Chapter 4 - Old Wounds
Once Mikaen and Elduran were comfortable (or in Mikaen's case, as comfortable as he could be on a couch made for a significantly smaller person), Mikaen took a deep breath and began to talk.
"I'll have to start with the Devastation, the war that nearly destroyed my world. No one's sure who started it anymore; all that we do know is that it left the world in ruins. The United States, the Russian Federation, the People's Republic of China … every superpower was decimated. The nuclear exchange would've killed everyone, if not for the Rebirth."
Mikaen let his gaze fall as he continued, "Huge rifts opened across the globe, spewing this strange energy out into the air. People who were directly exposed were left changed; remnants of genetic code long forgotten or something like that. I'm no scientist. Those who weren't changed or protected gained magical abilities. More importantly, the energy seemed to nullify the radiation. How, I don't know, but the Rebirth negated the nuclear winter."
"Still, the world was destroyed. Three-quarters of the population were dead, all major governments were gone, and what cities managed to avoid the nuclear missiles were torn apart by the formation of the Rips. There were a few groups that formed to help the survivors; in the old United States, the biggest were the Ranger's Collective and The Restored Earth Alliance. The Rangers helped rebuild settlements and utilities, and the Restored Earth Alliance was the government and military. The two groups seemed to be cooperating right up until the Restored Earth Alliance turned on the Rangers, pretty much destroying the entire organization. Soon after, they released the Doctrine of Humanity, calling for the segregation of the non-humans and magi from the so-called pure humans. They abandoned the hybrid magic engines in favor of traditional fossil fuel engines, which is why we call them 'Revs'."
Mikaen snorted. "They called us phreacs. I'm not sure if it's short for anything; I always thought they were stupid enough to think we wouldn't notice they spelled 'freak' wrong. Communities finally getting back on their feet were culled without warning, the non-humans taken from their homes, sometimes even from their families. That's about the time I woke up in the remains of a city we now call Bridges."
"I woke up alone, my clothes in tatters beside the rift that pretty much bisects what's left of the town. I had no memory of who I was, or how I got there. I wasn't a complete blank slate; I could read, do basic math, drive a car … but information on who I was before the Devastation, how I came to be there, or how I managed to survive literally three feet from the Rip … nothing."
"I ended up living in the local supermarket. There were still some supplies left, so I scavenged for a while. Didn't see a living soul until Jyle stumbled into my store, Revs hot on his trail. He's an elf, an illusionist, and a former Ranger, so he was pretty much a massive target for them. We managed to elude the Revs and escaped to the west. We ran into Jade, a Rev deserter who could bend the light around her so she and anything close to her was invisible to the naked eye."
"We continued running, the Revs close behind us until we reached what we now call Misakren. It was an old redwood forest before the Devastation, but close proximity to a Rip mutated the trees, making them even bigger, with foliage that blocked out the sun. Surrounded, we finally made what we thought would be our last stand. We did well, but there were hundreds against us at that point, with more on the way. That's when Syrin saved us."
"She's a dryad. Don't know if you have those here; basically, she's a living avatar of the woods. We were scared out of our minds when the trees started swatting away the Revs, but we managed to press our advantage and send the Revs running."
Mikaen allowed himself a chuckle before continuing, "After the fight, we spoke at length and decided that something had to be done. That was when the Knights of the Star were born."
"We started small; a family here, a small town there. We saved everyone we could from the Revs and brought them back to Misakren, where we began to build a sanctuary high in the trees, free from the prying eyes of the Revs. It didn't take long for others to join us; other former Rangers, Revs who were secretly hiding their magical talents or just didn't feel right about what their organization was doing, men and women looking to protect their families … even orphans barely in their teens looking for payback. It didn't take long before we were a match for the military might of the Revs; city by city, we pushed out their occupying forces until all that was left was the Fort, the Revs main stronghold. We are no idiots, though; we've been collecting data for the coming attack. That's why it's so important that I get back; this chip contains detailed schematics of the Fort; traps, security fields, troop rotations … the works. I picked it up from our agent inside, and was on the way back to Misakren when the ground opened beneath my feet. Next thing I knew, I was here on Vinta, that One guy checking my pulse."
