Chapter 10 - Called home

Jarin

She’s got something urgent under her skin. Something that she will not release in this setting. I don’t know if anyone else is really keen to it. Hell, I’m not even sure if that wily old witch thoroughly senses Chey’s drift. But I do.
C
hey’s arrival’s got the whole camp in a panic. There were no alarms. No reports. No guards. No escorts. She just comes strolling down the main walkway like she owns the place.
You’d think after all the days of spyin me and Namni, and Montal’s freakish visage, they’da gotten used to seein Inqoans traipsin through the grounds. But she ain’t arrived by the “usual way”. She just sorta… walked in. Somehow. And that’s got everyone on edge.
It’s almost a shame to see the change in spirit. For the last two days, no one round here’s done nothin but make preparations for the feast – a grand hoo-hah to celebrate some stiff they called Powr Xeng. The proper shindig won’t launch till tonight. But it’s all anyone can yammer about since me and Montal finally got released from that tent of horrors.
Everyone’s downright gleeful. The droning rhythms have been accompanied by song – the first kinda melodies I’ve heard since those damn drums first invaded my brain. They’re all smilin and jaw’in and pattin each other on the back as they go about their prep. Hell, even Kamini’s had a spring in his step.
I’ve caught him grinning more in the last two days than I had in the previous three years. Cain’t say as I totally understand the hub-bub, but I gotta admit that it’s lent a festive air to the daily grind that wasn’t entirely welcome. But the singin’s stopped and the atmosphere’s grown a bit dimmer since Chey done strolled into camp.
I’m standing right there, hobbling up behind Lorelei, Kamini, Namni, and the Behemoth Formerly Known as Montal. They all walk so damn fast and this cane’s about as useful as a handful of wet moss.
I’m constantly trailin behind’em. Constantly struggling to close the gap. Lorelei always seems to traverse the layered walkways with a blind faith that I’ll catch up… eventually. But this time, when I finally join the group, it’s clear why the rest of the villagers – always hovering about like bottonflies and hanging from odd perches – have grown strangely silent.
Chey blocks the trail with all the confidence of a troll expecting tribute. Lorelei’s the only one who seems nonplussed. Her smile is sturdier than bloodwood. Kamini clasps Chey’s arms – but I’m not so stupid as to miss his simmering apprehension. Namni’s thrilled to see her – but that excitement is tempered with an equal dose of confusion. Montal lumbers toward her and wraps her in an awkwardly-effusive hug.
Montal: Love you.
Other than Lorelei, Chey’s the first one I seen who’s not openly mortified by his appearance. It’s not that she’s comfortable with the “new” Montal. But I’ve got no idea what fear looks like on her face – and she ain’t about to show us what that looks like now.
She don’t return his embrace – but she don’t push him away neither. She just kinda… sizes him up. He’s wearing the nature garb of the Diasporans – only cuz none of his old clothes can possibly be altered to fit his bulging frame. She used to see him eye-to-eye, but he’s got nearly a half meter on her now.
Lorelei: Chey.
Chey: Queen Mother.
I’ve never heard her use such a title. She speaks it with an ostentatious insincerity. I can’t fathom that Lorelei ain’t caught the drift of Chey’s greeting, but if it bothers her, there’s no sign of it on her face.
A few moments pass of silent acquainting and knowing nods. I’ve been battling a lightheadedness since morning that makes it difficult to truly gather exactly what’s going on. My attention ain’t focused on Chey’s presence – but rather on who is not present.
Zyra’s nowhere around – presumably out on patrol. There’s no one else around Chey who looks to be any formal member of the Shield. Other than the gawking Diasporans who litter the space, she’s entirely alone. I think she’s keen to my confusion. That’s probably why she addresses me next.
Chey: It seems that the Coven has worked their charms on you. You’re looking much better.
Chey’s a crappy liar. I look like sautéed shite. And I don’t feel nearly that good.
Me: Why are you… here?
Chey: I told you I’d send word.
Me: Yeah… but I didn’t think you’d send yourself.
