Rei the Null [ Chapter 8 ]
Rei the Null
This was the first time he had ever used the bird. A pilgrim had brought it to the brotherhood as a gift some one hundred years ago. He had been a technocrat of Miyako Fluxum; the bird a technamagical construct of brilliant design.
The Null had great respect for the technocrats, who had been a terrifying force to be reckoned with during the Age of Heroes but were generous in victory and humble in defeat. And like the Null they valued knowledge and enlightenment above all, choosing isolation and non-confrontation over conquest; though it was said that Miyako Fluxum did trade with the Middle Lands and Altonar. The mages were a different story. They tended to be arrogant and dangerous, but some of them at least were wise, powerful, and a credit to their faction. Additionally, a deadlock caused by the five-way political connections of the five great cities of the Middle Lands and the Null Concord of the Age of Awakening kept them from getting imperialistic fancies – at least for now.
Technamagix, however… Well, it was an odd novelty that had emerged in the Age of Heroes and come down like a titanic hammer during the Great War. Though first researched by the Greenhorns, its ultimate fate as a forbidden research subject in Borealis was said to have been instigated by Sagamund Greenhorn through his renowned work ‘The Seven Principles of Technocratic Ethics’ that caused uproar in the scientific community then and now.
But of that the Null learned only through the trickle of pilgrims that brought them news of the world since Sagamund’s era began and ended during the long time of seclusion of the Null, though some of them claimed to have found historic records showing his involvement in the latter years of the Great War.
At the end of the Age of Heroes, the high technocrats and the Null had withdrawn from worldly matters and conflicts and a bit of old greatness had vanished from the face of Aqualon in these days.
As Rei watched the strange bird take flight towards the Black Sanctum, he felt a great relief but also a crushing weariness that struck him as it strikes a man who has ignored his own weakening body to complete an important task. Now sleep was creeping in on the edges of his reduced field of vision, and only force of will kept him from swaying. Thankfully, he managed to plunge down onto one of the most comfortable leathered chairs that councilman Malkir had kindly offered him and the two women in his company.
Artemis seemed especially impressed by everything around here; no wonder, considering her young age. She wasn’t past her twenties yet, that was clearly evident as she wasn’t fully grown. Many decades of youth may be a trait of man, but one still had to grow into that youth as was the way of things. She clearly was too excited to sit down and took everything around her in like a fresh breath of spring air, marveling at the well-worked glass window and enjoying all the colors it projected onto the floor as it broke the fading light.
The Valkyrie didn’t want to sit down either, she seemed to feel… unwell, was it that? Her gaze barely left Malkir’s for a moment and it was cold and filled with doubts. Malkir on the other hand seemed cheerful, smiling all the time, looking from one to the other and then, after a moment, beginning to read some documents on the table, no doubt waiting for that tea he had asked that eager clerk Gilrend for. Rei was wondering how many men were on the council and thought about asking Malkir as Artemis whispered to him from the side. He turned to face her as she spoke softly: “This is a wondrous place, old Rei.”
Rei sighed to that. “I am not that old, you know. I am fifty and three years young, little lady,” he chided.
Artemis shrugged as if she wanted to say that was kind of old from her perspective and Rei pondered that this wouldn’t be such a wrongful thought, everything considered. Still he somewhat didn’t like it to be called ‘old’ already. Especially not by a little girl; it made him feel even more tired for no good reason.
“So… Do all the Middlanders have the same eyes?” she asked curiously.
“What do you mean?” Rei asked incredulous. What an utterly odd question.
“Well, they are golden, no?” she asked him now. The hairs on his neck began to stand up as his stomach cramped and his gaze slowly turned up to Malkir who had his head buried in paperwork, not noticing them nor really showing his eyes.
“Who has golden eyes?” he slowly asked her in a low, tense voice. It was the councilman, probably. People had golden eyes sometimes. It wasn’t the most common of eye-colors, but it happened. This was all just a coincidence.
“Well, all of them,” said Artemis.
“All of them,” repeated Rei with a hollow voice as his mind began to draw blanks.
“Yes, that’s what I’m saying!” insisted Artemis, visibly irritated by Rei’s unusually uninformative reaction to what probably seemed like a normal question to her. “The guardsmen that brought us here, that clerk, Gilrend, the councilman, all the people that walked by this room since we entered. They all have the same eyes, golden, or at least yellowish. They look a bit like falcons, don’t you think? Arkatrashians sometimes have eyes like that, but they are a little… hmm… different, though I couldn’t say why.”
Malkir looked up from his work, still smiling, and finally Rei realized what had the Valkyrie so tensed up: it was his expression.