After waiting a good minute for some kind or response from his host, Mikaen asked, "Elduran? Are you okay?"
Elduran shook his head. "My apologies. Something in your thoughts distracted me."
"Oh … right." Mikaen shifted slightly in his chair.
To his surprise, Elduran laughed. "You aren't comfortable with having your mind read. It's okay; most non-vuestan find it a bit discomfiting."
"It's not …" Mikaen sighed, not sure how to say it. "I don't care much for the idea of someone prying into my memories."
"Don't worry; I can only read what you are thinking at a given moment. Sometimes I get a glimpse of something else, but I never trained as a Seeker. I can't go any further than you let me. Would you care for a drink?"
Mikaen glanced up and shook his head. Shrugging, Elduran held his hand out. Almost instantly, a wisp of energy ran along his arm and concentrated in his palm, becoming a small fluted glass of glowing blue liquid.
"The juice of mevos fruit creates a very sweet wine. A bit too sweet for some, but it has always been to my liking." Elduran set the glass on the table. "Now, as for these Revs …"
A flash of anger passed through Mikaen, so intense that Elduran fell silent; no doubt sensing it.
Mikaen quelled the emotion quickly and said, "I'm sorry."
"No need to apologize. From what little I've seen, your anger is more than justified." Elduran took another sip of wine. "I can see why part of you wants to go back to Earth so badly."
"You've seen much suffering at the hands of these Revs. No doubt you wish to end the threat they represent to protect the survivors of this … Desecration was it?"
"Devastation. What did you mean by 'part of me'?"
Elduran leaned toward Mikaen. "Tell me something first, my friend; are you happy with your life?"
Mikaen was taken aback by the strange question. "Well, I keep innocent people safe from the Revs. I'd say that it's as good cause as any."
"That's not what I asked." Elduran leaned forward even more. "Are you happy with your life?"
Mikaen thought about his last conversations with Syrin, Jade, and Jyle. He had been rather rough with them, but he knew they were just worried about him, afraid that if he kept throwing himself at the most dangerous assignments, he'd end up dead … just like her.
He bowed his head. "As long as the people I protect are safe, it doesn't matter if I'm happy."
Elduran sat back, a satisfied smile on his face. "Why don't you tell me about Maria Soleil?"
Mikaen's head jerked back up. "What?!"
"When I first asked you about Earth, the first thing you thought about wasn't the Knights or the Revs; it was her. She hangs in your thoughts, overlaying everything else."
"Jeronem told me he sensed something." Mikaen said, "I thought it was just my anxiety."
"Yes, he's sensitive to that kind of thing, far more than I am." Elduran smiled briefly before shaking his head and returning his gaze to Mikaen. "You didn't mention her earlier. Tell me about her."
Mikaen didn't really want to talk about Maria. Just thinking about her brought a dull ache to his chest. Nevertheless, he found himself saying, "We met in the ruins of Bridges, a few months before Jyle showed up. She wasn't human; the Devastation changed her physically, making her look like she was part cat or something."
Elduran nodded. "She must've been tigreth, or something similar. They're one of a dozen Shoran tribes. Sorry for the interruption; Please, go on."
"She had soft white fur and long blonde hair, and her eyes were this deep shade of purple." He bowed his head; the ache in his chest was getting stronger. "I've seen a lot of non-humans. Heck, one of my best friends is an elf. Still, I never met anyone like her."
"What was she like?"
"She was beautiful and kind, but she also had a real tomboy-streak. She always told me I was too serious, that I needed to lighten up. She used to say 'Just 'cause the world's gone to crap is no reason to be so gloomy all the time'."
Elduran chuckled. "Wise woman. I can tell you cared a great deal for her."
"More than anything … but now she's gone." Anger, fierce, burning anger not at his enemies but at himself began building up in his chest. He added bitterly, "All my power and strength weren't able to help me protect her."
Elduran looked sympathetic. "I'm sure it wasn't your fault, Mikaen."