Her smile exposes her razor-sharp teeth. I’ve never known if she intends it to be such, but anytime she flashes those daggers, a wave of insecurity, and… intimidation grips me.
Me and Montal got the standard filing. I suppose Namni will do the same soon. But she’s got that epic shite. Intricate patterns that you can make out nearly ten meters away. And each tooth ain’t merely filed to a simple point. They curve and interlock like puzzle pieces. It’s an excruciating process.
Ol’ Bottlenose claimed that they worked on Chey’s teeth for damn near a month. Every day, chipping and grinding and filing until her entire mouth was less a ritual and more a work of art. When it was my time to get’em filed down, I’m ashamed to admit that I told them to just make it quick. Then again, that’s what most folk tell’em to do. It’s a rare soul whot volunteers for those extended, heart-racing sessions.
Chey: If I didn’t know better, I’d think you’re not happy to see me?
Me: No, no… It’s not that.
Namni: Did you come through the gate?
Sometimes it’s a relief to have Namni speaking the words I can’t bring myself to form.
Chey: No, Namni.
Namni: But… the Shield? Did they not escort you?
I’m surprised to hear Lorelei pick up the baton.
Lorelei: There are many paths through the Manderlands. Chey has a knowledge of the passages that belies her years.
I look away, fearful that Chey might get wind of my annoyance. Whenever I could, I’ve been wandering from the group. At first, I was hoping for some kinda root connection here in the camp. But these damn Diasporans got a frustrating blind spot for all things wyndle.
When my subtle queries petered out, I resorted to probing the bramble wall, thinking that I could slip out for a few hours at night and find a runner somewhere amongst the wilderness. But that damn wall’s more solid than it first appeared.
Maybe I coulda scaled it – but I cain’t scale much of anything right now. Besides, you can scarcely toss a slug anywhere around the wall without hitting a guard. So I just keep hobbling along, growing more jittery by the day. Despite all this, Chey’s got the wherewithal to just come and go as she please? What the hell?
Thankfully, her attention ain’t fixed upon me. She eyes Montal with increasing scrutiny. And wonder.
Chey: What did you do to him?
Lorelei allows a chuckle to escape her lips.
Lorelei: You wanted us to save him. And, well… we saved him.
Montal’s got a storm of conflicting thoughts clogged in his thick throat. He wants to speak. But he knows whatever he says ain’t gonna come out right. Chey eyes him dispassionately. Like a laboratory experiment, or a klyster project.
Chey: Did you… bring him back??
Lorelei: Heavens no. That journey’s always been one-way.
Chey: But he’s so much… bigger.
Lorelei: Indeed. We didn’t know exactly what to do with him. The fever had invaded every corner of his body – and his mind. Our only hope was to try something more… experimental.
Chey: You’ve done these experiments on others before?
Lorelei: Not on humans.
Chey: And this experiment involved…?
Lorelei: Growth serum.
Chey’s not angry or dismayed. She’s more or less… in awe. There’s an almost childlike quality to her curiosity.
Chey: But we didn’t need you to grow him. We needed you to heal him.
Lorelei: We were quickly running out of options. So we made a desperate choice. We gave him the serum.
Chey: I’m not understanding the connection.
Lorelei: Growth is healing. Healing is growth. The body won’t build new tissue on top of damaged material. The accelerated growth also serves as a healing agent.
Chey: How big will he get??
Lorelei: The serum has been halted. He’ll grow no larger.
Chey: Can you make him bigger?
That question slaps me across the face. I don’t even want to know what she’s getting at. Lorelei’s laughter calms my soul before I can interject.
Lorelei: Maybe. Possibly. But it would probably kill him.
Chey: Can he hear us? Does he understand us?
Montal: Ears! Ears!
Lorelei: I assure you that he’s still with us. He knows you. He knows all of us. He understands everything taking place around him.
Montal: I know. I know!
Chey: But he’s some kind of… invalid?
Montal: No! Valid!
Lorelei: Not at all. He’s quite capable. Perhaps… more so than he ever was.
Montal explodes with anxiety. And sadness. He’s in no danger of flying into another rage. But the last coupla days have started to teach me the despair that’s festering in his mind.
