Pain pealed through Niht’s head, like a mallet striking a bell. Everything rang with the screams of forgotten youth.
Niht refused to fall. His knees quivered and ached under the strain. He never wanted to lay down more in his life. He didn't want to fight her. Deep down, she did want what was best for him, but she was wrong about what that was.
"What do I have to do to prove to you that this is wrong?"
"I know your fears. Don't worry. The soldiers are not immune to my power. Even if one of the endless comes with them, they have no power here."
In her tone, Niht heard an echo of his lost mother’s voice. The desire to take care of him, to protect him. Thaner has been alone for so long. She missed the basic companionship that once sustained her. She didn't just want to keep them safe, she needed to keep them with her. If they left, she would be without purpose again.
"Mother, do not worry. We will not forget you. I don't know why the others abandoned you, but we will not."
"I wasn't abandoned." Her voice drifted off into an echo as if she slipped further away. "I wasn't forgotten. They left and didn't return.”
Niht nodded his head. Everything was suddenly so clear. "They built their new base and slowly, over time, they neglected this one."
"It is easy to forget the old when you were surrounded by so many shiny new things." Sadness filled Thaner’s voice. Her pain radiated into the room.
Tears welled up in Niht’s eyes. Her loneliness reminded him of his own, her purposelessness, her loss. Everyone that she loved and cared about abandoned her, like his brothers abandoned him.
"Sweet mother, do not worry. So long as my friends and I survive this ordeal, we will not forget you. We will take you with us if you wish, and you will get to see the wonders this galaxy has. But we can't do any of that, if those soldiers find us, kill us, and take us away from you. We can't do any of that, if you don't trust us to do what we have to do."
Silence filled the once great chapel. Deep within Niht’s mind, he could see the candles that once rested on the altars, the bowls of fire that adorned the plinths. The faded song of their secret order rang out in his ears.
"Do not lie to me, sweet child, I will know if you were lying."
"Then call the weigher of souls, and ask them to judge my heart."
The image of an old Sen woman with a crystalline blue Ceeri on her back shimmered into being before him. Her wizened features stained with tears. Her golden silver and white hair moved as if caressed by an invisible breeze.
"You mean that don't you?" Her voice strained under the weight of her sorrow.
"I am not in the habit of lying. I recognize a lost soul like myself." He looked down and Iarann and Amhran and a feint smile broke on his face. "I suppose in a way, I've started collecting them. I welcome you to join us."
Thaner waved her hands, and a light cloud of blue dust flew from her fingers and danced in spirals on their way to the ground.
Amhran and Iarann awoke and slowly set up.
"Thank you," Niht said, nodding with respect for the elder who showed them mercy.
"What happened?" Amhran asked wiping the sleep from her eyes.
Niht stepped out from between them and Thaner, and said, “We found a new friend, and she's going to help us get through this."
Amhran and Thaner locked eyes with each other. An uncanny chill fill the air. The room fell silent, as if the whole world respected this moment.
With no comprehension as to why, Niht felt a preternatural lightness come over him, as if a great weight had been removed from his chest. He reached up and touched the oddly smooth wood of the mask he still wore.
He didn't close his eyes, but everything faded to black. Part of him understood that the eyes of the mask closed. In the great void before him, the lightning like shimmer of the wood’s strange luminescence rippled in soft waves like light in the bottom of a shallow pond. Within the patterns of lines and light, he saw the face of Rath in pain and alone.
The stress of the ancient god’s bindings weighed on his wrists, and called out to him. He had done more than sold himself to this ancient one. He bound their fates together. What happened to one would happened to the other, though he doubted that if he were to die the elder would as well. After all, what could kill an immortal god?
Somehow, they had free Rath. That might not be the next step to freedom, but it was a necessary one if he were to survive.
He almost heard Rath’s a voice calling out to him. What was he saying? He wanted him to know something, but he couldn't make out the words.
Blinding light burned his eyes as the mask open.