He had been smiling the entire time but only with his mouth. His eyes had stayed cold all the while and now that Rei realized this, the smile was uncovered as disingenuous. It was a concealed grin, a poorly hidden display of teeth, like an animal ready to snap at you. And the eyes, by the gates! They had a mad gleam about them - how could Rei not have noticed this earlier!? They were the same color, the same tainted gold as the man that Rei had fought at the wall, the same that the pilgrim had described to him: his eyes were of clear jade green before his wound, but when he emerged from his chambers healed, specks of gold had crept in there. It was a strange color, not as pretty as you would think it to be. Sometimes, when he looked directly at me, I almost felt to be burning. Not on my skin, but deep inside me. And the words of the grand master still clung to him as well, now almost like a slap in the face: they say it is as a yellow glimmer in the dark that eats at shadow and light all the same until they are no more.
Rei rose to his feet. “Behind me,” he hissed to the two women.
Artemis looked at him nonplussed, but his tone of voice must have been urgent enough, for she crept behind his back gingerly. The Valkyrie seemed to be more on her toes, but she didn’t really step behind him, more besides him, covering his flank. It must have been her warrior’s instinct, but it was not as helpful as Rei would have liked since he was well aware that she was of little use in this situation. With the necessary time to meditate into the right state of mind, he might have been able to leave this place fast enough to live, but with both of his new companions at his side he saw no means of escape, and despite the obvious urgency of getting the real news to the Black Sanctum, he could not find it in his heart to abandon them here, not after he had felt the enemy’s grasp himself, not after the Valkyrie had survived it once at such great cost. And to abandon a child as young as Artemis - no, it was better to stay and probably die than live with that burden on his soul.
Malkir had risen as well. “What is the matter, going somewhere?” he asked in what should probably have been a friendly tone but now sounded like mockery.
“Yes,” said Rei, desperately fighting for his calm. The entire city. All of it was under the control of this dark force, and he had been blind to it. What a weak fool he was! When he had ripped out that eye, he had torn a lot of his organ structure in the process due to the sinister nature of the yellow glimmer, and now there probably weren’t many years left to him where he would normally have lived thrice his current age and change, and the infirmity that he had to suffer after that sudden shock to his system had dulled his senses too much. He had lost one eye, but for that moment he might as well have grown blind entirely. “Yes,” he repeated, clearing his throat. “Sending the bird has hastened my resolve. We have no time to lose and should leave for Aerealis right away.”
Malkir shook his head sadly. “Now, we can’t have that. You are our honored guests after all. You really should spend the night, get some well-deserved rest. I insist.”
Rei’s throat had grown dry again as he reached out for Artemis’s arm to squeeze for reassurance. Though in truth, he was more trying to reassure himself than her since she didn’t seem to grasp the weight of the situation yet. And why should she? She didn’t know what the yellow eyes meant, Rei hadn’t mentioned it properly – it hadn’t come up. She had keen eyes. Had he said something, had he only said something, she would have told them right away. Right when they met the guards. Rei could have handled them, they weren’t so many. At the very least he could have bought time for the two of them to escape. “Take me and let them go!” he said with a brittle voice.
He had one or two dozen years at best, thanks to the internal injury, but they had full lives to live yet, even the broken Valkyrie had many years as a mortal still, enough time to perhaps even reclaim her gift. And they both had potential to turn the tides of the upcoming war… upcoming? It was almost over and no one even knew! By the gates…
“Excuse me?” asked the councilman, his grin growing wider still.
Artemis seemed less amused. “What do you mean by that, Rei?”
He ignored her. “You heard me! Take me and let them go. I have struck down one of yours and now I know the way. I can do it again or I can stay here quietly, but if you want the latter to happen you’d do well to let these two here leave unharmed.”
Artemis raised her voice again. “Struck down one of theirs… what in Hel’s name do you - oh.”
He could hear the sudden click of realization in her head, followed by her sucking in a large amount of air.
Malkir was laughing by then. “You are half-broken, Null, and the two of them may prove to be true nuisances yet. One is a Valkyrie, one has strange powers as I am told. We’ll be taking all three of you. Resist and I will make sure their suffering will be extensive.”
That seemed to be more than clear, and now Rei didn’t know what to do. Summoning all the strength he had left might be enough to rid themselves of Malkir, but then they would still be trapped in a sea of yarenma, every step like to be their last, and even the effort of cleansing Malkir might be enough to shatter Rei’s body since he hadn’t even had the time to recover. If he opened the fifth gate now, the blight would dye his hair white and his eyes cobalt blue, and if he survived the strain, the fight would become a terrible gamble on what broke first: Malkir’s affliction, or Rei’s five gates. “I… can’t… do it…
is there anything you can do still?” he asked the Valkyrie, his voice a desperate plea.
She was the last hope of the three, but she just stood there, her face white, biting her lip, and she shook her head slowly. Every shake was deafening no that struck Rei like a falling hammer. A fate worse than death could ever be awaited them, and even though it had been the Valkyrie who had suffered the horrifying experience of bathing in that fate once before, he had gotten his fair taste of it as well.
“Then we are doomed,” he said with a gravity-stricken voice.
“To Helgard with that, you old prune!” yelled Artemis. Rei turned his head just in time to see how she took the great bow from her back, drew, nocked, and loosed an arrow onto the floor underneath them in one swift, flowing motion before that same floor turned black and they fell right through it into the dark…