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COMPLETE: Communication (TEEN)

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@diamondpearl876 Idk why Solonn's a sweetie. He's my own damn character and I don't exactly know. XD; No doubt it's for the better--I mean, he's basically a small planetoid. With a face. Who can kill something without touching it.

Have I mentioned glalie are my absolute favorite pokémon because yeah.

Claydol are up there too, though, and a good part of that came from writing about them. I mean I always thought they were cool, sure, but that's what ended up really elevating them to "this is one of my favorite pokémon" status.

Thanks for another smile-generating review. :D
 
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Chapter 23 – Family Matters


Silently, determinedly, and swiftly as he could, Solonn made his way through a bare-walled, nearly empty network of stone tunnels, alone. He knew, as always, that the slightest hesitance could dismantle his willingness to proceed.

Like a passenger in his own mind, he let his instinct guide him, but didn’t lose himself in it completely. This was as conscious an endeavor as it had ever been—he’d always acknowledge the impact and cost of it, never allowing himself to trivialize the matter if he could help it. Though he’d hunted countless times since he’d accepted the need to do so, he was no fonder of it than he’d ever been. For him, it was nothing less and nothing more than the obligation that it was, something demanded but not desired.

His senses remained on high alert, trained toward the particular telltales of his quarry. It wasn’t much longer before he found it. He followed a faint sound of beating wings until the glow of heat confirmed the find.

He closed his eyes for a long, solemn moment. Silently, he apologized to the creature he’d targeted and sent a prayer to the gods, asking them for the safe and sure deliverance of the soul he was about to send their way. He called upon his element, and it responded with an echoing crack. Wings crumpled as their lifeless owner dropped to the floor. The sole witness to her fall drifted forward silently and looked down at her for a short time before closing his eyes and opening his jaws.

Solonn kept respectfully silent as he fed, and when nothing remained of the zubat, he left the scene without hesitation. He looked forward to returning home and not having to hunt again for at least another day. It helped somewhat that he didn’t have to feed nearly as often as he had when he was human, or even quite as often as Morgan had fed him. With the habits of humans and of pokémon kept and pampered by them left largely behind, his body had relaxed its expectations somewhat.

It had been well over a year since he’d returned to Virc-Dho. During that time, Solonn had gotten as used to life as a glalie in the natural setting of his kind as he could, and he’d grown accustomed to the much slower pace of life in the warren.

But even now, there were aspects of Virc society he didn’t quite understand. His friends and family had introduced him to all that they knew of their culture, and he did as he observed them doing. Yet even to this very day, he felt like there was more to the ways of his people than he could see.

Beyond the people he knew personally, the Virc community in general made no effort to bring him into the fold. Though the commotion Grosh had caused was hardly recent, some of its effects still lingered. The fact of the matter was that the origins of those reactions traced back much farther than that single incident.

By and large, the people seemed to know exactly what Solonn was, exactly how he’d come about. They showed him no open hostility—he suspected they were too intimidated by his stature to do so. Still, nearly every time he was in public, at least some of their eyes and faces shifted conspicuously away from him, stealing glances to watch him without seeming to watch him, and he swore he could feel the tension in the air.

Solonn had tried for a while to get through to them, to make them own up to their fears and try to overcome them, but they would not be moved. He’d come to realize firsthand just how deeply ingrained their attitudes were. They were unlikely to change for anyone, let alone a hybrid.

Though still disappointed in their behavior, he no longer tried to get them to treat him the same way they treated each other. To the best of his ability, he instead focused on just living his life like anyone else, regardless of what others thought of him.

After a few minutes’ traveling through the warren, Solonn arrived at what had been his home for the past several months. Jeneth had acquired it for him shortly after its previous owner had passed away. It wasn’t the roomiest place in the warren, but since he lived alone, that suited him just fine.

He’d been less satisfied with the featureless, ice-glazed walls of this place. He’d picked up a preference toward more visually stimulating surroundings as a human, and it had yet to wear off. So he’d decorated the cavern with patterns and images etched into the walls and sculptures raised from the material of the floor, décor that was changed every now and again to keep things interesting.

His passion for ice artistry kept him occupied much of the time in these days. He usually practiced by himself, simply enjoying the serene unity with his element. Just as ever, it offered an escape from the ordinary that he dearly appreciated—especially now that his life contained things he doubted he’d ever be completely comfortable with.

Occasionally, his family or Zilag’s watched him work. He wasn’t interested in performing for a larger audience. He doubted many of the locals would be particularly interested in such a display anyway, and not just because of whom and what he was. Dancing ice wasn’t the exotic spectacle here that it was in the outside world; here, he was just one more ice controller out of hundreds. Any glalie could pull off his art form with equal or greater skill if they practiced as long and as diligently as he had.

He was about to conjure up yet another display, contemplating a number of shapes he might like to sculpt and carve this time, when he heard Jeneth calling to him from the entrance of his cavern. Once he’d unsealed the entrance for him, Solonn got an announcement that immediately drove those ideas away.

“We think it’s happening,” Jeneth said almost breathlessly, his eyelight bright with excitement.

Solonn’s eyes immediately widened. “Is it really?”

Jeneth nodded. “It started moving just before I left,” he said, “and moving a lot. From the looks of it—” He paused as a momentary thrill stole his breath. “—it may very well hatch tonight.”

“Ah, that’s wonderful!” Solonn said, beaming. “Well, come on then; we don’t want to risk missing it!”

The two left with no further delay, hurrying toward the cavern where Jeneth and Azvida lived. They’d anticipated this event with great enthusiasm, for it’d been quite long in the making. For years, Jeneth and Azvida had tried to conceive an egg, to no avail. They were on the verge of losing hope of ever having a child together when, to their immense joy and relief, they finally succeeded. Now, months later, the baby that they’d so dearly wished for would arrive at long last.

As soon as the barrier was in sight, Jeneth removed it with unprecedented speed. Once inside, he and Solonn rushed past the main cavern and into the small chamber where the egg sat, watched by its mother.

Just as Jeneth had said, the egg was much more active now than when Solonn had last laid eyes on it. It was shaking so wildly that if it weren’t for the ring of ice and packed snow that Azvida had mindfully raised around it, it could have easily just rolled right into the nearest wall.

Azvida didn’t look away from the egg for even a second, but she caught Jeneth and Solonn entering the room in the edge of her vision and smiled at them.

“Any moment now,” she all but whispered, her eyes bright, “any moment…”

Solonn and Jeneth sat down, and together the three glalie eagerly waited for the egg to hatch. It kept on shaking… but as minute after minute passed, the shell remained intact.

Solonn’s brows drew together in worry. While he’d never watched an egg hatch before, he was sure the baby shouldn’t be struggling for this long before breaking free. He glanced at the others, and the troubled looks on their faces only reinforced that concern.

“This isn’t right…” Azvida’s voiced was strained. “This isn’t right at all… Dear gods, I don’t think they can get out!”

Jeneth rose from the floor and came to hover directly above the egg. He swallowed nervously. “We’re going to have to help them out, then,” he said tensely.

Fleeting apprehension crossed Azvida’s face at the thought of what Jeneth seemed to be proposing, but then she gave a quick nod of agreement. “All right,” she said. “Be quick, but please be careful.”

“Don’t worry,” Jeneth assured her. He leaned toward the egg, his jaws parting. Azvida and Solonn watched him with bated breath, hoping this ordeal was soon to end.

But before Jeneth could lay a single tooth upon the egg, it blew apart right in his face.

Azvida cried out and turned away in an instant. Jeneth went reeling backwards, spitting fragments of eggshell from his mouth and shaking them from his face. Solonn shut his eyes and raised a protect shield around himself. For seconds after, the three remained frozen in shock, unable to think, forgetting to breathe. Finally, fearfully, they dared to look at the nest of ice and snow where the egg had been.

What they found there calmed their initial shock somewhat, but only increased their bewilderment. There, amid the debris of his explosive birth, a newborn male sat completely unscathed, nibbling daintily and serenely at a handful of the surrounding snow as though nothing out of the ordinary had just happened.

The three glalie could only stare dumbfounded at him for a long moment, gathering their wits, still shaken after what they’d just witnessed. Finally, “Gods… what in the hell just happened?” Jeneth managed.

“No idea,” Azvida responded breathlessly, her eyes still wide with disbelief, her brow still knitted in confusion and concern. “None whatsoever… I just hope he’s really going to be all right now…”

The three glalie kept a long watch over the newborn to make sure of just that. By the evening’s end, they were certain that there was no further strangeness in store for the child, and with that reassurance, they could finally, truly take joy in their new arrival. Before long, they chose a name for him, officially welcoming Jeneth Marasahn Zgil-Al into the family.

* * *​

Through the years that followed, life became richer and easier for the family. Eventually, venturing out into public became less of an ordeal for Jeneth and Azvida; the hostility and blame toward the latter for Grosh showing up finally seemed to have faded into the past. Consequently, young Jeneth, or simply Jen as he liked to be called, was accepted into his place in society readily. Now old enough to spend time in the snowgrounds, he’d had decent success in making friends.

As for Solonn, his appearance still inspired a little mistrust and discomfort here and there. Not that it upset him too much, though. He was just as content with the company of his family and Zilag’s as he’d been for years now. As long as he had their support, he felt no real need for the approval of strangers.

Though he usually paid his friends and family visits rather than the other way around—their homes, designed for multiple inhabitants, were better suited for entertaining guests—one or more of them occasionally showed up at his figurative door. Such was the case today, when the tapping of a horn against the barrier outside pulled his attention away from the helix he’d conjured in the middle of the floor. He dissipated the barrier and found Azvida and Jeneth hovering there, with Jen standing in front of them and looking a bit antsy.

“Ah, hi!” Solonn greeted them warmly. “Come on in.” He cleared the floor to make more room for his three visitors, taking a quick mental snapshot of the ice sculptures in hopes of being able to replicate them once his company left, and moved aside to let the three in.

“Oh, that won’t be necessary,” Azvida told him with a hint of guilt at the trouble he’d already gone to for their sake. “We’re just dropping Jen off here, if that’s all right—he wants to be taken to the snowgrounds later, but he said he wanted to come see you first.”

