open!"
Jeronem's grinning face poked through the doorway. "Good morning, Mikaen!"
Mikaen yawned. "Morning. How'd you do on the exam?"
"I passed with flying colors ... literally! How'd your day go?"
"Besides being treated like some kind of bizarre experimental specimen, it went just peachy."
Jeronem tossed Mikaen his shirt. "Yeah, I heard about the whole sentient thing. Pretty awesome!"
"If it's true." Yawning again, Mikaen slipped his feet into his tek-boots and started fastening the clamps. "So, what's on the agenda for today?"
Jeronem pointed out the window to the palace. "We gotta go check in with the Cygros."
"Do we need to tell Trystan we're leaving?" Mikaen asked.
"Bah! We won't be gone that long. Come on!"
Several minutes later, Mikaen and Jeronem exited the Center of Knowledge and made a beeline for Muonsol Palace. Stores in the mall were in the process of opening, clerks and sales workers preparing to begin another day as Mikaen and Jeronem continued on their path.
Again, Mikaen was surprised at the level of technology. Floaters raced along the streets and bridges, and Mikaen noticed several idestan communicating with holographic communication devices. He wanted to stop and look around some more but he was already having trouble keeping sight of Jeronem in the growing throng of people.
As they walked, Mikaen gestured around the square as what looked to be a small band began to set up in a nearby pavilion. "Say, Jeronem, why isn't there any of this technology in Homestead?"
"Too much tech screws with magic and vice versa."
"I used magic around high-tech areas on Earth."
"Yeah, but Earth doesn't use stream-based tech. Here, we've got the machines using the same energy as magic, which can cause problems."
Jeronem considered this for a moment. "Well, explosions are the most obvious; stream-tech tends to produce crystallic as a by-product, and that stuff will ignite at just a sniff of magic."
"You mean one spell, and a floater could go up in smoke?" Mikaen glanced at the flying vehicles with a touch of apprehension.
"Don't worry so much! It'd only happen if the owner's been skimping on maintenance. Besides, the bits that form crystallic are inside; you'd have to hit a floater pretty hard to ignite it."
They passed from the more commercial areas of Wenapaj and walked down the long bridge that lead to Muonsol Palace. It was a magnificent structure even in the daylight; shimmering crystal merging so seamlessly with the ancient trees that it was impossible to see where one ended and the other began. There was a small platform halfway across the bridge, where two guards stood watch.
One of them stopped Mikaen, asking, "What business do you have in the palace?"
Unable to keep a touch of pride from his voice, Mikaen replied, "We're here to represent Homestead in the Council."
"We?" The guard asked, a smirk on his face.
Mikaen turned to find his young friend was gone. Looking back the way they had come, he muttered, "He was with me a moment ago."
"I'm sure he was, sir." The guard gave his partner a wink. "Well sir, you're a day early to attend the Council. Perhaps you should wait until your friend finds you missing."
"Perhaps you would be nice enough to go ask him about it." Mikaen gave the guard a pointed glare.
The guard replied, "I'd love to, but it's time for our coffee break."
"Then why are you bothering me?" Mikaen started forward only to be pushed back.
Now stern-faced, the guard snapped, "Look, we ain't buying it, so why don't you go back the way you came like a good little Galden before we have to get rough?"
That clenched it. "I promised Elduran I'd go in his place to the Council. I'd appreciate it if I didn't have to go through both of you to make good on my promise, so … MOVE!"
With a swift hand movement, Mikaen channeled a gust of wind that knocked the two guards off the bridge and into the safety nets below. Mikaen cut the rope ladder with Truth as he passed. Whistling a cheery tune, he continued toward the huge doors that served as the palace's main entrance. As he approached, his attention was distracted by an angry-sounding potted plant. He walked over to the ornate flowerpot and tugged on a wavy blonde tail until Jeronem emerged from the pot, covered head to toe to tail with dirt.
Once back on his feet, the young vuestan wasted no time in running over to the door and kicking it hard enough to make Mikaen's foot hurt.
"I see you got the same welcome as I did." Mikaen said.
Jeronem proceeded to mentally shout some inappropriate yet highly descriptive words regarding the guards' relationships with certain farm animals while clutching his injured foot, hopping up and down on the other. From what Mikaen could tell, the guards inside had planted him in the pot before slamming the gate shut on him.
"Friendly lot around here." Mikaen glanced back at the bridge in time to see the guards climbing on the far platform via hanging vines from a nearby tree. "The palace goons are a bit quicker here than the Revs back home."
To Jeronem, he said, "Do you have any ideas about getting inside before they get here? That is, unless you'd rather just continue attacking the door."
Jeronem looked at Mikaen, and then looked down the bridge at the approaching figures of the guards, his tail lashing. "Let's thrash 'em!"