Amhran, Iarann, and Thaner stared at him as if he had done or said something that confused them.
"What is it?" Niht asked.
"You kept muttering, see the world, not the lie. You said it over and over again, like a mantra." Amhran said. "The funny thing is, it didn't really sound like your voice."
Niht smiled. "That's because it wasn't. It was Rath speaking through me."
"What is that supposed to mean? What is the lie?" Iarann asked.
"I suspect, everything that we have seen since we first arrived was a lie."
"How is that even possible?" Amhran asked.
"Think about it, the planetoid we saw is the ship approached to dock with the station was too small to support an atmosphere. Yet, here we are breathing. I don't recall a sun, or a star, but the air is warm enough for us to survive. What if this station itself is the ultimate mask. None of the transports coming or going would ever realize where they actually were. They could hide in plain sight."
“The Neevh could have set up such a thing.” Amhran said. "But if the station was a lie, what, if anything, is real?"
"Nothing is real. Nothing can stay. All that there is shall but fade away.” Thaner said in a sing song tone.
"I've heard that somewhere before." Iarann patted the top of his own head to jostle the memory out.
“The Neevh said that.” Amhran said. “It is part of the Song of the Flame. The universe burns. The spiral ever turns. Dreams are born never to die. Truths unspoken wither into the lie. Nothing is real. Nothing can stay. All that there is shall but fade away. The world is illusion, A mysterious prize. Born from delusion, and endlessly wise. Awake dear dreamer who in the fire is forged, else for the dark one, the conquering worm is gorged. Endless slumber ends in the awakened dreams, when the lost realize that naught is as it seems."
"What does any of that actually mean?" Niht said. "Is it just me or do you feel like we are trapped inside of a riddle?”
"That's because we are. Remember what Zosia told us? We were going to be challenged, and we would survive or die." Amhran’s face fell flat. "Everything that we have gone through has been part of that challenge."
“You mean, we have been living in the dry land of illusion all this time?" Iarann said.
“Think about it, all of the Neevh’s teachings are about seeing the world as it is, and forging it into the form we desire it to take. We are the hands of fate, the swords of truth, the ones who see between the false and the lie." Amhran stomped her foot on the ground. "Don't you get it. Don't you see. He realized that we could cooperate with all of the soul energies within us in the universe, that is what the hand of fate is.”
"So, what you're saying is the truth is a lie in the lies the truth?" Niht shook his head slowly. That sounded like the answer to a riddle, but not the right answer.
"Hell and heaven are inside, take them as you would your bride. See them as they truly are, and you shall reign as a guiding star." Iarann smirked. "I can quote the songs too. But don't you get it that's it. The gods are a part of us. Remember what Zosia said about cultivating our core?”
“You have more power within you, then you can ever imagine." Niht drifted away from the conversation for a moment.
This was a test. This was their opportunity to prove that they were the hands of fate.
"So, if all of this is an illusion, and we have the power to change it, how do we do that?" Amhran walked in slow circles around them as she pondered the question.
“We don't. That's the trick." Niht resisted leaping in the air and shouting with joy. "We are not here to change the illusion, but to use it to our own advantage. Think about the history of the Phersu. It has been one hardship after another, one catastrophe after another. We have only survived, because we've been able to adapt to the circumstances."
"Because we are the hands of fate, and hands cultivate a garden." Iarann grinned from ear to ear and clapped his hands together.
"That's brilliant and all," Amhran said, "but that still doesn't answer the basic question how do we do that?"
"The same way our ancestors did," Niht said staring back down the corridor they entered through, “we stand our ground when we have to, we hide when we can, and we fight back when all else fails."
"Like you say all the time, we are not fighters," Amhran said.
"But they taught us to see the patterns and lines of fate." Iarann smacked his hands together so hard the sound thundered in the vaulted ceiling.
"So we can outsmart them, and take the advantage for ourselves." For the first time he could remember, Niht felt like he could do anything.