“We were hoping you could take him there when he’s ready so that your mother and I can go ahead to the temple. We’re wanting to get there as soon as possible so that we can get back and… try again,” Jeneth said, lowering his voice on those last two words.

Solonn knew exactly what Jeneth meant by that, and he did an admirable job of keeping his unease off his face. Jeneth and Azvida wanted another child, but they’d had even less luck thus far than they’d had the first time around. No doubt they were heading to the temple to offer more prayers for things to change for the better.

“Sure, that’s fine with me,” Solonn said. He’d had plans to go up and spend some time with his father, but that could wait, especially since it seemed like it wouldn’t have to wait for long. “I suppose you’ll be picking him up from there later?”

Azvida nodded. She then looked down toward Jen. “Be good, all right?” she instructed him. “Remember: I’ll know if you don’t.”

Jen gave her a slightly nervous look. “Okay,” he said. “Bye!”

“Bye,” his parents returned in near-unison, smiling, then departed.

Jen entered the living room proper then, and Solonn restored the ice barrier behind him. The snorunt went to a spot just a little off the center of the room, stopped there, and looked for a moment like he was going to sit down, but he paused in mid-motion and straightened his posture once more.

Solonn noticed a distinct look of unease on the snorunt’s face, which brought a concerned frown to his own. “Is something the matter?” he asked. He wondered if Jen had figured out that his parents were trying to have another child. Maybe the snorunt felt like they were replacing him or something. Maybe he just wanted Solonn to assure him that getting a younger sibling wasn’t the end of the world after all.

Or maybe Jen had mentioned little siblings to his friends, the subject of where such things came from had come up, and he was seeking confirmation from Solonn regarding that matter. Solonn sincerely hoped that wasn’t the case.

“Well… I need you to do something,” Jen said.

Solonn looked at him with a mixture of puzzlement and relief; somehow Jen’s response didn’t seem like anything that would lead into having to explain eggs or anything of that nature. Where it was leading, he couldn’t guess. “And what might that be?”

Jen took a deep breath, none too keen on elaborating. Not meeting Solonn’s gaze, “I… did something stupid,” he finally admitted, sounding and looking quite embarrassed.

“Oh… Well… I’m sure it can’t have been that bad…” Solonn said, sitting down.

“It is,” Jen insisted. He shook his head. “Why? Why’d I say that?” he muttered to himself, turning and beginning to pace as he spoke.

Solonn briefly watched the snorunt move in a small figure-eight in the middle of the room. “Well, what did you say?” he asked gently. “And to whom?”

Jen let out a loud, annoyed sigh, though Solonn suspected Jen was directing it toward himself. The snorunt finally got himself to hold still. “I told my friends I could make stuff with ice. You know, like you do. And they said ‘prove it’, and I said I would next time I went over there.” He took another deep breath, then forced himself to look Solonn in the eyes as steadily as possible. “So I need you to come with me and do it for me. Like… hide outside and make things made out of ice appear in there so it’ll look like I’m doing it.”

There was a hint of desperation in Jen’s voice that suggested he didn’t really have much faith in that plan. Solonn had none in it whatsoever. “Jen… sooner or later, they’re going to figure out you didn’t mean it about being able to do that… I can’t be there every time.”

Jen finally sat down, looking only a little disappointed; he’d expected that sort of answer, really. “And you can’t just show me how to do it,” he said. He’d already learned long ago that that sort of control over ice was simply beyond a snorunt’s abilities.

Solonn gave a faint, sad sort of smile. “I’m afraid not. I’d be glad to if I could, but… well, it’s just something you have to find for yourself by really connecting to your element. You’ll be able to do that when you evolve. You’ll know when you feel that connection. There’s nothing else like it.”

“What’s it like?” Jen asked, tilting his head slightly in curiosity.

“It’s…” Solonn began, but just like that, he was at a loss for words. He tried to describe it, calling on memories of past experiences with it… and as he did, he fell into the sensation in the present. The ice on the floor in front of him answered the unintentional call of those straying thoughts, snaking upward and resuming the helical shape it had held before, with wispy little projections growing from the main body of the sculpture and another, smaller helix rising up through its center.

Solonn only realized after the fact that he’d fallen silent and shut his eyes; when he opened them, he saw what he’d done and gave a faint, apologetic laugh for letting himself get carried away. “Whoops,” he said. “Anyway… there’s really no way I could explain what it’s like or how wonderful it is,” he admitted. “And that feeling, that connection… that’s where this comes from,” he told Jen, nodding toward the ice sculpture. “Whenever you connect to the element, this is what can happen.” Maybe this display had specifically happened because the experience of being one with the element was so hard to put into words, Solonn mused silently. Maybe this was the only way he or anyone else of his kind could adequately express that connection.

Jen leveled a stare at the ice formation in front of him for a moment. Then he screwed his eyes shut, his brow creasing in concentration. A couple of seconds later, his eyes popped open again. “…Hey, I think it moved!” he said, gesturing toward one of the thin branches growing out of the main helix.

It hadn’t moved an inch, but Solonn didn’t have the heart to correct him too bluntly. “Well, one day, you won’t just think you made it move. You’ll know when you have.”

Jen made a frustrated noise. “I don’t want to have to wait to evolve to do it, though.” His eyes shifted up to Solonn’s again. “Hey…” he began slowly. “Maybe… maybe I could go ahead and evolve right now. And maybe you could help me.”

“Not unless you want to risk losing your mind,” Solonn told him, his tone serious. “And at your age, I think there’s next to no chance that wouldn’t happen. Evolving brings a kind of power we have to be ready for, and that takes time. If you get it before you’re ready, you could go insane. You wouldn’t even be able to think of making anything out of ice. And if I helped you go insane, Mother and Jeneth would never forgive me. And I’d never forgive myself.”

The light in Jen’s eyes flickered, fading slightly. Whether or not he believed Solonn’s claims, the glalie couldn’t tell for certain, but at least Jen didn’t seem inclined to take the risk. The snorunt sighed once again. “What am I gonna do, then?” he asked.

“Well… all you really can do is tell the truth. Again, they’re going to figure it out sooner or later—you should really probably just get it over with.”

Jen looked aside, worried. “I bet they’re gonna beat me up for lying.”

“They probably won’t,” Solonn tried to assure him. “They’d better not, anyway. If they even so much as look at you like they want to, they’ll have Mother and Jeneth to deal with.”

That they would, and as he thought about it, he wondered if it might be prudent for Jen to tell Azvida and Jeneth about the situation before confronting the other kids so that his parents could defuse any potential problems before they arose. He considered not taking Jen to the snowgrounds at all and just watching him until his parents could return, postponing the trip into Shoal Cave if he had to.

That would mean Azvida and Jeneth would come back here after failing to find Jen at the snowgrounds, he realized as that course of action occurred to him. He could already picture Jeneth’s disapproving stare, could already hear Azvida chewing him out for giving them a scare, however brief. But he figured—or at least hoped—that things would be fine once he got the chance to explain everything.

So, “Maybe it would be a good idea to talk with Mother and Jeneth about this before you go back to the snowgrounds,” he suggested. “Would you rather just stay here and wait for them to come back?”

Jen considered this for a few moments. Then he shuddered. “I don’t want Mom and Dad to find out,” he said finally. “I’m more scared of Mom than I am of the other kids.” He stood then, turning toward the exit. “Come on… let’s go,” he said with resignation in his voice.

“All right,” Solonn said. He rose, unblocked the exit, and escorted Jen out, sealing the cavern off as they left it behind. His half-brother stayed silent all the way to the snowgrounds; Solonn didn’t try to provoke him into conversation, letting the snorunt focus on steeling himself for his confession.

He lingered at the entrance to the snowgrounds after bidding Jen goodbye; it seemed prudent to make sure the other children didn’t react too harshly to what Jen had to tell them. He still didn’t really anticipate too much trouble, but he was compelled nonetheless to stick around long enough to confirm that things would be all right. At the very least, he figured he should be there in a show of support for his half-brother.

Fortunately, the other kids seemed to take the news well enough. There were a couple of groans from among the small crowd in response to it, but they only sounded disappointed, not angry. Solonn heard “I knew it!” out of one of the snorunt and started to suspect that most of Jen’s friends shared a similar sentiment.

He saw some of their eyes find him, regarding him uneasily. He didn’t like it when children looked at him with anything at all like fear, and he frowned in regret. The snorunt watching him turned away quickly.

Jen met his gaze then, and Solonn gave him a reassuring nod. It’ll be all right, he told Jen silently, and as if to confirm that thought, the snorunt changed the subject, carrying on happily. Smiling, Solonn turned and went on his way.

Rather than head back home, he decided to go ahead and visit Grosh. Solonn knew the route that led to the chasm by heart at this point; things rarely changed along that path, and when they did, they were only minor changes.

Therefore it was a surprise, to say the very least, to find his usual path blocked by an unusual obstacle just as he was approaching the passageway out of the border-cavern—one that literally appeared out of thin air right in front of him. With virtually no time to react to it, momentarily blinded by its accompanying burst of light, Solonn collided face-first with the thing with a dull whumpf; sending whatever it was tumbling backward with a strange groaning noise.

Solonn regained his wits and vision fairly quickly after the collision. He looked off to the left, following the source of the odd sound, and what he saw surprised him greatly. Uttering a long string of rattling speech to themself, a claydol pitched and wobbled there as they tried to stabilize themself in midair.

“…Oth?” Solonn said, barely able to believe his eyes.

The claydol finally managed to right themself; once they did, they turned to face Solonn. <Oh, hello, Solonn,> they said, confirming his guess. <I am glad to have found you so quickly; I doubt I could have tracked you down any more successfully than I had done the times before. My apologies for my rather… awkward arrival,> Oth added.

“No harm done,” Solonn assured them. “…The times before?” he then echoed as the words registered with a delay.

Oth gave one of their pseudo-nods. <I have returned to this cavern many times since our parting. However, you were not in this vicinity on any of those occasions, and I regrettably had to terminate my search each of those times before I could find you… It shames me somewhat to admit this, but I did so because I could not tolerate the cold of these caverns for very long.>

“There’s no need to apologize for that; it’s not something you can help, after all. Anyway, since I’m here, I can try to keep you warm,” Solonn said.