Chey: Why can’t he speak proper? Is he…
She points to her own head as she continues.
Chey: Damaged?
Montal: No hurt! I know!
Lorelei: Damaged? Not exactly. Different? Definitely.
Chey: Different how?
Lorelei: Well, aside from his newfound girth, he obviously has astounding power. But his movements are… cautious. The rapid, unnatural growth has caused muscle fibers to configure themselves in hasty and… awkward alignments. He’s been suffering from a series of painful full-body cramps. He’s slowly learning how to limit those cramps through measured activity.
Chey: And… his mind?
Lorelei: Our… serum is not particularly targeted. As far as we can tell, the growth you can see externally also applies to his mental connections. For many days as he lay on that operating table, his mind continued to branch out and forge associations that he probably never would have realized in the entirety of his natural life.
Chey: Wait, are you telling me that he’s… smarter?
Lorelei: Not exactly. He’s far more attentive than he ever was before.
Chey: Come again?
Lorelei: He now experiences the world in ways that we could only dream of. His brain draws relationships between stimuli that you and I see as wholly unrelated. He feels sound. He smells light. He tastes numbers. The connections that we observe in this world are all ajumble in his psyche. If we could read his thoughts, there’s little doubt that some of them may actually be profound. He experiences everything around him as a tidal wave of deeply-connected sensory inputs.
Montal dances like a child who needs to take a piss. He’s not violent in any way. But he’s visibly agitated. Lorelei gestures over him before continuing.
Lorelei: Sometimes the flood of sensory input can be, well… overwhelming for him. He’s still learning how to deal with it.
I have no doubt that, if Montal could discern how to take flight, he would.
Chey: But his speech… it will recover?
Lorelei allows an uncharacteristic pause to linger between us.
Lorelei: Unknown. Unfettered and unnatural “growth” is not purely a good thing. While he may be capable of fantastic new insights, some of the “passageways” needed for traditional thought – including, those needed for speech – are… scrambled. His cognition can, at times, be like a fleet of ships desperately jockeying for position through a narrow passage.
Chey stares for an uncomfortable moment. When she finally speaks, her basic reply is anticlimactic.
Chey: Interesting.
I can barely suppress my unease. Lorelei’s explained this to us already. To me, Kamini, and Namni. When she did, Montal wasn’t around. But hearing it now, spelled out anew right in front of him, fills me with sorrow – for him.
I mean, if I understand the situation properly (and I’m still not sure if I do), then he’s totally aware of everything. He hears us. He speaks to us (like an imbecile – but it’s still speaking). He’s aware of what he’s become. And yet, here we are, standing around him, talking about him, as though he ain’t even here.
It reminds me of when Ol’ Butternose started losin his grip. He’d be sittin there, kinda watchin us. Kinda starin off into nowhere. Playin with who-knows-what kinda thoughts that were flyin through his shattered mind – but still hearing us, on some level. And the elders of the Collective would toss around questions like: What are we gonna do about Butternose? And I’m thinkin: You know, he’s right here? Like, he can hear everything you’re sayin?
Sometimes he’d flash me a worrisome look, like something in the conversation had alarmed him. Like, maybe he expected me to somehow speak up for him. But he’d rarely say anything. He’d just stare at us. At me. And they’d keep talkin bout him. I had this kinda lingering guilt over the whole thing. But I never really knew what to do about it. I’ve rarely felt so helpless.
I believe that Lorelei senses my awkwardness. Or maybe, we all feel the awkwardness? So much is racing through my brain that I can scarcely separate my own anxiety from that of the group. At either rate, I think Lorelei’s keen to move the conversation along.
Lorelei: Your timing is impeccable, as usual. A great feast begins in a few hours.
Chey’s response is colder than I woulda guessed.
Chey: We leave tonight. We’re wanted in Despac.
Kamini: But… Jarin? He’s in no condition to travel.
I’d like to argue his point. But I can’t.
Chey: We dragged him here in far worse shape. No doubt, we can drag him out now.
Kamini is exasperated, but he checks any simmering reply.
Lorelei: Surely you can break bread? This is no ordinary feast.