Mikaen grabbed Jeronem by the tail before the young vuestan could rush forward. "Hold on a sec, scrappy. Before you start waging war, let's focus on getting inside so we can talk to the Cygros. When we get inside, we'll mention this little incident to him."
"But how? Those doors must weigh a ton!"
Magic wasn't an option, as the doors swung outward. Even if he could summon a gust of wind from within the palace, the doors were massive and undoubtedly heavy enough to absorb more that Mikaen could dish out. He considered using Truth to force it open, but decided against it; even if there wasn't some kind of inside latch, he was far more likely to damage his weapon.
Turning to Jeronem, he asked, "Any helpful spells?"
"Well, I had one. A really good one: made a big spectral hand that could go through walls and grab stuff. It came in really handy yesterday during my exams. I probably should have put it back in my staff."
"I was afraid of that." Sighing, Mikaen looked above the doorway for the nearest entry.
A few small windows adorned the crystalline walls, but what caught his attention was a large balcony directly above them.
"Looks like at least a hundred feet." Mikaen muttered. "Three seconds should do it."
"Huh? Do what?"
Nodding to himself, Mikaen picked up Jeronem. "Hold on."
He clashed his tek-boots together and blasted straight up into the air mere moments before the guards reached the front gate. Jeronem let out a wild yell as they soared past the balcony and landed almost directly in the center.
After setting Jeronem down, Mikaen glanced over the ivy-covered rail of the balcony. The two guards were banging on the door to no avail; apparently, whatever means they used to open the doors was lost when Mikaen knocked them off the bridge.
Mikaen stepped away as one of the guards drew his bow and took aim. "Okay, probably best to get inside before they start taking blind shots."
Jeronem tugged on Mikaen's shirt. "Uh, Mikaen … company."
Mikaen turned to see Tirinia staring him in the face. Before he was able to say a word, another tigreth, this one with auburn fur with a large patch of white down her front, dropped from the hanging ivy she must've used to climb to the balcony. They were both wearing short shorts and blouses.
The auburn tigreth ruffled Jeronem's hair, saying, "Hey little guy! I see ya'll got the welcoming committee too, huh?"
Jeronem ducked from under her hand. "I'm a perfectly normal size for my age, thank you very much!"
Chuckling, she turned her gaze to Mikaen, her eyes going up and down his muscular form appreciatively. "And who might you be?"
"Oh, this is my friend, Mikaen." Jeronem patted Mikaen on the arm. "Mikaen, this is Teria and Tirinia Myssohn."
Mikaen nodded briefly at Teria, before returning his gaze to Tirinia.
"About last night, " he said, rubbing the back of his neck. "I'm sorry if I ... er ..."
Holding his gaze with her beautiful purple eyes, Tirinia silently held out Truth. Mikaen's hand went to Truth's empty sheath before he remembered that he had forgotten to retrieve it from the lake.
His face red, he took the weapon from her. "Um, thanks, Tirinia."
"Just call me Tyr, please." There was a slight blush beneath her light furred cheeks as her hand brushed against his.
Teria glanced back and forth between them, a smirk on her face. "Oh, so that's the guy you were all dreamy about yesterday."
The main door edged open with a creak that made Mikaen and Jeronem cringe and sent the girls' fur on end.
Glancing down at the door, Mikaen said, "We'll talk later. Let's go find the Cygros."
He edged through the balcony entrance and into the expansive hallway beyond, his eyes darting about for any sign of security among the decorations and furniture. Seeing none, he motioned the others forward.
Keeping his eyes peeled, Mikaen asked, "I don't suppose either of you know where the Cygros is?"
Teria whispered back, "Well, he's the leader of the country, so I'm guessing he's either in the audience chamber or his room in the central tower."
Glancing at the others (and pausing for the briefest of moments as his gaze met Tirinia's) Mikaen said, "Okay, we'll split up-"
Teria quickly interrupted, "I'll go with you. Tirinia, take Jeronem, okay?"
Tirinia looked as though she wanted to object, but she merely nodded in agreement. Masking his own disappointment, Mikaen continued, "Everything clear?"
Jeronem raised his hand. "I've got to go to the bathroom!"
Despite the seriousness of the situation, Mikaen could not help but grin. He smacked Jeronem on the arm as Teria and Tirinia hid their smiles. "Let's go, and for the Creator's sake, be careful."
As Teria led Mikaen through the hallways of the palace, he marveled at the construction. The crystal passages appeared smooth, as if someone had shaped the crystal as the vuestan shaped the noktal trees. Plants abounded in the hallways, some of which Mikaen recognized, some not. Mikaen saw bushes with leaves that glittered like gems, plants that seemed to be living crystals, ivies with crescent leaves, and strange plants with colorful flowers that shut as they approached.
After a few minutes, Teria said, "Well, you didn't reach for your weapons when ya'll saw each other, so I guess that's a good start."