<There is no need for you to try,> Oth said. <You are actually doing quite a good job of keeping the effects of this environment upon me at bay even as we speak.>

Solonn was momentarily surprised, but quickly realized that he’d probably employed this type of subconscious elemental control many times in the past. But even knowing that he didn’t have to make an effort to protect the claydol, he suspected he’d still feel compelled sometimes to make certain Oth was adequately guarded against their surroundings.

“So, then. How have you been?” Solonn asked amiably. “And what about the others?”

<We have fared well, relatively speaking,> Oth replied, <though largely, we have done so apart.>

“Oh?” Solonn frowned slightly, wondering what might have separated them. “What happened?”

<Ultimately, we all simply had our own paths to take,> Oth said. <Many of those in Lilycove wished to return to where they had lived prior to being acquired by humans, and Brett was among them. Aaron met another of his kind and chose to go with her to her home in the southwest. Only Raze chose to stay in Lilycove—I doubt she could ever bear to leave that place,> they said, their voice lowering on that statement.

Understanding shone through Solonn’s eyes at this; Lilycove was surely a place of tremendous sentimental importance to the skarmory. She’d been born there, after all, and she’d forged countless memories with the human she’d grown up with there. That city and those memories might be all she had left to hold on to of Morgan and the past.

<Brett, Aaron and Raze have all dedicated themselves to founding and raising families since you and I last spoke,> Oth went on. <Aaron and his mate Rhasth have had a young son together, Brett and Fiela have had two litters, and Raze and Eisen are awaiting the hatching of their first clutch of eggs.>

The thought of his old friends with children was one at which Solonn couldn’t help but chuckle. He was glad to know some kind of joy had befallen them since the sorrow that had hung over his last moments with them.

<As for Sei and I,> Oth said, <we were part of a team that served the effort to help people rebuild their lives after the day the humans died out. We freed those trapped in capture and storage devices, relocated those who needed it, helped those who did not know how to live without humans to fend for themselves capably and peacefully, and did what we could to dispel the chaos wherever they failed.

<Our work continued for quite some time after the human tragedy,> they went on. <It was not only our part of the world that was affected, but every part. Even to the best of our hopes and efforts to find otherwise… the unfortunate truth is that nothing remains of the human species. Nothing at all.>

There was a prolonged, heavy silence in the wake of those words. Solonn was almost at a loss for thought—he, like many, had feared that the human tragedy might have been global in its scope, but to actually hear it aloud, confirmed… “Did you or anyone else ever find out what really happened to them?” he managed at length. “Do you know what caused it?”

<Sadly, no,> Oth replied. <Though many have tried, none have succeeded in determining the origin of the Extinction.>

Another somber pause hung over the two before Oth resumed their account of what they, Sei, and the rest of those they’d worked with had done over the past few years. <Eventually, as things began to stabilize in much of the world, most of us finally went back to our own lives, but Sei… She is still out there, doing anything and everything she can for anyone who appears to have need of her. I think she may never consider her work to be done.>

“Hmm,” was all Solonn could say to that, nodding. Knowing Sei as he did, he wasn’t surprised. “And what have you been up to since your work was finished?”

<Not much. In addition to trying to contact you, I have been checking in on the others from time to time, making sure they were doing well and usually staying with them for a short time before moving on. Other than that… largely, I have simply roamed during these years. I have no single place to stay now, really…>

Oth fell silent, and a strange, faraway look entered their many eyes. The claydol seemed to have arrived at a difficult subject, and Solonn felt sorry for anything he might have said to lead them there, averting his gaze self-consciously. Oth seemed to recognize the awkwardness that had fallen over the situation and moved to remedy it at once. <So, what has been going on in your life?> they asked, changing the subject.

“Well, truth be told, I haven’t really been up to anything interesting,” Solonn admitted lightheartedly. “And I haven’t got any kids of my own… but my mother found a new mate, and they’ve had a son together.”

<Oh? How fortunate for them!> Oth said.

Solonn smiled. “Indeed. And also… you might find this hard to believe, but… my father returned.”

All of the claydol’s eyes blinked in unison. <Your father?> they said incredulously. <I did not know that he still lived!>

“Neither did I, for a while,” Solonn said. “But he is indeed very much alive. As a matter of fact, I was on my way to visit him when you arrived.”

A series of peculiar little clicking sounds issued from the claydol, a sound Solonn had long known to be their form of laughter. <Well, I am certainly glad to learn that he is alive and well,> Oth said warmly. <I wonder…> they then added, <do you suppose I could accompany you? I am rather interested in meeting your family, and now that I have a chance to spend some time with you after so long, I am… not exactly eager to bid you farewell anytime soon…> There was something in their tone that suggested a bit of embarrassment on their part, as if they were worried they might be imposing themself on Solonn.

But Solonn had no problem whatsoever with letting Oth tag along. He was equally interested in prolonging their reunion, and he didn’t want to leave Oth behind with no other option in the cold caverns but to go back where they’d come from. “Sure, of course you may,” he said.

<Thank you,> Oth said gratefully.

“No problem,” Solonn responded as he set off once again, with the claydol following close behind. “Now, hopefully you won’t be too shocked when you see him…”

<Why would I be?> Oth asked.

“Well, you see…”
 
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Brock's Pikachu
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Some awards feedback for you:

Overall:

Plot: 7/10 It is a little hard to follow at times, but one thing I can gather is that life has not been easy for Solonn, something that is especially apparent with his love-hate relationship with Jal'tal. That being said, it would be helpful to clarify a little more what is going on, so new readers don't feel lost.

Setting: 10/10 This is where the fic really shines--it isn't often that we get to see the Pokeworld from the Pokemon's perspective--the explanation of the CD player and the TV in Chapter 13 were nice little touches, especially calling human language "Unown script."

Characterization: 9/10 The characters here are shades of gray--we don't know if Jal'tal is heroic or villainous, as at times he treats Solonn like a friend and it times like his sworn enemy. Solonn is equally well written--all through the fic, we see him wrestling with his own desires against Jar'tal's all without it devolving into something overly angsty. If there is a happy ending for Solonn at all, he's going to have to earn it.

Style: 8/10 While well written overall, there are some occasions where the scene is hard to follow due to confusing wording. I'm also going to assume that not capitalizing Pokemon names is a stylistic choice, in that same way we don't usually capitalize animal names

Technical: 10/10 No spelling or grammar errors that I could see

Overall: 85/100 A very solid story, but the plot may be hard to follow for some. Definitely recommended to start from the beginning!

For Jai'tal:

Depth: 9/10 From the first time we see him, we aren't really sure if he is meant to be heroic or villainous. While he has a sympathetic side,and almost treats Solonn like a friend, it is also apparent that he is manipulating Solonn for his own gain.

Originality: 8/10 While ambitious villains in search of a successor have been done, Jai'tai stands out for his ambiguity--is he a hero? Is he a villain? Or is he only a pawn for a greater foe? Only time will tell for sure, but this ambiguity simultaneously both confuses the reader and makes them want to read more

Entertainment Value: 9/10 His explanation of TVs, CDs, and DVDs (as well as lamenting that 90% of what's on TV is junk) steals the show in Chapter 13

Contribution to plot: 10/10 As the main villain (presumably) he is rather important.

Overall: 90/100 A solidly written sympathetic villain that keeps readers guessing whose side is he really on.
 
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@LightningTopaz Yessss here comes one of my favorite things about awards season. 8D Seeing Jal'tai analyzed like this is a particularly special treat as to this day he's one of my favorite characters.

Correct about the non-capitalized pokeymans. :> It has the added benefit of convenience--go ahead, ask my shift keys. :B

Thanks lots for the review! :D
 
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Communication:

Plot: 8/10

This story is not about one specific adventure or act of heroism; it rather chronicles the life of a single Snorunt and later Glalie: Solonn. The author does a great job withholding information so that the reader must only guess where the story is going, but this sometimes done at the cost of clarity. A little bit more clarification on how some events go about would be a great touch at times, but overall this life story is really well fleshed-out overall. Heavier action seems like it may or may not be just around the corner. I’ll look forward to seeing where Sike Saner is going to take us, the readers, next.

Setting: 9.5/10

The author does a great job at setting the scene without making it seem like a pile of description. Solonn’s hotel suite, in particular, is a fantastic display of a detailed setting in which every single detail has its own purpose in the story, regardless of how small. Most of the places in this story paint a vivid (and sometimes amusing) picture in the reader’s mind. There is not much that has been overlooked in this category; Sike Saner really outdid herself with her settings.

Characterization: 9/10

Just about every major character in Communication has their own clear, unique personality. However, some of the lesser characters, such as the majority of Morgan’s Pokemon, don’t really have too much of a defined personality. This shouldn’t affect the story’s score too much, though, as these characters don’t have a large role and therefore don’t really have time to set up a great level of detail.

Style: 8/10

The style here is captivating and truly enjoys messing with the reader’s head. The story may tell you one thing, only to reveal six chapters later that you have been deceived all along. I love it. Unfortunately, this is occasionally done at the expense of clarity, as was mentioned before. Thankfully, this doesn’t happen too often and the story remains a great and suspenseful read that lets the reader do all of their own thinking. It’s beautiful.

Technical: 9.5/10

There are barely any spelling/grammar mistakes, and most of them are incredibly simple ones that just about anybody would miss.

Overall: 88/100

This is not only one of the most unique works of fanfiction that I have read but also one of the most enjoyable. It may be a little bit unclear at times, but the characters (I’m looking at you, Jal’tai!) can be absolutely fantastic. The style, although a little confusing at times, is truly enjoyable and more than makes up for it. Plenty of funny, believable quirks in the setting add on to this, totaling for one great story. I would highly recommend this story to anybody who wants to read something beyond your trainer-goes-on-journey-to-save-world-and-get-gym-badges type of story.





