When your plan hits a wall
After the worst night of my life, my mind retreated into a small, determined space far away from my body. The dirt-covered ward stones in my cloak were useless. So I could not rest, not even as the second night descended and the air deadened to a crystalized stillness. I would either reach safety or die on my feet.
Get to the Wayfinder. Get to the Wayfinder. Get to the Wayfinder.
My legs moved in skittering, shaking leaps as rocks and roots seemed to grab at them. Without my imperium, I wouldn’t have survived the first day— my heart had a tendency to stop when it was left to its own ambitions. At least, that was what my Master explained would happen if I ever removed the powerful stone.
At first sight of the stone path, my adrenaline-addled brain couldn’t make sense of it. Who would arrange stones like this out in the forest?
Sometimes, I’m dense enough it renews my belief in the Great One. It certainly seemed a miracle when I saw a glimmer of candlelight through the trees, near two black rocks rising out of the ground like some type of monument. Almost there. Almost there. Almost there. I was just a few breaths away from safety.
A sound mightier than thunder crashed into my eardrums. My vision filled with a searing flash. I could vaguely feel my body, scattered and limp on the stones, still warm from the summer day. My limbs were buzzing, feeling further and further away. I couldn’t tell if my eyes were open, or if the lids were just too heavy.
Well. At least the Wayfinder’s ward worked. Now I could finally die in irony.
Two sets of footsteps approached.
“Be on your guard, something big just tested the wards,” A voice called. It sounded feminine, commanding. Maybe the Wayfinder?
Someone pulled out a sword, metal murmuring as it emerged from the scabbard. Cautious boots clicked to the edge of the property and paused, wary.
The owner of the second voice must have finally seen her. “Great Blight! It’s a human! How did it get out here?” This voice was deeper, earthier. Probably male. Bare feet padded over to where I was laying, sending slight vibrations through the stones. I could feel warmth from a small body kneeling at my side. A child? But the voice was far too mature.
A small hand gently tugged my wrist. “There is a heartbeat. The Nameless is still alive.”
“Morag!” The first voice cut like steel. “Step away. Let me look.”
Larger footsteps made their way over and paused. Suddenly, the hair on the back of my neck stood on end. Someone was using magic.
My body started to lift weightlessly off the ground. Only the smooth brush of air told me I was moving. A loud buzzing filled my head for a moment, then passed. Someone had opened the ward. My awareness started to fade as my body floated, sensationless, above the ground.
At some point, I must have been brought inside, because I woke up on a soft cushion. Cool energy trickled in from an imperium ring that had been placed on my hand. My own imperium was safely hidden against my chest.
A woman sat across the room, using charcoal with aggressive taps and scratchy sweeps. Books lined the walls, filling the air with the comforting musk of paper. We were in a small alcove of a much larger space. Strange lights glowed softly in the corners. I shifted and the soft rustle of my blankets against the couch caught her attention.
My hand weighed like a stone as I brought three fingers across my lips, which were cracked and dry. Water. I mimed drinking from a cup. Hopefully, she would understand.
It seemed to be enough when she called, “Morag! Our guest is awake!” Examining me she said, “We weren’t sure if you were going to wake up. You collapsed at the edge of our wards five days ago.”
I sat up. Five days? The woman placed a hand on my shoulder, pushing me back into a resting position. Her face was unlined, but her eyes were an old, swirling grey. Her blonde hair was pulled into a knot at the back of her head. She looked to be about my mother’s age, had she not died giving birth to me. I couldn’t read her expression. Was she the Wayfinder?
I spelled out the word and pointed to her. W-A-Y-F-I-N-D-E-R?
She shook her head, “I am Yechiel, the hostess. The Wayfinder is not a person, it is this place, a safe haven for travelers who bode no ill will.” Yechiel narrowed her eyes slightly as she said this, as if my intentions had yet to pass her scrutiny. She paused. “You can hear me.” It was more of a confirmation than a question.
I nodded, my name still new on my fingers as I signed it. A-S-H-A.
She started to fire off questions.
“How did you get here?”
“From where? This is deep Wilderness.”