"Look, I'm really sorry-"
Teria replied, "About kissing my sister? Oh, you don't have to apologize. It's not a problem if both parties are consenting, Y'know."
His face burning, Mikaen continued in silence, unable to think of a way to respond.
Teria's ears twitched. Glancing down the hall, she whispered, "Uh-oh. Trouble."
They ducked into a side hall, and pressed against the side of the hallway. A few moments later, two monks, dressed the same as the monks Mikaen had met in Homestead and the ones who had tried to capture him and Jeronem on the road to Muonsol.
After they had passed, Teria and Mikaen stepped out of the side hall.
"Priests of Balance." Teria muttered, her brow furrowed.
Mikaen muttered, "More goons from the Celestial Church. I don't like the look of this."
"Me either." Catching his questioning glance, Teria added, "Long story. C'mon! We'd better hurry."
After a good ten minutes of nervous sneaking, they reached an unoccupied seating chamber about three stories off the ground slightly to the side of the throne, from which they had a good view of an old idestan with a regal bearing. His dark skin was wrinkled with age, but there was still a brightness to his eyes that belied any appearance of senility. Mikaen guessed that this was the Cygros.
Teria whispered, "There's an intercom switch here somewhere that leads straight to the king's earpiece."
She tapped at the panel, and said, "Cygros, this is Teria Myssohn of Longshore. We need to speak with …"
After a few moments of silence, Mikaen started to ask her what was wrong when he saw what Teria was looking at. Tirinia and Jeronem were being led toward the throne by ten monks. As they approached, the Cygros barked something, at which the monks pushed Jeronem and Tirinia to the floor. The Cygros pointed up at Mikaen and Tirinia and shouted something that did not make it through the glass.
As a group of the monks headed out of the room, a pleasant voice came through the intercom. "Esteemed representative from Longshore, I've sent an escort for you. Please remain where you are."
Mikaen pushed the page button on the intercom, saying, "Don't bother with the escort. I'll be right down."
He leapt from the edge of the balcony, tek-boots flaring. Barely making a thump as he hit the floor, he boosted straight at the nearest monk and smashed into him with enough force to send him flying across the chamber.
Jeronem kicked the monk holding his staff in the groin and quickly recovered his weapon while the monk fell to the ground gasping in pain. Almost immediately, the staff leapt out of his hands and began to spin, multi-hued blasts of light firing in every direction, hitting some of the monks in the face and knocking them to the floor.
As the monk Mikaen had knocked off his feet approached Tirinia, she flipped over him and kicked him toward Mikaen, who charged a blast of wind in Truth's amplifier and sent him back toward Tirinia. She caught him, spun about in midair, and threw him to Jeronem who spun his staff and with a dramatic pause brought his staff around as if it were a baseball bat. The monk missed the spikes on the staff but Jeronem's enhanced swing sent him flying into the second-floor seating chamber.
The remaining two monks exchanged glances before turning about and running away as fast as they could. They almost reached the door when a familiar shape stepped through the doorway and blocked their path.
Pistols spinning on her fingers and a wild gleam in her eyes, Teria asked, "Going somewhere?"
Mikaen turned to Tirinia to make a snappy comment when she suddenly slumped to the ground, a red stain spreading across her white blouse and fur. Horrified, Mikaen looked up to see the smoking tip of the Cygros's pistol.
"So it goes, Knight." The Cygros pointed his gun at Jeronem and fired.
Without thinking, Mikaen pulled the stun gun from his belt and shot it toward the bullet. The blue field barely reached the projectile, but did slow it down enough for Jeronem to throw himself aside. The bullet caught him in the shoulder, sending him crashing to the floor.
Laughing cruelly, The Cygros said, "The True Knight fails his friends! How poetic!"
As he pointed the gun toward him, Mikaen felt his rage burst inside of him, consuming his thoughts and emotions in an angry blaze.
Tossing Truth aside, Mikaen held his hands toward the Cygros and shouted, "Burn!"
A fiery vortex shot from his hands with enough force to blister Mikaen's skin, far more fierce than anything he had ever summoned in the past. The Cygros dodged the fire vortex with relative ease, but the blast of lightning from Jeronem's staff caught him full force and threw him back like a rag doll. The Cygros's body slumped to the ground in front of the heap of ash and smoldering metal that was once his throne, a fist-sized hole in his chest.
Jeronem lowered his staff and leaned heavily against it, the injured arm of his robe stained with blood. "Stupid jerk."
Mikaen hurried to Tirinia's side. She was badly injured, but still breathing.
"Water." Mikaen said, moving to press his hands over the wound to stop the bleeding. "Jeronem, I need-"
The moment his hand touched her soft fur, Mikaen felt a sudden burst of energy flow though him. His hand glowed for a moment, the light spreading from his hands across her body. When the light faded and he pulled his hands back, Tirinia's wound was gone.