The term “break bread” is a bit illogical for an Inqoan. Most of us “break bread” as frequently as we eat vegetables. Which is to say, never. Namni’s acquired a disgusting reliance upon Lorelei’s cookies that I’m meaning to correct him of. But as a whole, Inqoans have no patience for grains. Nonetheless, I understand the gist of Lorelei’s invitation, as does Chey.
Chey: I appreciate the offer. And your hospitality has already exceeded my wildest expectation. But the Collective waits for us back in Despac - with no delay.
Kamini’s interjection is uncharacteristically subdued.
Kamini: Chey… this is a feast for…
Chey: Powr Xeng. I heard the news.
Namni: You knew him?
Lorelei: The Emerwold makes strange bedfellows.
Kamini: And Rychov… he’s been stalking the Manderlands.
Chey: I’m aware. I spied his troop as recently as yesterday. That’s part of the reason that I’d like to leave under cover of darkness.
Lorelei: He’s got a dozen men behind him.
Chey: He’s got the full force of the Reapers behind him. But if you’re referring to his current party, he now counts more than two dozen. He’s even got a Noctern scouting the trail for him.
Namni: I didn’t think Nocterns were real.
Chey: I didn’t think growth serum was a real thing – until today.
Lorelei: If he’s recruiting Nocterns, nightfall will be no advantage to you.
Chey is not one to hesitate. She is uncomfortable. And she is most definitely hesitating. There are words she dare not speak. She’s in company she cannot trust.
Kamini: We knew Powr Xeng. This is no ordinary occasion.
Namni: Jarin needs the rest. And we could all use a full belly before we depart.
Again, I wish I could argue with him. But I just can’t. It ain’t like Namni to speak up as such before Chey. But I’ve been noticing his boldness over the last coupla days.
She’s got something urgent under her skin. Something that she will not release in this setting. I don’t know if anyone else is really keen to it. Hell, I’m not even sure if that wily old witch thoroughly senses Chey’s drift. But I do. And at least for the time being, Chey looks intent to concede the point. She doesn’t continue until she’s reassessed her posture and worked up a broad smile.
Chey: So it is. We will toast the legend of Powr Xeng. We will shower praise upon our hosts. We will lean on the good graces of the Diasporans for one more night.
Lorelei’s smile somehow grows brighter. Namni can barely contain his joy.
Chey: But we leave just before daybreak. Time is not our ally. You will all prepare for the journey.
A general wave of nods floats between me, Kamini, and Namni – even Montal.
Lorelei: Come, Namni.
Namni: Are we ready for the feast?
She slides him another cookie before continuing. Those baked spells flow from her skin like sweat under the eye of Syrus.
Lorelei: Not quite. Do you know how to prepare the jollyroot?
Namni: I’ve never even heard of a “jollyroot”.
Lorelei: Then you’re in for a treat. It will make those cookies seem downright pedestrian.
She could have used those words to march Namni into the Mouth of Charen. I’m pretty certain that, at this point, he can scarcely conceive of anything greater than those damn cookies.
Montal mindlessly follows both of them. I’m about to pull up the rear when I pause. Chey and Kamini haven’t moved. They are motionless on the walkway. I’m still slowly dragging myself to the retreating trio of Lorelei, Namni, and Montal when I pull up and look back to them.
Me: Are you coming?
Chey: Carry on. We’ll be right behind you.
But they do not stay right behind me. There’s scarcely a soul on this planet that couldn’t keep pace with my fractured gait at the moment. But they make no attempt to maintain the gap.
As I hobble farther along, losing pace with the swiftly-traveling Lorelei, I throw an occasional glance over my shoulder. Chey and Kamini are barely walking at all. They’re much more intent on ambling along – and talking feverishly amongst themselves. When the distance becomes substantial, I make one last attempt to stop and wait for them. But Chey anxiously shoos me onward.
Chey: Go on! We’ll follow shortly.
But I won’t see either of them again until the feast.

Phonas cover
Date 2191 AoR
Location The Manderlands, a muddwood region in the southeastern corner of Phonas
Reading Time 15 minutes

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