Jal’tai

Depth: 9/10

From the moment the reader sees Jal’tai, his motives are unclear. All the way through the story, the reader is forced to guess whether he's the good guy or the bad guy. He seems to have a solid enough motive in keeping the city he created alive and well, but he also will do whatever it takes to make it stay that way. His past, although not elaborated on too much, seems to hint at having been banished from his home in order to atone for his wrongdoings. Jal’tai is the epitome of the quote “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”

Originality: 8/10

The idea of a character guided to extreme actions by promising themselves that they’re doing the right thing is not the most common villain choice. We may often see this type of person in reality than in fan fiction, although it is almost always less extreme in reality. As humans, we are bound to make mistakes, and we sometimes do exactly as Jal’tai, telling ourselves that what we’re doing is always for the “greater good.” Jal’tai’s role in this story makes us truly question this motive; is working towards the “greater good” always good?

Entertainment Value: 9/10

Hands down, Jal’tai has to be my favorite character in the entire story. I guess you could say I have a love for misguided antagonists driven by pure motives. The way he interacts with Solonn is quite double-sided, which makes things all the more entertaining.

Contribution to Plot: 10/10

He’s the only antagonist for over half the story. I’d say he’s important.

Overall: 93/100

Jal’tai keeps the reader guessing whether he is actually evil or just misguided even after he leaves the scene. There isn’t anything quite like an antagonist that makes you wonder whether they’re even evil, if I do say so myself.
 
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@Vivillon I hope you know I am grinning like a huge dork over here. :D Thanks so much for this review; it made my night, and I'm glad you had such a good time reading my stuff 'n' nonsense. :>

Tomorrow's update day! Let's see if I remember this time around. XD
 
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Chapter 24 – Impossible Tears


Side by side, Azvida and Jeneth entered the temple. They closed off the entrance behind them, then descended into the sacred chamber, moving silently through a small crowd as they sought a nice place to sit.

Those who were already gathered there barely noticed their arrival. People visited the temple as they pleased or needed; it was hard to find a time when there wasn’t someone coming or going through that entrance. And most of the glalie there were too engrossed in their meditations to notice much else anyway.

The couple soon found an empty spot near the front of the chamber and gladly sat down there. Before them, three tall, tapering ice spires rose from the floor in a triangular formation. Their purpose was to focus prayers unto the heavens and channel divine energy into the worshipers. A solid, triple-diamond pattern was etched into a flattened facet on the front of each of the spires.

Azvida and Jeneth looked at them for a moment, then exchanged optimistic smiles before closing their eyes, doing nothing more for a while other than dwelling on the sacredness of this place. They silently offered reverence and praise unto the gods, then sent their gratitude for their prior blessings and appealed to them for more, dearly hoping their prayers for another child would be answered at last.

At the opposite end of the temple, the barrier vanished and reappeared once again, this time admitting a somewhat larger group of new arrivals than usual. The people in the temple paid them no more mind than they’d paid the couple who’d come in just minutes ago. The newly arrived glalie moved into the crowd, one of them making it up front to the altar, taking his place next to Azvida and Jeneth. Soon, all of them were situated, melding seamlessly into the tranquility of the scene as if they’d always been there.

Then that tranquility met an abrupt end.

There was a sound like an enormous peal of thunder: the signature of several nhaza released in unison. The worshipers were snapped violently out of their reveries, and their cries of shock and terror joined the echoes of the blasts when they saw the insensible bodies on the floor. They realized just as quickly that their nightmare had only just begun.

The first thing Azvida saw as she cast a panicked glance about was Jeneth lying motionless by her side, seemingly unconscious. The next thing she saw, in nearly the same instant, was a gray-and-white blur smashing into him from out of nowhere. She reeled backward automatically with a wordless cry of surprise as the glalie hurtled past her, driving Jeneth along with them. There was a sickening crunch as they met the wall, and her eyes darted toward the sound.

Whoever had just attacked her mate was nowhere in sight, but there was Jeneth, propped against the wall at an awkward angle. Oblivious to the crushing blow he’d just been dealt, he wore a peaceful expression. It contrasted harshly with the rapidly spreading pool of nearly colorless, evanescing blood that surrounded him.

Azvida gave a strangled wail as she rushed toward him, desperate to find some sign of life within him. Before she could reach him, his attacker swung back around, turning on her this time. She caught sight of the charging glalie in the corner of her eye, raised a protect aura, and dodged out of the way a split-second before he could strike, veering wildly toward the center of the chamber—but not into safety.

In an instant, Azvida was surrounded by chaos. All around her, jaws snapped, horns slashed and stabbed, and bodies collided with brutal force. The sounds of shattering armor and attempted nhaza filled the air along with furious hisses and cries of fear and agony.

Azvida regained her bearings and looked back toward Jeneth, her heart catching sickeningly in her throat—she was sure he was gone now. He wasn’t alone, either; several others had been smashed against walls, gored, or both. A powerful wave of sorrow and confusion welled up within her, and she couldn’t help averting her eyes from the carnage. In all her time in Virc-Dho, she’d never seen such violence among her people, and she couldn’t even begin to imagine why it was happening now. All that she was sure of was that it shouldn’t be. This once sacred place had become a killing field, desecrated with the blood of innocents, and more were still in great danger, herself included.

She was struck the moment her shield fell; she shrieked in pain as something gouged a burning path across her back, smashing through the sparse armor there. A response came from some long-dormant corner of her memory: she abruptly turned toward her assailant in a violent, wrenching motion, her left horn raking across his eyes. He screamed, only to be silenced when Azvida rammed into him, knocking the breath out of him and shoving him away.

Her eyes swept the chamber, anticipating another attack at any moment, from any direction. In doing so, she saw just how one-sided the battle was. There were clear aggressors, glalie who attacked ruthlessly and relentlessly with great skill. Most of the rest, while earnestly fighting back the best they could, were just painfully outclassed by the other side. Others, having realized they were no real match for the enemy, didn’t fight at all; they just tried to keep their protect shields up and avoid the onslaught.

The fact of the matter was that most of them had nothing in the way of battle experience beyond friendly matches, and there was a significant difference between merely sparring and actually fighting for one’s life. Meanwhile Azvida knew the face of mortal combat all too well. She’d hoped she’d never have to fight that way again, but when their enemy desired nothing less than to slaughter them, she had little choice.

With no further hesitation, she charged into the fray. Wherever she saw someone being overpowered by one of the aggressors, she aided them against the enemy; wherever she saw someone cornered or otherwise helpless against an oncoming threat, she rushed in to intercept the attacker. Knowing that nhaza were unreliable in such a chaotic situation, especially against such skilled opponents, she instead relied solely on physical attacks, her skull bashing into the enemies like a battering ram, her horns seeking the vulnerable eyes and the gaps in the armor of her targets.

Her enemies left gashes and punctures all over her hide whenever her protect aura failed, but she paid no mind to her own pain. Instead she focused on restoring her armor wherever it took damage, glazing over her wounds with ice, and defending her fellow people as well as she could.

But the fact remained that the enemies were all just as skilled as she was, if not moreso. She couldn’t truly defend against them on her own; despite her best efforts, her people were still falling.

Still, she refused to just give up and let them be massacred. She hurtled toward an enemy glalie who was bearing down on a vulnerable, wounded person lying near the altar—only to pass right through the attacker. She cursed aloud—that was the most convincing double team illusion she’d ever seen.

She immediately sought its source, anticipating an ambush—but to her surprise, that ambush came from the “helpless” glalie she’d moved to save, who grinned wickedly as she instantly rose and headbutted Azvida. In nearly the same instant, the glalie responsible for the illusion struck Azvida from the other side. Azvida crashed painfully into one of the altar’s spires; she barely managed to get out of the way before a large chunk of it broke off and fell to the floor.

As she hurried away from the broken altar, shoving her way through the crowd, she saw that a couple of glalie had slipped away from the fight and made their way to the exit. She felt a small surge of hope at the sight, hope that those people might escape with their lives—and better still, they might bring back reinforcements.

But that hope was quickly dashed as moments went by with the barrier remaining stubbornly in place. Desperately, the glalie gathered there tried to simply bash through the wall of ice, but to no avail. As if it were alive, it automatically repaired any damage dealt to it.

“It won’t open!” one of the glalie at the exit shouted. “Why won’t it open?”

An answer came to Azvida right away, and her heart sank. The enemies were exercising control over the barrier. They now outnumbered the defenders, and so their power to keep it closed was too strong for the survivors to overcome, even as a whole.

If more glalie arrived at the other side of the barrier, they might be able to overpower the attackers and enter the temple. If the Security Guild’s lair weren’t located on the other side of the warren, such help would have surely come by now. They could still be summoned if anyone came close enough to the temple to hear the commotion inside, but as far as she could tell, no one had.

And then she got an idea. One of the skills the humans had taught her could draw that badly needed attention—the entire warren might notice it, in fact. It had seemed too impractical to use in combat, pushed to the back of her mind in favor of techniques with less risk of collateral damage. Its potential beyond simple offense hadn’t occurred to her; she inwardly cursed herself for not thinking of this course of action sooner.

There was no guarantee that it would work. Maybe no one would arrive in time; maybe not enough would. Maybe the wrong people would arrive first, though that might happen anyway. Perhaps, the terrible thought occurred to her, similar or even greater violence had erupted elsewhere in the warren, too. In that case, the aid needed in the temple might be wrapped up in trouble elsewhere. But Azvida had to give it a try. It might be the only hope left for those trapped with her—or, at least, for those who’d brought this misery upon them to get what they deserved for it.

With no further delay, she brought up a protect shield so that no one and nothing could disrupt what she was about to do—and just in time, as the two glalie who’d tricked her came back around for another strike then, accompanied by a third this time.

“Everyone!” she shouted as loudly as her partially-spent strength would allow, unfazed as each of the three assailants’ attacks hit her shield in unison. She knew her next actions could hurt the innocents just as badly as it could hurt the other side. Her people needed fair warning. “Protect or get as high off the ground as you can now!”

Deep blue light blossomed around nearly every living person in the temple, while others pushed their levitation to the limit, rising as high off of the floor as their heavy bodies could manage. The enemies naturally did likewise, and their attention was now directed squarely and entirely toward Azvida. They knew she was up to something and weren’t interested in letting her pull it off. In a single moment, the enemies amassed and moved toward her in unison.