"I knew her better than anyone!" Mikaen said, unable to keep the anger out of his voice. Part of him knew he was being irrational, but he just couldn't keep it in check anymore. "I should have been able to stop her!"
"It was out of your hands. Even if you had been there, nothing may have changed-"
The anger building in his chest suddenly burst. Mikaen was on his feet in an instant, glaring at Elduran, "What the hell do you know? You weren't there! She wasn't just my fiancée; she was my best friend, better than Jyle or Jade, or even Syrin, and now she's dead! If I hadn't been so careless, she'd still be alive!"
Elduran regarded Mikaen silently, his calm demeanor making Mikaen's anger fade almost instantly. Realizing what he had just said, Mikaen suddenly felt ashamed. He slowly sat back down and put a hand to his head.
"I-I'm sorry." He told Elduran. "I don't know what came over me."
Elduran raised a hand to stop Mikaen's apology. "No, young one, I am sorry. I was prodding. I must admit, I sometimes let my curiosity get the better of me. Tell me, Mikaen: would you be willing to do me a favor?"
Regaining his composure, Mikaen said, "Of course."
"It's going to take a while to compile information about possible causes of teleportation and possible ways back, and in that time, you are more than welcome to stay in Homestead. During your stay, I'd like to hear more about you and Earth for later publication."
"I can't see how information about Earth would be of much interest." said Mikaen, thinking if what little he had seen of Vinta, "I mean, it's not as nice as what I've seen of this world."
"I'm not thinking historical accounts. I'm thinking science-fiction novels."
Mikaen stared at Elduran incredulously for a moment before bursting into laughter that was more from relief than amusement.
Elduran chuckled along with him. "If you can laugh, then you're not all gone yet."
Still laughing, Mikaen said, "I don't know what's come over me today."
"Buried feelings are a lot like stream energy, my young friend; if you keep them inside, they burst out when you least expect it." Elduran rose to his feet. "On that note, let's go see how Kathryn and Jeronem are doing. I don't know about you, but all this talking has made me hungry."
As they walked to the kitchen, Mikaen commented, "You know, I've spoken more to you and Jeronem today than I've said to anyone in the past three months, even my closest friends."
"Do you feel better for it?"
After a brief contemplative pause, Mikaen nodded. "Yeah, I think I do. I just don't know why it all poured out of me like that."
"Must be my magical influence." Elduran stopped and snapped his fingers. "That reminds me. Go on ahead, Mikaen; there's something I need to check before dinner."
As Mikaen headed to the kitchen, Elduran climbed the stairs to the second floor landing, where Narrator Number One was leaning against the railing.
One smirked at the elder vuestan as he approached. "What, no flying spells?"
"None that wouldn't send me through the ceiling." He put a hand on One's shoulder. "You did a good thing here, One. That boy definitely needs some guidance."
"Yeah, well, like I said … if anyone can do it, it's you." One tapped Elduran's right pocket, adding "Nice trick with the psionic amplifier, by the way."
Grinning, Elduran pulled the small purple crystal out of his pocket. "Did you see how much it took to bring those thoughts out of him? Your friend's got some serious mental strength. It's a shame all his pain and suffering is keeping it in check."
"Yeah, well … I was around when the Revs were running amok. It wasn't pleasant, not by a long shot."
The kitchen door below opened, revealing Kathryn's curious face. "Honey? Dinner's ready!"
"Be right there!" Elduran looked back at One. "You're more than welcome to join us, of course."
One thought about it; Kathryn had been an excellent cook the last time he graced Homestead with his presence, the vuestan woman displaying just as much skill with a knife in the kitchen as she did in more dangerous situations. Still, there would be some awkwardness, what with Mikaen being down there and all.
"Next time." One told him. "I promise."
Elduran smiled as he shook One's hand. "Your word is good enough for me."
One watched as Elduran descended the stairs and disappeared behind the kitchen door.
"Elduran and Killer Katy. Go figure." Shaking his head and chuckling, One walked through the door that appeared behind him, the words 'Please Use Other Door' visible on a faded sign on the lower half of the door. As he closed the door, it vanished from the wall without a trace.