Just as she began to stir, everything faded away. In mere moments, Mikaen found himself in an empty room holding nothing but thin air. Confused, Mikaen turned to see Trystan observing him from a nearby control panel.
Displaying an astounding amount of self-control, Mikaen asked, "Why? Why did you put me through that?"
An apologetic smile on his face, Trystan said, "Had to be sure. There are certain traits that only show themselves when we're under great stress."
"Your people have the ability to focus pure stream energy in a way that goes beyond magic. They can use it not only to create portals, but to heal mortal wounds and release great magical blasts far surpassing any spell. It is taxing, however, so any situation calling for that kind of action would have to be dire."
"My people? You mean I'm a-"
Mikaen was interrupted by the arrival of Jeronem. The young vuestan grinned at Mikaen, relief evident in his face. "There you are! By the Creator, I was beginning to wonder if you'd already left the center."
His ears twitched as he glanced around the room. "This is an exam room. Y'know you could've told me you were gonna register at the Center too. Did you pass?"
"In a manner of speaking." Trystan said, a wide smile on his face. "You're a sentient all right. Given your abilities and size, I'm guessing one of the feathered tribes: alcian, xemptarian, or sirenes."
"Mikaen's a sentient?" Jeronem's eyes lit up with excitement. "That's awesome! Hey, is that how you got here?"
"I'd imagine so." Trystan said, his eyes on Mikaen. "It's not uncommon for wayward sentients to create portals home as they near their Gineros."
"Gineros?" Mikaen asked. The word sounded oddly comfortable on his tongue.
"Sentient maturity. That's when you get your wings, which is why you've been having back pains of late. Notice your clothes getting a bit smaller?"
"I have." Mikaen admitted.
Trystan nodded. "There you go. Expect it to get worse in the coming weeks; your wings are encased in a pouch on your back, and they'll be growing like mad. Make sure you get enough to eat so they'll grow good and strong.
Mikaen tried to think of himself with wings for a few moments before shaking his head. "So what now?"
"Well, you both passed your exam, so you're more than welcome to stay and enroll in some classes ... after the Council, of course. Whatever you decide, I'd recommend you stay in Muonsol until your wings emerge; you're quite close to the end of your Gineros, after all. Although you've shown you're able to use some of your racial abilities, it would be best to wait until it runs full course before you start experimenting with portals."
Jeronem nodded. "Well, staying put shouldn't be a problem, what with the Council and all. Oh, that reminds me; we gotta go to the palace and let the Cygros know we got here okay."
He frowned at Mikaen, who had gone tense when Jeronem mentioned the Cygros. "What's got you so jumpy?"
"The old Cygros tried to kill him and the Myssohn sisters during his exam." Trystan said. "Even managed to get a shot off at you."
"Oh." If anything, Jeronem seemed amused by this revelation. "Well, I hope I gave worse than I got."
"That you did." With a chuckle, Trystan turned back to Mikaen. "You okay?"
Mikaen massaged his temples, feeling foolish that he hadn't realized it was just a test; why would the Cygros on Vinta have a pistol when clearly Vinta technology was well beyond such a simplistic projectile weapon. In hindsight, the whole test had an air of fakeness. The conveniently placed balcony, the ineptitude of the guards, the monks: all of these things should have tipped him off to what was going on.
Trystan let out a booming laugh. "You worry too much, my young friend! You two go on and check in with the Cygros. I'll send a message when I know what tribe you belong to."
Mikaen held out his hand to Trystan, saying, "Thanks, Mr. Trystan. It's been … interesting."
"Anytime, my young friend!" the Seed chuckled, "Anytime!"
They were almost out the door when Mikaen stopped and turned. "I created a portal to Vinta in response to my oncoming Gineros."
"So I'm from Vinta. I'm native to this planet."
"As native as the rest of us."
Mikaen paused for a moment before asking, "Then how did I end up on Earth in the first place?"
"Hey, yeah!" Jeronem turned his wide eyes on the Seed. "I mean, he musta come from here at some point. Hey, he might have parents here somewhere!"
"They didn't abandon you." Trystan said, answering Mikaen's concern before he could even voice it. "Sentients have long life-spans, and don't have children as often as the ground races. They are extremely protective of their young, that much I can tell you with absolute certainty. As for how you ended up on Earth ... well, I don't know, not yet anyway. I'll go through my notes and see if I can't find some precedent for this."
Mikaen felt like he should ask more, but it was clear that Trystan wouldn't have the answers.
Trystan clapped him on the shoulder again. "I suggest not worrying about it, as hard as that may be. You are who you are, no matter where it was you originally came from."
Mikaen found the Seed's words comforting. Smiling, he said "Yeah, you're right. Thanks, Trystan."
"Anytime, my young friend."