I stuck to letters. It was unlikely she would know any of my personal signs. S-O-C-I-E-T-Y
Yechiel seemed to grow pale. I tried to calculate how far in I was— for Daedalus, his last trip had taken a week.
“Are you a mage?”
I paused before replying, No.
Mages used imperiums to perform magic. I wasn’t sure how I could communicate my curse to her. She was frowning.
“The wards. . .” she started but dropped the issue as Morag appeared from around the corner.
I flinched backward. He was a monster. An Enki.
Horror stories trickled in and around the palisade all the time, but one monster was rarely differentiated from another. Only the most numerous or vicious creatures had a name people of Society would recognize. Enki hunted in packs, but their small stature gave any competent mage an upper hand— unless the attack was a surprise. In that case, it was often the characteristic remains that indicated there had been any struggle at all.
If I hadn’t encountered a far more terrifying conversationalist during my night in the Wilderness, my heart might’ve stopped when he— Morag— said to Yechiel, “Why are you questioning her? Can’t you see she’s starving and half-asleep?”
I puzzled over this relationship as Morag padded over to me, a tea tray balanced by his hands and bat-like head. Was he some type of magically-bound servant? The Covenant implied such a relationship could be accomplished but forbade the enslavement of sentient beings. Until now I’d only wondered vaguely at the turn of phrase. What other sentient beings besides humans did the Covenant refer to?
The Enki arranged the tray on a table to my side, careful to keep the greenish fuzz covering his body from touching the food as I tried not to stare. A familiar smell hit me and I politely tried not to gag. With my mind occupied by not panicking at the little monster standing two feet away, years of habit helped my fingers spell disaster.
I don’t eat meat.
In Society, this wouldn’t have been an issue— perhaps a bit abrupt, but not uncommon. Plant-based food was plentiful enough there that killing for food was something many people were uncomfortable with. Most meat-eaters raised livestock themselves, respecting the sacrifice of life by using as much of the animal as possible. But here, as a guest being offered a limited resource, it was beyond rude. If I was lucky, Morag wouldn’t understand what I had said.
The Enki stared at me as if I had just self-righteously passed gas. He understood. “I’m going to pretend that gesture meant ‘thank you,’ Nameless. The broth will do you good. You look like a starved Rykul,” he said.
I didn’t know what a Rykul was and was too embarrassed to ask.
Sorry. Thank you.
“Morag,” Yechiel cut in, “this is Asha. She ran from Society.” She said this last part in a way that was somehow explanatory, probing, and insulting all at once. My stomach bubbled between hunger and unease. Morag watched me with keen, marble-like eyes. Something had him on edge.
I did the only sensible thing I could think of and drained the cup of water from the tray, providing my hands with something to do. A warm loaf of bread quickly followed. I even managed a mouthful of broth, but the distress in my face must have been apparent, as the Enki traded the bowl for another cup of water.
“Let her rest, Yechiel,” Morag said before leaving the room.
She ignored him. “Who told you about the Wayfinder?”
D-A-E-D-A-L-U-S. I pulled out my imperium from inside my shirt.
She stiffened. “Where did you get that stone?”
This time, I showed her the bouncing gesture I used for his name. Daedalus.
She was looking at me like I was a ghost.
Did you give him the imperium? I asked, testing her comprehension of my signs.
“No,” she said, breathlessly.
Who gave it to him? I need to speak to them.
Yechiel’s head moved to the side as if she’d only just stopped herself from shaking it. “The debt has been paid,” she said. A small shudder escaped into the room at her words, raising gooseflesh on my neck. What debt? Did she understand my question?
Where did my imperium come from?
“I don’t know,” Yechiel said firmly, but her eyes slid away from mine. She was hiding something. It seemed she was done talking altogether when she stood, pausing at the corner. “I should leave you to sleep then. It is late, we can talk more tomorrow,” she said, “You seem… good, Asha, but as with any new visitors, you must swear you mean no harm to any of the hosts or guests that come to reside at the Wayfinder in order to stay here. Do you swear by your honor?”
She nodded once, apparently satisfied, and tapped something on the wall. Suddenly, the lights flickered off, as if by magic. I wanted to ask her how she did it, but my eyelids had already drifted shut.