Five moons since the Mark of the Other One blossomed. The moon of Verdant Fields has come.
A wave of presences washed over him. And another. And another. They kept coming. Despite the devourer, he could feel the bits and pieces jumbled together like a giant roll of yarn. Andaris had no choice but to accept them and endure. He would get used to them over time, but right now even the devourer offered little relief. The riverboat was making its way toward the entrance to the city.
Domes and tall spires dominated the landscape in the centre as well as the river entrance to the city. The surrounding areas were a patchwork of different architecture types. As if many different cultures had gathered in one place one time and decided to build a city there. Everyone had their own ideas how to build best. And there was much greenery in this city. Andaris noticed a few parks and otherwise undeveloped land on the riverbanks. So, this was the place he needed to be at.
Another wave hit Andaris hard, and he felt his head swim for a moment. Do not bother. Try to concentrate on something else. There was something familiar emanating from the heart of the city. Something constant and fresh. A cold wind on a sunny autumn day at the beach. Not like the voidstone in the sealed scroll on his back, but similar. The one he carried felt much more savage. Like teeth gnawing on bones.
There was something else at the other end of the city. It reminded him of something sharp. Nothing could stand in its way and not get hurt. Another familiar piece, but a piece he was surprised even existed. That sharpness was hidden on another presence he had caught several days ago. The more he concentrated on it, the more he was lost. It seemed to be coming from every single human in the city and beyond, but he was sure it only had one definite source.
Time and time again he got lost in the sea of presences because of that bitter taste of iron. He felt nauseous again. Andaris had tried, but he failed to focus on nothing at all. Everything was there all the time. It was like trying not to look at anything with no eyelids. He clipped the devourer back on his ear as the riverboat’s captain approached him.
“Hey mate! Get your papers ready. We got lucky. We’re expected.” The ship captain called over to Andaris.
“Expected?” This should have surprised him. But each step toward Ironcourt was too easy. Something was getting rid of all the barriers.
“No idea. They allowed us to the front of the queue. The captains I talked to back at Patchings told me stories how boats with thawing fish were left to sit here for days.”
“Yeah, the village we picked you up at. Funny name, isn’t it?” Andaris raised his eyebrow. Eldertongue felt unfamiliar. He knew it should have been a pun, but he did not laugh at it.
“Looks like someone is watching over your boat these days.”
“You’re telling me. The moment you boarded my luck turned. A shipment of clams on board and I was ready to lose more than half of them. And then two more high paying customers sought me out, and another is waiting for me here. Say! How about staying around. If my luck is this good when you are around I can pay you a decent amount of coin.”
“The offer is tempting, but I am afraid I have other problems to take care of.” Andaris smirked. His trip had been pleasant. None of the crew had bothered him. The other passengers came and went. He could think his own thoughts, go over the guardian’s memories and be at peace for a while longer.
A smaller boat had pulled up alongside the riverboat. A guard wearing red and silver climbed over to the riverboat. Andaris kept his eyes on him. First, the man disappeared down into the cargo hold. The man came swiftly back with a fresh smell of seafood attached to him. He was heading for Andaris. Before the guard in red and silver reached him, Andaris had his little scroll in his hand for the man. The man immediately took it and eyed the contents for a few moments.
“Right. Says here, you boarded at Patchings?”
“And before that, you came from?”
“Around Northwatch, where exactly?”
“Exactly. I lived near Northwatch. Near the town.”
“And your purpose in Ironcourt?”
“Visiting the Repository of the Pure among other things.”
“I can see that here. And the purpose of that would be?”
“Inheritance dispute.” Andaris said without hesitation.
He had practised these possible conversations in his head. He had taken a good look at the scroll. It was a useful little thing. But it had deepened his conviction that an invisible hand was making sure he got where he wanted to go. The scroll allowed for access into the central library of the Empire among other things. He would probably be restricted to a public section, but it got him in. The guardian had said the Repository of the Pure was restricted to outsiders and many citizens of the Empire itself back in her time.
“An apprentice mage then. Acolyte.” The guard mumbled. Andaris saw the man take a glance at his red belt and gloved left hand, but said nothing more. Out of nowhere, an inkpad appeared in the man’s hand and he stamped something onto the scroll. While Andaris looked at the scroll again, the guard bid a good day to the captain and the crew.
This was a grim feeling. All the things he had had to fight his way through and now nothing stood in his way. Now that he was here, what would his first course of action be? What was his end goal here? To be where he was needed to be? The guardian kept talking about getting her living body back. Andaris doubted it would be as easy as reading some books in a library. Her memories of the world a thousand and more years ago seemed more radiant. Ironcourt was supposed to be the greatest city in all of Tavran and yet it felt hollow.