But just before they could reach her, she surged up into the air, well above her normal hovering height. She came crashing back down just as quickly and released a powerful discharge of ground-type energy into the floor beneath her, sending shockwaves out from the impact site. The ice glazing the walls, floor, and ceiling filled with fissures and then exploded in a burst of frozen shrapnel; what remained of the altar came crashing down; and the barrier shattered, only to return in virtually the same instant. Her shield fell a split-second after the earthquake, and as the attackers fell upon her, she could only hope her call for help would be answered in time.

* * *​

Deep, rattling echoes filled the surrounding chamber: the sonic companion to Oth’s account of their ultra rank contest experience. Grosh occasionally interrupted with questions or comments, but Solonn, having heard the story several times before, kept contentedly silent as he sat there with his friend and his father.

As the claydol was nearing the end, something strange distracted Solonn: a quick and rather small tremor that rippled through the stone floor beneath him. He wondered if it might have been a small earthquake, something he’d never experienced before.

“Did anyone else feel that?” he asked, turning his gaze toward the others. When it fell upon Grosh, Solonn found the steelix wearing a distinctly troubled expression, and his own changed to match it at once.

<I did not feel anything… What is the matter?> Oth asked as they noticed the others’ worried looks.

“There was an earthquake a moment ago,” Solonn answered, “albeit a small one.”

<Oh… Are earthquakes uncommon in this area?>

“As long as I’ve known this place, yes, they are.” Grosh said. There was tension in his tone and the set of his jaw. He looked down at Solonn. “I think that came from the warren—and I think it was your mother’s doing,” he told him quietly, at which his son’s eyes widened in surprise. “And I don’t imagine she’d have used that unless she was in major trouble.”

“Oh dear gods…” Solonn said almost breathlessly as he rose from the floor, instantly and immensely concerned for not only Azvida but Jeneth, as well—the latter was surely still with her. He heard an untranslated noise from the claydol to his right, a possible echo of their sentiments. A number of the dangerous scenarios that Azvida and Jeneth could be facing raced through his mind in rapid sequence, quickening his pulse and making fear settle heavily in the pit of his stomach.

“She’s a good fighter,” Grosh went on, “and I’m sure she can hold her own in a lot of situations, but if she’s found it necessary to resort to that…” He shook his head. “She might be overwhelmed,” he worried aloud, and his eyes darted fretfully toward the mouth of his cavern and the shaft leading up out of it. “We’ve got to try and reach her,” he decided firmly. “We don’t know what’s going on, how much time she has… I can’t stand the thought of not being there for her if she’s in need…”

“Oth can close most of the distance between here and the warren,” Solonn said, trying to think as fast as he could. “They can get us to the border-cavern at the very least—and if they can do what I think they can, they can get us where we probably need to go.” Some psychics, like Sei, could extract memories of destinations from others’ minds and thereby teleport to places they’d never personally been. But Oth wasn’t as powerful as Sei; there was a chance they couldn’t do such a thing.

Solonn hoped dearly that they could. Grosh was right—there was no telling how much time Azvida and Jeneth had. Every second counted, and being able to warp instantly to their aid could make all the difference in how they fared.

<I can,> Oth said, correctly interpreting Solonn’s statement. <If you will allow me to form a temporary link with your mind, I can take you to any place you can recall.>

Solonn was ordinarily somewhat averse to letting others into his mind, even friends. But such reservations couldn’t have been further from his mind at the present. “Please do,” he consented readily.

Oth brought themself directly before him. All but the foremost of their eyes closed as the claydol focused their power through it. There was no visible beam this time, but Solonn could still feel the distinct sensation of a foreign presence entering his mind.

At the same time, he felt an equally foreign mindscape open up on the outskirts of his perception—Oth was forming a two-way connection, a true link. Solonn hoped he wouldn’t accidentally pick up on any of the claydol’s thoughts, but those concerns kept to the back of his mind.

To his immense gratitude, Oth was finished in no time. <Just think of where you wish to go, and I will transport us there instantly,> Oth told him.

“There’s just one problem,” Grosh pointed out, his frown deepening further. “We don’t know where she is, exactly. We could lose precious time trying to find her.”

“I think I know where she is,” Solonn said. She and Jeneth were probably still at the temple… either that, or they were on their way home. He didn’t think they’d be en route to the snowgrounds just yet, let alone would they have arrived there—he hoped to all gods that they hadn’t, at least. The thought of any children—and especially Jen—being involved in whatever had befallen Azvida and Jeneth only worsened the chilling, sickening fear roiling inside him. “She’s probably at the temple with Jeneth, but if she’s not… well, I think I know where else they might be. We’re just going to have to move as quickly as possible,” Solonn said, trying with little success not to think about what might happen if they didn’t get to them in time. “If we don’t find them in the temple, we’ll move on immediately.”

The others gave quick nods of agreement, and with that, Solonn focused as sharply as he could on visualizing the temple, hoping the swarm of other thoughts and worries in his mind wouldn’t get in Oth’s way.

Luckily, Oth got the message with no trouble at all. <Draw as close to me as you can,> they advised Grosh. The steelix did so at once, coiling loosely around Solonn and Oth. A teleportation field promptly formed around the three, removing them from Grosh’s home.

In virtually the same instant, they rematerialized in the temple, and they gasped and cried out in shock at once. The battle within was still raging despite how many people had already fallen. It was a far more brutal scene than any of the three who’d just arrived had expected.

Their entrance didn’t go unnoticed; several pairs of eyes immediately shifted toward the sudden flash of golden light at the exit, and those eyes widened enormously at what they found there.

A fearful voice cut through the din. “The steel beast is here!” the voice shouted, announcing the arrival of the steelix who’d just appeared on the scene. “Retreat, retreat!”

At his call, a number of the glalie broke away from the fight and surged toward the exit as one, many of them summoning shields around themselves as they did so. The barrier promptly vanished for the small swarm of glalie as they fled the temple as fast as they could. The three newly arrived pokémon they rushed past were still in too much shock at what they’d found to realize why they should intercept them.

Following the departure of those glalie, the scene instantly changed. The fighting had ceased; most of those who were left in the temple were lying on the floor, unconscious or worse, while the few who remained awake hovered warily in place, their darting, fearful glances telling that they didn’t dare believe that the violence had subsided.

Solonn looked upon the scene laid out before him, almost paralyzed with horror and disbelief—he’d never beheld such carnage in his life. With an immense effort, he forced himself forward, shuddering hard as he and the others proceeded into the main chamber of the ruined temple, trying not to faint. A thin, pale, silvery mist hung low in the air, vapors from the blood of the fallen; his stomach lurched hard at the thought that he was actually breathing it.

He spotted a small cluster of relatively unharmed-looking glalie huddling together and moving away from him and the strange, foreign creatures who accompanied him. They froze in place when they realized that the three had spotted them. Solonn noticed at once that Azvida and Jeneth weren’t among them, as did the others; Grosh broke away and immediately began searching the chamber on his own, a couple of his spiked segments rotating fretfully all the while.

Solonn stopped advancing, hoping to seem less threatening to the fearful survivors. But he kept his gaze locked onto them, the troubled question plain in his eyes even before he spoke it aloud.

“Where are they?” he asked, his throat dry and constricted with fear. “Where are Azvida Zgil-Al and Jeneth Avasi-Ra; do you know?” He could only hope one of them knew who they were and could recognize them.

One of the survivors nodded almost imperceptibly. Her eyes shifted to her right—just as a bloodcurdling howl sounded from that very direction.

Solonn’s heart seized at the sound, and he rushed toward it right away—only to be caught short by familiar, yellow light. When it vanished, he and Oth were both directly beside Grosh. And there before them…

Azvida lay face-up, trembling uncontrollably and staring sightlessly into space through fluttering, ruined eyes. It was hard to tell just how badly she was suffering, but the fact that she was hurting was all too clear. Her breathing was ragged, horribly labored. Her armor was deformed, hastily shifted to patch over her many wounds. She must have lost the strength to do so at some point; some of them were still exposed, still bleeding into the already considerable pool that surrounded her. Solonn mindfully took over for her, a wordless, strangled sound of horror escaping him as he glazed over the open wounds as quickly as he could.

“Mother…” he all but whispered, his voice catching in his throat. “Dear gods, what… what have they done to you?”

Azvida stirred slightly where she lay, trying but failing to turn toward his voice. “…Solonn?” she managed in a brittle, almost breathless tone, all too clearly struggling to speak. “Are you… here?”

“Yes,” he answered. “I’m here… and so is Father.”

Something of a sad, wistful gratitude managed to show through Azvida’s marred features at that. “Thank you…” She gave a frail, shuddering sigh. “Wish I… could see you…”

The failing light in her eyes flickered erratically as she unknowingly met her son’s gaze. A wrenching pang seized his heart at the almost colorless rivulets of blood that flowed from the wounds closest to her eyes… it looked to as though she were crying, shedding impossible tears.

“Who did this to you?” Grosh asked, anguish and fury plain in his voice. “I won’t let them get away with it, I swear…”

“Don’t know,” Azvida responded very weakly. “There were… so many…”

“Mother… where is Jeneth?” Solonn asked hoarsely. “Is he… ?” He couldn’t bring himself to finish the sentence.

Azvida couldn’t bring herself to answer, at least not in words. Her face contorted, and a frail sob escaped her.

Solonn’s heart sank even further, and he drew in his next breath as a shuddering, pained hiss. “Oh… oh gods…” he said near-voicelessly, and started to tremble. The ice that had fallen from the walls and ceiling surged back up to surround the four of them, jagged projections bursting out of it and starting to twist and writhe at Solonn’s unconscious command. It was hard enough to accept that Jeneth was gone. The anguish on his mother’s face only made it hurt all the more.

He didn’t want that bereavement to be one of the last things she ever knew—and he had no intentions of letting it. Her potential salvation hovered right at his side.

“Oth,” Solonn spoke up. The claydol made a faint, acknowledging noise. “I know a place where they might be able to save her,” Solonn told them, and he conjured up thoughts and images of the Haven. He could only hope someone still worked there, that the local pokémon hadn’t decided to abandon the old Convergence lifestyle after the Extinction.

