Time swallowed Sid whole as the days turned into nights and into days again. She had begun to develop a habit of counting off the hours to the minutes, a small nod to the Arcturus. It amused her that the things that bothered her most about the ship were now the things she missed the most.
Her hesitation about the jungle’s residents grew daily and she found herself second guessing every small thing the Al’iil did in her presence. The meals no longer felt like a peaceful gathering and instead, she questioned each ingredient as she turned it over in her bowl. How was the meal in her lap prepared? Which creature died for her to eat? Questions ran through her head until she ended up throwing out the contents of the bowls when no one else was looking. What Sid noticed the most, was the lack of animal life in the camp. There was not even a peep of friggers in sight. The only jungle creatures she saw daily were the Tecken and even they looked worse for wear on days of being driven too hard to transport Tazmin and a few chosen warriors to and from camp. The high priestess came and went on regular intervals and each time, a set of tin boxes were taken out of the camp never to return again. Sid once had the notion of following her out to see where she was headed. The thought passed as briefly as it came. Charging through the jungle without the help of a beast in her condition was not going to prove useful, no matter how much she wanted to see what was inside the boxes. The lack of food and sleep was taking its toll, weakening her already tired body.
By Sid’s calculations, she had spent exactly two weeks, four days, seven hours and thirty-eight minutes in the camp. She mostly kept to herself, staying away from the other Al’iil and spending the majority of her time with the warriors. Her ability to pick away at their knowledge of magic grew daily and she was pleased with the control she had learned to harness over her own power. There were a few more attempts to persuade her to take a jungle creature’s life — mostly by the high priestess — but Sid denied them at every turn, concentrating instead on intermingling her magic with that of Kartega.
Out of all the warriors, which she soon learned was the majority of the camp, she found the closest relationship with the man she initially encountered — Dalrak, who unlike the others, treated her with respect and solidarity. He even started to teach her more words in the native tongue when they weren’t training and Sid could almost form complete sentences. Almost.
Dalrak was the smallest out of all the warriors that circled the high priestess like a hive, though even with that, he was still more than twice as large as Sid in height and weight. In every way, he was her opposite. His features broader and darker than Sid’s, his hair longer and more lush, and the way he carried himself — unashamed and prideful — was nothing compared to Sid’s constant slouch. An opposite to her in all but one thing; magic.
Something about Dalrak’s magic and his use of it complimented her own. While his was brutish and fast, Sid’s magic flowed like a hushed breath of air. Each day, as she shadowed him in the jungle, she found herself mesmerized by the way he moved the electricity in his body. Her own powers, though stronger and more raw than the Al’iil’s, still depended on concentration and the ability to direct the energy to the parts of her she wanted to send it to. For Dalrak, it seemed to be only a matter of moving. It was as though his energy responded to his very essence without much thought at all.
Once, when he was showing her how to track an opponent by sending electrical vibrations into the ground, she caught sight of the dark scar on the back of his neck from where his chip must have been. Perhaps his power wasn’t controlled because he couldn’t control it. It would explain why the Al’iil glowed without interruption while Sid’s magic only manifested visibly when it was in use. It never crossed her mind before that Dalrak’s magic was always in use, always on like a broken switch. She couldn’t imagine how it must feel to have all that power running through you day in and day out. Sid got exhausted after only a few hours.
“Un dukti kan, sonkotir,” Dalrak said after a long day in the jungle. Which Sid roughly translated to ‘time to go, stop dragging your behind so slow. I’m hungry, Stardaughter.’
“For the millionth time, Dee! It’s Sid! Sid!” She stabbed a finger into her chest to prove her point but the warrior only rolled his eyes, grabbed her by the waist and tossed her onto a beast’s back. “Hey! I can get my own stardamned ride, thank you!”
They rode in silence as they often did, the ring’s glow setting behind them. Sid turned to look back into the light and she could swear that for a moment, she saw Leona’s face reflect in the rings surface. Impossible, of course, as she hadn’t so much as thought about the queen in her time here. Aside from the occasional attempt to find a way to unite her and the Freedom Runners, followed by a guessing game of where the queen might have hidden the original ships. Sid tried not to dwell on any of those thoughts as they always either led her to Ashlan or Tann, both of whom she missed fiercely.
On this particular day, the track they were on grew less obstructed and Sid started to make out the camp in the far distance. A dark, heavy smoke lifted from the center of the camp and wild screams could be heard over the whistles and stirs of jungle creatures. Sid pressed her boot into her beast’s side, encouraging it to jog forward but stopped when Dalrak raised a large, muscled arm.
She studied his markings, checking for movement but the symbols stayed still and dormant under his skin. They weren’t in danger; if they were, his magic would be going berserk. But something was different and she wanted to know what.
“What’s happening, Dee? What’s that?” She pointed to the smoke that was now at least a story high.
“Kuntosita,” he grumbled.
“Celebration? What celebration?”
Dalrak stayed quiet, his eyes locked on the camp.
“What are they celebrating?” She asked, flailing her arms in the air and pointing to the camp again. “Kon kuntosita?”