The first thing he would do, was find a place to stay. Then some new clothes. Some food. And maybe new armour?
-Oh no you don’t!- A voice sounded at the back of his mind.
-What?- Talking with the guardian upset Andaris.
-You are going to look around the city. You need to know what the situation is with these riots. I want to know more about that too. And you need to know how much of the Repository you can access.-
-I need a place to spend the nights, don’t I?
There should be dozens of inns, taverns and there’s the flesh market. There are always abandoned buildings in cities this large.-
Andaris had heard that name before. -Flesh market?- He thought.
-You’ll see. That is the last thing I have to explain to you.- An image of naked bodies breathing in one rhythm came to his mind. He forced it out of his mind. No matter the urge that was the one place he would not visit with his uninvited passenger, not alone or ever.
Andaris threw his last looks on the surrounding riverbanks. The voidstone in the middle, one presence carrying another approaching from the east. And a third one! His mind was torn south. Something was approaching the river. It was close by, right here in this city. All the actors and actresses were here by the looks of it.
There was a tranquil sense to that third and final presence. Something calming and soothing, yet the thought of leaves rustling in a nervous wind came to his mind. The leaves were slowly rotting. He did not wish to linger on it for long. With luck, he might avoid this mess now that he was here. If he could understand what was about to happen, then maybe he could observe from the side, untouched by the madness.
The riverboat had docked. In every direction, there was a throng of people. Some waiting, some arguing, but no one was standing still. It was a nostalgic feeling, but unfamiliar all the same. Like every place Andaris had been to, this was no exception. The people here were just like the others he had seen during his journey through this Empire. With unfamiliar features, Mediterranean-like skin and darker hair.
The boat and the plank in place, Andaris strode onto the pier and looked around. By the guardian’s words, the Repository should have been straight ahead, somewhere in the old town, near the border to the high city.
The peace and serenity lasted, Andaris found to his surprise. This cacophony of voices, the different smells of foods, wood, leathers, oils. Just like the colourful trees and rocks and the untouched nature captivated him, so did this city. The bustling of people filled him with a sense of safety. He might as well enjoy this illusion. A sense of belonging was forming in his mind. He remembered home, the previous world. He never felt like he did not belong, but there was never this sense of peace either.
The view down every street was exhilarating and new. He found it easy to ignore the few odd looks he got; he felt at home here. Enough to blend in. Most people did not pay him any attention. This was the old town. The houses were constantly changing in appearance. Small proof that long ago complete strangers had come together to settle a city. Andaris noticed small shops and workshops all over the place. He looked at the bundles of raw materials, the strange-looking foodstuffs, finished goods. Occasionally, he approached a stand, picked something up, and asked about its price.
Lost in the sights and sounds, Andaris wandered deep into the old town. Until persistent shouts caught his attention. He heard them, but he could not understand what was being said. The shouts disappeared. Naturally curious, he stopped, to see what the commotion had been about. No one else had paid it much attention and nothing seemed to be wrong either.
"Andrew!" Invisible pain ripped through him. His heart was pumping and his wounds burned with ice. It was not possible. Slowly, he turned around, to see Anna at the doorway of an inn. The Pride of the Cat? Unusual name. Familiar faces in a window, right above the sign, caught his gaze. ”IT is you!" Anna shouted.
His hands twitched and felt like they were squeezed. His lips were tingling and he could not move, not even a single step. Everything felt cramped and stiff. Andaris had imagined that he would catch a faint piece of their presence. That he might have a chance to find them first, but he could not feel a single thing. Maybe they were not really there. However, Becca knew how to use the devourers. There was a smile on Anna’s face as she approached. What was her deal? He glanced towards the window. Sarah and Jess glared at her although there was fear deeper in their eyes.
He wanted to back away, to run away. His legs would not obey him. ”Come on! Come in! When did you get here?" Anna was dragging him by the arm now and Andaris followed, quietly. Through the inn, up the stairs. Mai was there, waiting at the door.
"The others are out. It’s just the four of us here. We didn’t know what happened to you. Becca said you were alive, but the others thought maybe you were dead. There was no sign of you anywhere." Anna was constantly talking. There was a hint of nervousness there, but mostly joy. Why was she this happy?