Seconds passed, but the scenery didn’t change. Solonn feared that Oth might have failed to receive the images, and so he tried to focus harder on the Haven. It was far easier said than done with such a terrible scene surrounding him, with one loved one already lost and another bleeding before him.

He noticed that Oth had circled around Azvida to hover at her opposite side, and at that very instant, he saw a pale red beam project silently from the claydol’s foremost eye and strike his mother, seemingly to no effect.

“What are you doing?” he demanded urgently. “We have to get her to the hospital right away!”

Oth didn’t answer. They wordlessly widened their red beam and swept it over the wounded glalie before them, passing it over her twice. The beam then vanished, and Oth gave a long, low, almost toneless rattling, a sigh without breath.

<I am so sorry,> the claydol said somberly.

“What is it?” Solonn asked, dreading the answer.

There was the slightest pause as Oth struggled to answer. <I am afraid that in her current state, she would not survive rematerialization,> they said regretfully. <She cannot be teleported.> Their head lowered, their many eyes closing in earnest guilt. <I am so sorry…> they said again.

None of the three gathered at Azvida’s side wanted to believe what was happening, but with that, the finality of the matter was undeniable no matter how dearly and desperately they wished otherwise. Solonn looked upon his mother with a profound apology in his eyes, hating the hopelessness of the situation.

“I just wish I could do something about this,” he lamented quietly, “anything at all…”

Azvida drew the deepest breath she could manage, letting it out on a soft, hoarse note. Her jaws parted and she tried to speak, but a powerful tremor wracked her broken body, stealing her breath before she could give it words. When it subsided, the lines of her face tightened briefly and a small, pained sound escaped her, almost a whimper.

“Just…” she finally resumed with immense difficulty, her words more exhaled than truly spoken. “Please… just stay safe.”

“We will,” Solonn assured her, swallowing against a fresh surge of anguish. “We promise we will. Don’t worry.”

Her only acknowledgment was the slightest nod and something whispered that came short of words. She gave another great shudder, one that seemed unwilling to relent… but then she finally fell still. The light in her eyes faded out, and her life went with it.

For one last, precious ghost of a moment, she still lived in the minds of her observers. Then the truth fell upon them all, and deep inside, Solonn felt something seem to tear itself wide open. The bereavement already aching badly within him swelled until it finally tore its way out through his throat in a long, raw, piercing cry, joining the anguished roaring and somber lowing of those at his sides. The surrounding ice shattered, crumbling from the walls and ceiling in tiny pieces that fell like frozen rain.

Moments passed, unmarked and uncounted. Solonn shook as he huddled against the grieving steelix, his eyes closed, ragged breaths hissing through his teeth. He was trying, however unsuccessfully, to comfort both his father and himself. He felt something slightly rough-textured alight upon his back and jolted slightly at the contact, but then realized it was only Oth’s hand. Opening his eyes, he turned and saw that they’d laid their other hand upon Grosh, embracing both him and Solonn insofar as they could.

<I should inspect the others who have fallen,> the claydol finally spoke up, their mindvoice subdued. <Some of them may require medical attention… if I can transport them, I will do so.>

Solonn only nodded in agreement, unable to reach words. As the rest of the temple slowly returned to his senses, he could hear the lamentations of other glalie, survivors facing loss or impending loss of their own. He hoped dearly that as few of them as possible would experience what he’d just gone through.

Oth parted from the group and started moving toward one of the other fallen glalie, but then stopped. <Someone is here…>

There was a very loud, resounding crack. Without even so much as a chance to wonder what could have possibly hit them, the claydol fell to the floor—and in the same instant, Grosh did likewise, his head dropping heavily to the ground and very nearly landing on his son.

Solonn cried out in shock and immediately looked to his father and his friend in turn, staring agape in disbelief at their sudden fall, fearing for their lives. Thankfully, Grosh was still alive; Solonn could see his breaths making glowing clouds of warmth in the surrounding cold. Meanwhile Oth wasn’t breathing… but then again, Solonn remembered, they never did. Their rather low but nonetheless present body heat confirmed that they’d survived. The nhaza that had struck them had been restrained, diluted into sheer cold attacks.

The moment he was sure they were both still alive, Solonn sought whomever had struck them down, suddenly awash in adrenaline and ready to fight back in case the attack on the temple had resumed. He swiftly found nine glalie at the entrance, newly arrived and trying but failing to conceal their horror at the scene before them.

“Please remain calm,” one of them addressed the survivors, trying to sound comforting and commanding despite the tremor she couldn’t quite keep out of her voice. “No further harm will come to you. You’ll all need to come with us before the Council of Authority for questioning and further aid and instructions.”

Any retaliation Solonn might have had in store for the new arrivals faltered when he realized what was going on: they were of the Security Guild, and they’d undoubtedly come to investigate the commotion here. With horror, he also realized why they’d knocked Grosh and Oth out, what they must have thought upon finding such strange creatures at a scene of carnage and destruction…

“No, you’ve got it all wrong!” he croaked out. “These two had nothing to do with this!”

The guild members regarded him with doubt, and then most of them looked to the one who’d spoken before. “Secure them and get ready to move them out,” their spokeswoman and apparent leader instructed her squad, nodding toward the six glalie gathered at her right. They nodded back in acknowledgment and moved in silent unison toward where Grosh and Oth lay.

“Leave them alone!” Solonn shouted, intercepting the approaching guild members. “What in the gods’ names is wrong with you? I told you, they didn’t do this!”

The approaching glalie didn’t respond, gliding around him and splitting into two groups to surround Grosh and Oth separately. Unable to watch idly as they set upon his father and friend, Solonn brought a piercing, white blaze to his eyes. Hissing furiously, he set off a nhaza in their midst, a warning shot.

No sooner had it gone off than another one just like it followed—but it wasn’t his doing. He shouted in surprise as it went off so close to him that he could feel the shockwave of its birth explode against his back. He turned in an instant to face its source and saw the guild leader there, holding a hard stare upon him.

“Sir, I’m going to ask you not to interfere, and I’m not going to ask you again,” she warned Solonn tensely, her tone telling that she wasn’t bluffing. “You’ll have a chance to speak with the council later, and they can determine the validity of your claims, but first we’re required to subdue all potential threats. If you wish to present yourself as a potential threat, then I’m afraid we will have to respond accordingly.”

Solonn only stared at her in silent, pained outrage for a moment, unable to believe his ears. Whatever was or wasn’t required of the guild personnel, he was sure they held a particular mistrust for unfamiliar species. That in turn surely made it all the easier and more convenient for them to believe that Grosh and Oth had been responsible for this tragedy.

With a tremendous effort, Solonn managed to suppress an urge to knock out the leader in one blast, just aware enough that the rest of her squad would just give him the same treatment if he tried. “Listen,” he pleaded with her. “There are people here who might need help, and you just attacked the only person who can give it to them. You’ve got to give them a chance!”

The guild leader held his gaze, her brow knitting, a frown he couldn’t quite interpret forming on her face. She remained silent for a moment’s deliberation. “I’m sorry,” she finally said, “but letting them awaken isn’t a risk we can take right now.”

“There’s no risk! They didn’t do this!” Solonn cast a hopeful, pleading glance around him at the survivors of the attack, who’d witnessed what had truly happened and could back up his claims… and the conflict on their faces couldn’t have been plainer. Come on, he urged them, tell them!

For a fleeting moment, a couple of them considered coming forward, their brows drawn together as they debated their next actions… but to Solonn’s dismay, none of them spoke up.

“Come on,” the guild leader said quietly. “The council needs to speak with you.”

The survivors slowly made for the exit, some moving more hesitantly than others and throwing glances back at people left lying behind, and then waited there to be led away. With bitter disappointment, feeling defeated for the time being and despising that notion very deeply, Solonn turned away from them to give the guild leader a smoldering, reproachful glare. His attention then shifted toward the rest of the squad as they proceeded to apprehend Grosh and Oth. He wanted to make damn sure they did no further harm to either of them.

They pushed Oth up onto the head of one of the guild members; she held the claydol there between her horns. Another of them lifted Oth’s detached hands up on a pillar of ice, then deposited them on top of his head; he’d correctly guessed that the hands could function while detached and incorrectly assumed that they could do so while Oth was unconscious.

The other four positioned themselves around Grosh, two to each side of his neck, behind his massive head. The six guild members then secured the prisoners (and detached parts thereof) to their bodies with ice, restored the shattered floor beneath them into a smooth surface, and began moving toward the exit. Solonn worked very mindfully to protect Oth and Grosh from the coldness of their captors’ bodies as the guild members carried them along.

“All right then,” their leader said, turning toward the survivors at the exit. “Everyone line up behind me and follow me out in an orderly fashion.”

The survivors did as they were told, and grudgingly, miserably, Solonn did likewise. As he followed them into the corridor beyond, he cast one last look back at the ruined temple, the place where Azvida, Jeneth, and gods only knew how many others had lost their lives. He stared off in that direction until the guild members carrying Grosh and Oth reached the exit, blocking his view behind and forcing him to move on. His heart ached at the thought that innocent people were being punished for those deaths—neither Jeneth nor Azvida would have wanted this, and he doubted the other victims would have wanted the blame to fall upon the wrong people, either.

The only hope left for things to be set right, or as right as they could be after something so terrible had happened, was if the council could be convinced that Grosh and Oth were innocent. Silently, Solonn prayed for the truth to prevail.
 
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Chapter 25 – Speak No Evil


The council chamber was vast. The floor was raised slightly in a strip against the far wall, forming a platform just large enough to accommodate the members of the council. The council, however, was not there. The witnesses brought from the temple, a very small, shaken crowd of fearful, mournful faces, had been waiting for them for countless minutes. The only new arrivals since Solonn had entered the chamber were a couple of glalie who’d still been unconscious when the rest of the squad had left the temple, accompanied by the guild members who’d stayed behind with them.

Meanwhile some part of Solonn still hadn’t returned, lingering in that temple with the rising vapors and the ruined lives. With them. Another part was busy wondering where the guild had taken Grosh and Oth. He’d asked when the guild had split up, with the glalie carrying the prisoners continuing onward past the council chamber. All he’d gotten for an answer was “somewhere secure”, leaving him to fret helplessly for them and hope there was at least someone there guarding them and keeping them from freezing.