There was no response from the man of many words riding by her side. Turning his back to her, he pulled on his own beast and started the decent down the hill into the river. Sid huffed in frustration but followed his lead into the cool water rushing below, and all the way to the place she refused to call home.
* * *
“So what are you celebrating?” She asked Tazmin when they’d finally made their way back.
The camp was littered with burning fires, the smells of foods cooking, and the shrieks of children running amok. Everyone was out. Looking around at the cheer that erupted from the camp’s center, Sid let herself smile for the first time since she made the decision to stay with the Al’iil. Truly smile until her cheeks hurt and she felt like she must have looked like a complete fool to anyone who passed. Perhaps she went overboard with her suspicions; there might have still been a chance that the Al’iil were not the killers she had built them up to be in her mind. What did she know of Kartega anyhow? What could she possibly understand about what it wanted? She hadn’t lived amongst its wildness for as long as these people had, so who was she to judge what sacrifices were worth making?
“It is finally the night of the Ferteki,” the high priestess said in a manner that implied Sid should understand the term. When she noticed her furrowed brow, she added, “The turning of the tide.”
“There’s a tide? Near here? You’re telling me we’ve been near a water mass this entire time and no one bothered to show me?” She was indignant. Such an important sight to have missed.
“Not physical tide, Stardaughter,” Tazmin said.
Sid’s gaze dropped and she crossed her arms. There goes another dream.
“So what kind of tide then? What’s turning, exactly?”
Tazmin outstretched her arm to the crowd gathering near the fires. Sid spotted Dalrak at the far end and tried to wave him over but when his gaze met hers, he looked away. Strange little thing. Big thing. All the same.
“Come, Stardaughter. Walk with me.”
She followed the high priestess to the outer edges of the camp. The wails and screams of the Al’iil could still be heard from where they stood but they were muffled, carrying over the sporadic shrieks occasionally. Almost like a melody playing awkwardly in the background - if anyone had ever composed a melody to be performed entirely in shrieks, that is.
“It has been a long time since we chose to leave our people behind. A long time since we came here. Became this,” the priestess gestured to the scar on her neck. “And all that time, we have been preparing. Biding our time until our tide turned and waiting for Kartega to show us the way. We stayed quiet, minded only ourselves, protected only each other and the star. Day by day, we grew stronger. Something I am certain you are learning much about.”
The high priestess turned her back to Sid, gazing up at the moons that sat comfortably above them. Her face was more relaxed than Sid had seen it, like a tree trunk had just rolled off her after years of staying still. There were so many things the priestess condoned and encouraged that Sid didn’t agree with but she couldn’t argue with the fact that she held her people strong.
“Our strength and our magic fed Kartega,” she continued and Sid cringed at the memory of the Qualin’s horrifying death at her hands, “and now it has found a way to help us free our people.”
Sid shook her head, “Who? The Domers? You know how to free them?” She couldn’t believe it, this entire time she’d been looking for a solution and it was right under her nose! “Have you made contact with the Freedom Runners? Have you spoken to Tann? To Nyala?”
“No, Stardaughter. We do not need to run from our freedom. Kartega has delivered us our salvation as we had hoped it would.”
“Wha-” Sid started to ask when she realized that the high priestess’s gaze was burning into her own. “You mean me?”
“Yes, Stardaughter. You are the answer we have been seeking. The reason we have waited so long.”
“But what can I do? I can’t make Leona or the Freedom Runners see reason. I’m just some girl that got lucky and didn’t get chipped. What in the stars can I possibly do?”
“That is where you are mistaken. You are not some girl, Stardaughter. You are the ghost that walks among us. No chip, no name, no life. You are both here and not.”
“No offense but I really don’t understand any of that. How can me not being chipped help you?”
“It can help because you will not be seen, by any of them.”
“So what? You have kids here that aren’t chipped, use them!”
“Our children have no useable magic.”
“I’m not following,” she noted in frustration.
“For us to take back Kartega, we need magic that cannot be detected by the naked eye.”
Sid looked at Tazmin’s glowing skin, finally understanding. So this is why they stayed away all these years, anything else would be suicide. Unlike her, the Al’iil wore their magic like a mask, always on and visible. If they wanted to infiltrate the towers for whatever crazy plan Tazmin had in mind, they’d never survive on their own. The Starblades would see them coming and attack before they even had a chance to retaliate and, magic or not, even the Al’iil couldn’t fight off all the Starblades in Tower City.
“So I can get in and out, so what?”
“You will not be seen when you burn the towers to the ground, destroy the ring and obliterate every human that has brought destruction to Kartega.”
Sid’s fire roared and she straightened to meet the priestess’s sharp gaze. “And why would I do that?”
“Because you will have no choice.”
The high priestess took a step back and before Sid could object, something hit her from behind. Her vision blurred and her legs started to give way. Strong arms caught her as she started to fall down, not Dalrak, another warrior that she couldn’t place. She tried to stay focused but the light of the moons was suddenly blinding, beckoning her to shut her eyes. She let the arms scoop her up and her body go limp.
Muck, not this again.