"The others are out. We are all fine. We’re all alive." Andaris had stopped at the doorway of a room for four people. It was a mess. They had been here for a while now. ”This is quite something. A shocker." Mai slipped past him and sat down on one of the beds. Jess stood at the window, but Sarah was in the middle of the room, with her arms crossed. She was determined to be defiant. ”Why aren’t you saying anything?" Anna asked.
A sense of amusement reached Andaris, and he almost smirked at the idea. -This is going to be fun.- The guardian’s thoughts reached him. All the women had cut their hair short. Andaris’ mind kept telling him to look at random, pointless things. And he could not help it.
"Where’s Sten?" Sarah demanded loudly.
"Sarah. Don’t. Let him gather himself for a moment." The biggest problem was that this language sounded like complete gibberish to him now. He understood every single word they said, but he could not remember how on earth he had spoken that gibberish.
"You should have let him walk past! Why did you have to run downstairs, you idiot?" Sarah shouted at Anna. But she did not turn her gaze away Andaris.
"Why? Why are we avoiding him? We have been through so much. I can’t treat him like a stranger." Anna’s face had changed in an instant.
"The fact that he is standing there, saying nothing, should be enough to imply." Jess mumbled defiantly from the back.
"And are the three of you sure we even have the right person?" Mai said all of a sudden. There was an honest frown on her face. She genuinely seemed perplexed at the sight of Andaris.
"What do you mean? We didn’t just drag in a complete stranger, did we?" Sarah said. But the three other women looked really confused for a moment. Should he use this moment to leave? But the thought vanished as Anna’s words lingered in Andaris’ mind. They had been through a lot.
Andaris closed his eyes and sighed. ”It me am." Oh, brilliant. Wonderful even. ”Me be this." He tried again. Somewhere he could feel the guardian laugh. It did not help. ”It is me!" He barked. “That’s it. That’s all I can do. I don’t remember that language anymore.” The room filled with silence. “It is me. Andaris.”
"It is him? What? Him who? Mai, what did he say? Is it Andrew?" Sarah demanded.
“How do you know eldertongue?” Mai said. Her mouth was open and she was surprised, shocked even.
“How is yours this good?” Andaris demanded immediately.
“Luck. Becca’s help. She found something. Burning node? Or nexus. Those were the scribbles on it. She remembers the words better than I.” The woman said stiffly. “Sometimes I still struggle. A sacrifice scroll! It was among the things we took from the city back in the north. A scroll that contained this language can you believe it.” A brief silence settled. “It is you? Andrew? It really is you?”
“That name does not exist in eldertongue.” He said without hesitation. It did not bother him, it felt natural to say that. But his mind told him if he felt nothing out of place about the idea, he really ought to think twice.
“It’s your name. What do you mean it does not exist? You can say it in our old languages.” Mai looked at him with worry.
“I can’t speak anything else any more. Even my native tongue. It’s all gibberish to me. I remember what the words mean, but I have forgotten how to say them. A side effect of how I was forced to learn eldertongue. So, I am Andaris now. You can call me whatever you like and talk in whatever language you want to, but I can only reply like this.” Andaris felt the pressure fade a little. He stretched his limbs and turned around on the spot to find a place to sit to. But he settled with leaning against the doorframe. It felt wrong sitting on other people’s belongings. He adjusted his little backpack and the two scrolls on his back. Sarah and Jess kept eyeing him. Like vultures. Why did this have to happen? Was this another trick of the invisible hand, guiding him?
Sarah was listening to Mai’s explanation. But her eyes never left him. ”Just great." She finally said. ”This makes it even better. When Eric gets back, he is going to lose it. Was Sten right about him? Were you really Andrew? Maybe dust did come to life! Dust that was already here, waiting for us."
"Be rational for a moment, Sarah!" Mai half-shouted.
"Rational! There has not been rational for months! It will be a year soon! Less than two months now and it will be a year! Summer has barely arrived. No hint of autumn. We arrived last autumn."
"You heard what Becca said! What she kept telling us over and over." Jess shouted.
"And you heard how many times she admitted that that is the only conclusion she could come up with. That was how it looked like to her. She admitted she could be wrong." Anna didn’t lose in volume.
"Because you and Mai and Robert kept pestering her about it. She gave in to peer pressure!" Sarah didn’t let up.
"We know nothing other than what a twelve-year-old FELT in her head.” Mai said. Andaris did not want to be here. Not in the middle of all this shouting.
"Sten, dead." Andaris made one final effort. “He is dead. That is all that matters. You already knew that. You had to have known. Didn’t you?” He mumbled.
"How?" Sarah asked sharply.