The rest of his thoughts and worries went toward his half-brother, still back at the snowgrounds and probably wondering when his parents would show up—not knowing that they never would. Oh gods… Solonn was sure that he’d be the one who’d have to tell Jen what had happened. He could already picture how the snorunt would react, and the image worsened the cold, sick feeling inside him.

So did the fact that the snowgrounds might have suffered an attack, as well—that he might not have to break the news to Jen after all, and for the most terrible reason.

He had to get out of there. He had to know how his loved ones were doing. He looked to the platform, wishing the council would show up and start this meeting so it could end.

Several more minutes passed before they finally made their appearance. The wall on the right side of the platform opened, and out came the Security Guild leader. She descended from the platform and took her position in front of it, off to the side, facing the small crowd.

“The honorable Council of Authority now arrives,” she announced. “Please bow as they make their entrance.” In less-than-perfect unison, the gathered witnesses lowered their faces. A moment later, “Now please give your attention to the lahain Hagen Ar-Vhannen,” she instructed them.

At the cue, Solonn lifted his gaze. The platform before him was now occupied by the most powerful figures in Virc society. The Council of Authority numbered five: two men and three women. Their pale eyes showed considerable age, as well as confusion, sorrow, unease, and fear. Whether or not the minds behind those eyes had been immovably convinced that Grosh and Oth were guilty remained unclear.

The council member in the middle of the row ascended and moved forward slightly before sitting down again. His eyes swept the crowd slowly, and he inhaled deeply before speaking.

“These are most regrettable circumstances that bring us together today,” the lahain began heavily. “This day has destroyed the sanctity of our holy temple and robbed good, honest Virc of their lives. The temple is forever desecrated by the atrocities committed there, and nothing can bring back those who were lost. All we can do is to ensure that those responsible are given their due punishment to protect our people from any such threat in the future.

“Our Security Guild has brought to us two… individuals… whom they found at the scene and whom they suspect to be responsible for the murders in the temple. However… they also tell us that one among you has proclaimed these two to be innocent.” Here Hagen allowed a pointed gaze to fall upon a face in the crowd that was considerably larger than those around it, and he held it there. “What can you offer us to support your claim?”

Solonn swallowed hard, sending out yet another quick, silent prayer for the council to see the truth in his words. Some tiny voice inside warned of the danger in what he was about to say, but he didn’t care. His loved ones were more than worth the risk.

“I know them, Lahain,” he said. His voice was hoarse and pained. “Neither of them would ever do such horrible things. And besides which, they weren’t even there when it all started. They were with me. We noticed the tremor and went to the temple right away… and when we entered, the fighting stopped.

“We were there to help,” he emphasized. “And their help may still be needed. Please, Lahain… you have to let them go. Some of the people back in the temple might be badly hurt; they’ll need to go somewhere far away for the help they need, and you’re imprisoning the only one who can get them there fast enough.”

Hagen sighed. “I’m afraid that all those left in the temple are beyond salvation,” he said quietly. “The Security Guild reported that all those whom they were unable to wake had perished.” At these words, the somber air that hung over the space grew even heavier, drawing mournful sounds from many of those gathered in the chamber. Sickened dismay dampened Solonn’s already dim eyelight further; had Oth been allowed to attend to those last victims, at least some of them might have had a chance.

“As for your claims regarding the two prisoners,” Hagen continued, “can anyone else here back up your testimony?” He lifted his gaze from Solonn and let it encompass the entire crowd. “Is there anyone else among you who claims those two did no harm to the temple and those therein?” he asked them.

There was a moment of silence that felt terribly long. Solonn expected a repeat of the situation in the temple, with no one would speaking up to support him.

But then, to his grateful surprise, “Yes, Lahain,” said one of the other witnesses. “He’s right. We’d already been fighting for a while before they came. They appeared in the temple—just appeared—and when the other side saw them, they bolted.”

“Other side…” Hagen mused aloud. He cast perplexed glances at the other council members, but they didn’t seem to know what to make of the matter, either. “Well then, if it wasn’t the two strange creatures who attacked the temple, then who was it?” he asked.

“As far as I could tell, it was just some other glalie,” Solonn answered.

The reaction to that statement wasn’t what Solonn had expected: a couple of the council members gave scandalized gasps, and the lahain himself looked greatly appalled.

“How could you even suggest such a thing?” Hagen hissed, the light in his eyes blazing. “Virc must not and do not take the lives of other Virc!”

“…It’s true,” another of the survivors dared to insist despite the vehemence of Hagen’s objection. “They just came in, and they hit us with no warning… just like that, everything went to hell.” He shook his head. “There were… no idea how many. Don’t know who they were, either. But they were definitely glalie.”

“Now do you see?” Solonn asked of the council; it came out sounding more like a challenge than he’d quite intended. “The ones you’ve imprisoned are not to blame. You’ve got to let them go!”

The lahain only glared at Solonn and the other witnesses. There was clearly something at work behind those ancient eyes, perhaps considering the witnesses’ claims or perhaps just seething in offense at the notion of Virc showing the same cruelty and disregard for life that members of any other society could. Solonn strongly suspected the latter.

Hagen drew a deep breath with a distinctly disapproving, hissing edge that he either failed or didn’t bother to suppress, and he began to speak. But before he could say more than a single syllable, the entrance to the council chamber opened, and an unfamiliar face peeked in tentatively, clearly aware that he was interrupting something but just as plainly urgent to do what he’d come to do.

“Ms. Skei-Vi!” he hissed, sounding very distressed. He made something of a beckoning motion, jerking his head toward the corridor outside.

The guild leader cast a questioning, troubled glance at the glalie at the entrance, then excused herself and went to join him. The portal sealed, and Solonn could hear them speaking for a short time before their voices drifted out of earshot. Everyone in the chamber wondered what in the world was going on, but before they had long to ponder it, the leader returned, alone. They noticed her grave expression at once, and the crowd watched her attentively as she returned to her place in front of the platform, wondering and fearing what she’d just been told.

“What is it?” Hagen asked her. He no longer sounded angry in the least; he only sounded concerned.

“I’m afraid I’ve just received terrible news,” the guild leader announced slowly, somberly. “A member of my guild has just come from the snowgrounds… all the children who were there have gone missing.”

Gasps and cries of shock and alarm filled the air, and Solonn’s heart froze. “Jen…” His voice cracked as his throat went dry. “Dear gods, my brother was in there!”

“And my children!” another voice in the crowd cried.

“Please, you’ve got to find them!” a third begged the guild leader.

“Members of my squad have already begun searching,” Ms. Skei-Vi tried to assure her, but the guild leader’s words failed to calm her or anyone else in the room.

“This day has grown darker still…” the lahain remarked quietly. “Ms. Skei-Vi, do you have any clue at all as to where these children might be or who might have taken them?” he asked.

“Presently, no,” the guild leader said regretfully. “They’ve vanished without a trace. There’s nothing left to even suggest what has become of them.”

“Hmm…” was the lahain’s sole response at first. He stared pensively at a spot on the floor for a moment. “I think I’ll hazard a guess as to who might be responsible,” he then said, at which every eye in the chamber met his gaze. “I believe this crime may well have been the work of the same ones responsible for the atrocities in the temple—the very ones being held in our cells at this very moment.”

Solonn had expected to hear something along those lines, but the fact that he’d seen it coming did nothing to dampen his reaction. “How can you make such a claim?” he demanded, his eyes burning bright once more. “And how could they have committed two crimes at the same time?” he added as the thought occurred to him.

“No one said those crimes were committed at the same time,” Hagen pointed out. “The children may well have been taken and left somewhere before the attack on the temple.”

“Maybe so,” Solonn responded, conceding the point no further than that. “But still, you can’t just accuse them without anything to base it on! There’s nothing to prove that they did this!”

“I see no proof that they didn’t do it,” Hagen countered.

“Oh, so I suppose the word of these witnesses means nothing to you, then?” Solonn said acidly.

“Mere words can’t be accepted as irrefutable evidence,” the lahain said. “Anyone can say anything, after all.”

Lahain…” one of the other council members spoke up tentatively. It was the first time since the meeting had begun that any of them other than Hagen had spoken. “Surely the fact that so many of them report being attacked by other glalie has to count for something, doesn’t it?” she asked.

“If my suspicions are correct, then no, it very well may not,” Hagen said.

“And just what are those suspicions, exactly?” Solonn demanded.

“I believe that one of the prisoners, the many-eyed one, is a psychic,” was the lahain’s reply.

This brought a fresh surge of astonished responses from the crowd. “How do you know?” one among them asked. Solonn leveled a demanding gaze at Hagen with the same question and the worry that came along with it tightening his brow—how had the lahain correctly guessed that Oth was a psychic?

“Two among you have each offered a very significant detail where that’s concerned,” Hagen said. “The strange ones were described as simply ‘appearing’… and you,” he said, nodding toward Solonn, “claimed that one of them could quickly and easily transport people outside of our territory, did you not?”

Solonn could only stare wide-eyed at Hagen, horrorstruck by what he was hearing. It felt as though his blood had just frozen in his veins—he’d been so desperate to save his friend and his father, but now it seemed that he may have sealed their doom.

“The ability to disappear and reappear elsewhere belongs to the psychic element,” the lahain went on. “The use of that ability could explain how the children could have vanished so easily and completely. Furthermore… it bears mentioning that this wouldn’t be the first time someone among our people’s youth has experienced apparent abduction by a psychic-type… now would it, Mr. Zgil-Al?”

Solonn might have otherwise been surprised or startled to learn that Hagen knew his name, but all that truly got through to him was what Hagen was implying about Oth. “Don’t you even suggest that they had anything to do with that!” he hissed, thoroughly appalled.

“As I recall, no one ever determined who took you that day. I also recall that you told the Security Guild leader of that time that you had no memory of your abduction or anything that took place up to your return,” Hagen reminded him. “For all you know, that creature may very well have been your abductor.”

“‘Creature’…” Solonn spat distastefully, finding more to dislike in Hagen’s words with every moment. “That person is my friend, Lahain. They’re one of the kindest, most gentle-natured people anyone could ever hope to meet—they’d never do anything at all like what you’re accusing them of!”