There was no way to say this correctly. Everything sounded like excuses. “I killed him.” Mai was now translating as Andaris went on. “I had to take his life, because he would have taken mine. He was not in control anymore. I had no choice. I killed Sten. That is all that matters.”
"Why? What do you mean he was no longer in control? Andrew? Why?" A few tears lined Sarah’s eyes now. Anna’s face was an odd mixture of shock and sadness.
“They hounded us into a trap.” Andaris began. It was uncomfortable to say this aloud. He turned his head away. Excuses. Nothing but. But he could not hold back the words. “They were chasing us. Then there was the woman in blue. That screaming thing who chased us. Waiting for us. Sten had been getting more nervous the closer we got. Until he lost it. He was accusing me of leading you astray. That I appeared out of thin air.”
Once he had started, he could not stop. Nothing but excuses. I am sorry. I had to. “Then he was kneeling next to the woman, among the demons and accusing me of things that happened long before we appeared in this world. Of things, that had nothing to do with me, memories he should not have ever had about this world. He turned. Awakened. He turned into one of the same demons that moments ago had been chasing us. If I had allowed him to fully turn, I would have died with him. There was nothing else I could have done.”
“He awakened?” Mai stopped translating and joined the conversation again. “What does that mean?”
Andaris waited for Mai to explain her own question to the others before answering. “Did the brat tell you nothing? It’s this power that runs through us. If you fail to control it, let it run rampant through you, take over you, then you will cease to be a human. You will die, in a way. You will awaken as something else.”
“What do you mean we awaken as something else? Who told you this? What is wrong with us?” Mai exclaimed. Andaris realised he was looking at a pillow. He turned to face the others.
“It’s not just us. It’s what happens to all people who live in this world regardless if they have the ability tap into their flow or not. It is the price you pay for this power.” Mai had a difficult time explaining Andaris’ answer, she constantly kept asking him if she had understood correctly. “Didn’t you know? The brat did not tell you?” Andaris was dumbstruck.
"Becca told us nothing of the sort! Who told you? How can you be sure? This can’t be true!" Sarah demanded.
“She did tell you that if you fail to control this flow, you would die. You didn’t listen, did you? It is what almost happened to Jess, back near Drenchfort. When you awaken, there is something left, but it is not the person you remember it to be. It is hunger and desperation. You could turn into any of those demons that was chasing us. Or into something more.”
"Who helped you? How are we supposed to know this is true? If Becca didn’t know about it, then how can we know it is true?" Jess demanded. ”And if it really is true? Sten was right. And Eric too. This is not a blessing this is a curse." She wailed. Her face was aghast.
"He could be lying! Jess, stop it. He could be lying." Sarah tried to calm her friend.
"He is not lying! I know what happened to me. When I froze over, there was another me inside my mind. She was cruel, she wanted me gone, and she hurt me. I do not want this. She wanted to hurt you! I want to go home!"
“Is this really what happened?” Mai asked.
“There is only a single way to show you. You would not like it.” Andaris extended his left hand.
"What does he want now? Stay away! Do you think we would let you anywhere near us, after everything you’ve done?" Sarah hissed.
“It is the only way to know the truth. Memories do not lie.”
"I could do it." Anna said, determined, after Mai had explained his intentions. ”I could."
"No! It’s dangerous enough that he is in this room, with us. Who knows what he could do inside of your mind!" Sarah was resolute.
"That is not your decision, Sarah!" Anna shouted in response. But she did not approach Andaris.
Andaris sighed. He really wanted to sit down. Above all, he wanted to leave. After all this why was he still worried about being rude? He could just walk outside. Leave them be. There was an entire world here, that would not judge him for anything he had done. And despite that, he kept talking. Something kept welling up.
“I didn’t come here to look for you. I didn’t come here to give you closure on Sten. I came to follow my own clues.” Andaris pushed off the doorframe and adjusted his clothes. “I am sorry we had to meet like this. I am sorry I had to flood you with this new information. I didn’t intend for this to happen. Or any of that mess when we were travelling south. It seems I have little choice in this world. It is better if we take our separate paths.”
"Separate paths? There is no reason to... Why?" Anna asked with shock after Mai finished.
Loud footsteps from the hallway drowned Andaris’ words and someone tore the door open with brute force. It took a moment to realise it was Kauri.
"Guys! We have problems, they’re surrounded. I barely got away. That’s why they... Jesus fucking fuck!" Kauri yelled when his eyes found Andrew. ”You’re alive!" The awkward silence that settled was only broken by Kauri’s heavy breathing. He kept looking from one person to another. And then he looked like he had come upon a brilliant idea when he grabbed Andaris by the clothes. ”You need to help! They’re stuck. Hidden, but they might be in real trouble soon! Please!"
"What happened to them?" Sarah demanded. ”Are they okay? Are they hurt? Is Becca all right?" Even if Andaris wanted to ask what was going on, he would not have had a chance. His voice was drowned by Sarah, Jess and Kauri all talking over each other.
"So, that’s why we need your help! You can get them out! Make a distraction or something. You can do it! You’re the only one who can! Please, mate!" Kauri pleaded.
“What? What am I to do here?”
"What? Why does he speak weirdtongue?" Kauri demanded.
“Eric, Robert, Becca and Lenna are following a clue. Something that might tell us if it is possible to leave this world. They have been gone longer than we thought. If they are in trouble, we might use your help.” Mai said cautiously while Sarah, Anna and Jess took Kauri aside and explained what had happened here.
“My help?” Andaris felt like laughing. “My help? What am I to do here? Turn this city into ash?” A nervous smirk appeared on his face. His lips were still tingling.
“You got away from those demons.”
“With half the forest destroyed. What good am I here?” He shouted.
“You know more about this power in us. You have an idea how to handle your sword. I am sure, you have the ability. Please, Andrew!”
“Even if I did. Why would I want to?” Andaris growled. “I can’t say I don’t know you. But you’re not my friends. You left me after that last demon attack.” He spat. “Left me for dead.”
“You have to trust me when I say it was much more complicated than that. They did not let up that time. We lost sight of you, had no idea what happened to you. We had to run and hope for the best. If you leave now, you will only add to Eric’s suspicions.”
“First, it was Sten, now Eric, who is suspicious of me. Why do I have to prove myself over and over?”
“Please listen. I do not know anyone here either, but after those moons, I have gotten closer to them. Enough so I can’t just leave anyone behind, no matter what anyone says. Despite the doubts and uncertainty about what is going on with you and what you might have left unsaid, you are someone I consider a friend. After all that we have been through, can you walk out of here with no regrets? If Eric, Robert, Lenna and Becca make it out alive, we have a real good chance of finding out if we can leave this world. Wouldn’t you want to know?”
“Leave or go back to our home world? There is a difference there. Some of us remember destruction and our world ripping apart. What if there is nowhere to go back to? I didn’t come here for this.”
“Despite what has happened, they would be happy, if you would help. They are only afraid because they don’t understand what is happening.”
“Even I can barely understand what is happening, never mind the whys. I can’t reassure them any more than I can myself. The only solace I have is not having to worry about the life I left behind in the old world. This open future is forgiving.”
“I cannot pretend as if I do not understand your feelings. This place is new, free from the troubles of our past. We could start over in this world. But if you didn’t feel any connection to the past at all why have you not left this room? Why do you stay to argue? I was convinced Anna had dragged in a random stranger.”
“That... is a good question.” Andaris chuckled. I could have ignored you. He thought. Run away. I had all the time in the world to leave. “The past is distant.”
“Yes. But maybe not as distant as we want it to be. Maybe we want to believe it is far away from us. Therefore, we drown our minds in new things. The sights and wonders of this world that do not seem to end. It does not mean that this place, this world is not real. But we may be deluding ourselves. Hiding in a fantasy of our own making. Please.”
The woman looked at her with pleading eyes. “It would give us closure. If we knew, then we could move on. Please. After all that we have been through and despite all that has happened we cannot ignore you or cast you away. It is the uncertainty behind their strong words. Surely, some part of you feels the same. With your abilities, we might have a better chance to escape this world. Andaris, please?” All the others in the room had been holding their breath, listening intently to Mai’s conversation with him. Trying to understand any piece of information in the unfamiliar language.
A purpose was taking shape in his mind. And a sense of panic and disappointment came from somewhere beyond. The guardian was protesting. -What are you doing? You do not need these people! You do not need this distraction! You can’t be seen! You can’t just let your flow loose in the heart of the Empire!-
Andaris ignored her. ”Where others?” He held the door open for Kauri, who swiftly slipped past him. Andaris followed him closely.
-What are you doing? What are you doing, you imbecile! You can’t take such a risk! If you are discovered again, you will have nowhere to run! What is going on in your mind, why does it work this way?- The guardian shrieked.
-I am merely trusting my instincts. Following my heart as far as I dare! Confronting this particular problem. Not running away from it.- He growled at the guardian.