The look Hagen gave him in response to that was sad—pitying, even. “Mr. Zgil-Al, I fear that you may be a victim of psychic deception. Just as the rest of you who’ve been brought here may have been tricked into believing you were under attack by glalie rather than by the strange ones, you may have been made to see the psychic in a much more flattering light.”

No,” Solonn said firmly, now positively shaking with astonishment at what he was hearing. “You’re wrong, Lahain. And everyone here knows it. Tell him!” he shouted as he turned to face the crowd.

But to his dismay, the faces around him spoke of no desire to do any such thing. In fact, it looked like they might have been seriously considering Hagen’s words.

He turned back toward the council. “Well, what about the prisoners’ rights?” he said. “Aren’t you at least going to give them a chance to defend themselves before you just decide they’re guilty?”

“And just how do you suppose we go about that?” Hagen asked. “If they’re allowed to wake, what’s to stop the psychic from simply disappearing and bringing the steel creature along with them, freeing them to threaten us again in future? It’s a risk I cannot and will not accept.”

“They wouldn’t do that,” Solonn growled. “They were there at the temple today out of concern and love, Lahain. They’re good, decent people, and yet here you are talking about them as if they’re just a couple of heartless monsters!”

“You can say whatever you want about them, but the nature of the day’s events seems all too clear now,” the lahain said resolutely. “It just makes far more sense that the terrible deeds done today could and would be done by such creatures rather than by Virc glalie. Why, anyway, would Virc ever kill their own kind?”

“Maybe they weren’t Virc,” suggested another of the council members, the very same one who’d spoken up before.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Zdir,” Hagen said. “You know just as well as I do that there are no other nations of our kind anywhere near here.”

“I was referring to exiles, Lahain,” Zdir elaborated. “Exiles who perhaps desired to get back at their fellow countrymen for their punishment.”

There was a strange sort of flickering in Hagen’s eyes as if Zdir had struck a particular chord with him. It was gone nearly as soon as it had come, however; his expression now solely and strongly suggested that she’d crossed some line. The faces of the other three council members underscored her apparent mistake further; they looked deeply worried for her.

“I think it’s time we brought this matter to a conclusion,” Hagen said coldly. “The council and I will go and discuss the day’s events and what we’ve learned regarding them among ourselves, and we will return with our final decision.”

There wasn’t a second’s delay between his words and the rest of the council’s response; the council member closest to the side exit opened it at once, and the five filed through it without another word. At the back of the line, Zdir stopped for the slightest moment, turning a supportive but not particularly optimistic gaze upon the crowd. Then she, too, was gone, and the portal sealed shut behind her.

Solonn’s eyes lingered upon the barrier. He could only imagine what sort of discussion was taking place wherever the council had gone, but he was certain that it was far from balanced. From what he’d seen, Hagen had virtually the entire council under his figurative thumb; most of them had come across as meek, obedient people who probably never spoke unless he specifically asked them to.

Zdir seemed to be an exception: someone clearly having a mind of her own, daring to voice her disagreement with the lahain. But she was only one questioning voice out of five. Chances were that wouldn’t be enough to sway or overpower Hagen, not if the rest of the council really did support their leader without question. She’d probably be made sorry in some way for her dissent, Solonn suspected darkly, and the rest of her peers would likely give her theories and opinions no further thought.

It was a bit longer than he’d quite expected before the council returned. Ms. Skei-Vi commanded the crowd to bow again as the council members took their places once more; Solonn refused, earning a disapproving frown from the guild leader.

Ignoring her, he looked toward Zdir, the only member of the council he still respected. Her face told all too plainly that she’d lost; she looked over the crowd with eyes filled with guilt and an unspoken apology.

“We of the council have arrived at our final judgment,” Hagen announced (a distinct bitterness flickered across Zdir’s face at the lahain’s use of the word “we”). “We’ve determined that our two prisoners, the steel creature and the psychic, were most certainly responsible for the destruction of our holy temple, the murders of eleven within it, and the abduction of an as yet unknown number of innocent children.”

It was exactly as Solonn had anticipated, no surprise whatsoever. Nonetheless, the judgment stabbed right into his heart, flooding him with outrage and despair. It was done. He’d failed to save them.

“The guilty parties will remain subdued in our custody until we’ve decided on a more permanent punishment,” Hagen went on. “The public will be informed of today’s tragedy but also assured that those responsible will pose no further threat. The Security Guild will do all in their power to find and bring back the children who’ve been taken from us… however, we must all prepare ourselves for whatever the gods may have chosen with regards to their fate,” he added in a somber tone.

“As for those of you who were caught in the center of all this wickedness… you have truly endured a uniquely tragic ordeal,” the lahain said to the crowd, and he sounded earnestly sympathetic. “It may take some time for you to fully realize and accept the truth about what you experienced at the temple and the ones responsible for it. What I now ask of you all is that until that time, you tell no one of the lies the wicked ones showed you.”

“You can’t possibly be serious!” Solonn responded at once, his eyes blazing. “This is absolutely unbelievable… First you convict innocent people based on nothing more than convenient coincidence and your own blatant bias, and now you honestly expect these people to not only deny what they know they saw but to lie about it from here on out?”

“What we tell you is no lie, Mr. Zgil-Al,” Hagen said firmly. “Your mind, as well as the minds of everyone present during the attack on the temple, has been wrapped up in the psychic’s trickery and abhorrent lies, and I’ll not have any of you spreading those horrid ideas among my people. Do you have any idea what such notions would do to them?” he hissed. “No Virc—or former Virc,” he added with a pointed glare toward Zdir, “has taken the life of their own kind for countless generations. The people couldn’t deal with such an unnatural notion!”

“Will they be able to deal with the real threat when it returns? Because it will; I guarantee it,” Solonn said. “You’ve laid this on the wrong people, Lahain, and more innocents will suffer because of it.”

“Is that a threat, Mr. Zgil-Al?” Hagen asked, his pale eyes narrowing.

“It’s a warning, Lahain,” Solonn said, unflinching. “And for our people’s sake, you’d best heed it. Reconsider your judgment. Let the prisoners go. And do not forbid us to tell the people the truth that could save their lives!”

The lahain inhaled deeply, letting it out on something between a hiss and a growl. He then rose from his seat and descended from the raised platform, gliding determinedly forward and coming to a stop right in front of Solonn in a clear move to show that he wasn’t swayed by his words or intimidated by his stature.

“You concern me, Mr. Zgil-Al,” he said, with a cold, hard stare up into the eyes of the larger man. “I fear that perhaps you can’t be trusted to listen to reason and maintain the peace. But I also pity you, and as such, I’m going to give you the chance to prove me wrong where that’s concerned. To err on the side of caution, however, you and the rest of those from the temple will be watched for a short while by a few of Ms. Skei-Vi’s people. If any of you cause any further disruption, they won’t hesitate to bring you down and put you in their cells,” he warned the crowd.

Hagen turned and resumed his place with the rest of the council. “Go,” he said to the crowd. “Remember your duties, all of you. Don’t pollute the public’s thoughts with the lies that have corrupted your perception. If I come to find out you’ve failed in this responsibility, you will join the prisoners in their fate.”

“Come on, then,” Ms. Skei-Vi said, then began shepherding the witnesses toward the exit.

Solonn lingered at the scene, maintaining his burning, condemning gaze upon Hagen for as long as he could. “You’re making a dire mistake, Lahain,” he said reproachfully. “The real threat is still out there, and anything that happens to our people from this day forward is on your head.”

With an insistent push and a softly reiterated warning, the guild leader finally managed to get Solonn out of the chamber and lead him away, leaving the council with his final, ominous words.

* * *​

“We gather here, in the sight of all gods, for the honor of those who have gone to join them on this day. Eleven souls, good Virc all, have been torn from our midst before their time in a most dreadful act of violence.”

The voice belonged to the leader of the Soul Guild, her words echoing throughout the surrounding space. Assembled there with her within an emormous, low-ceilinged cavern were dozens of glalie: survivors of the attack, friends and family of the victims, the other members of the Soul Guild, and several from the Security Guild.

They all formed a ring around a collection of eleven short ice spires that were arranged in a spiraling pattern in the center of the chamber. Within each of those spires, one of the people who had perished in the temple was encased.

“To those who lie before us: rest well. Though you have departed this life through fear and agony, you will now know only peace forevermore. Though you have fallen by the power of wickedness, take comfort in the knowledge that no wickedness can follow where you’ve gone.”

With a very heavy heart, Solonn gazed upon the spires. They were a nice, lovely tribute to the fallen, but soon he couldn’t bear to look at them any longer. He was overcome by thoughts of what they represented, as well as the full impact of the day’s events. Eleven lives, forever lost. Two innocent souls, unjustly paying for someone else’s crimes. Children, gods only knew how many, taken from their homes into unknown peril. Part of his family was now gone, while the rest of it, as well as all of Virc-Dho, now faced an uncertain future.

“We of the living world now relinquish custody of your spirits to your new keepers, but we will never let go of our memories of you. One day, we may meet again. Until then… farewell.”

With that, the Soul Guild leader began singing a wordless melody. The voices of her fellow Soul Guild members rose to join her. As the Soul Guild sang, the eleven spires began to sink slowly, descending on a circular platform into a very deep hole in the floor. Their peaks disappeared into it, and ice formed to cover the grave.

Neither Solonn nor anyone else gathered within that cavern could shed a single tear. But inside, they were all crying their hearts out, their grief manifesting here and there in frail sobs.

Their sorrow was earnest, but the fact remained that most of them didn’t know the truth about the tragedies they mourned. Most of them only knew what the authorities had told them, believing that the threat was out of the picture when, in reality, it wasn’t.

Solonn couldn’t vouch for anyone else among that crowd, but he knew one thing for certain: he couldn’t stand to remain silent. In that moment, he couldn’t care about the lahain’s threats and warnings, couldn’t care what speaking out might cost him. It was far more important that the people be armed with the truth. If they weren’t, chances were that these caverns would be hearing the Soul Guild’s song many times in the days to come.
 
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Chapter 26 – Mordial


“Just as they have moved on beyond our world, so must we move on within it. Now go, and may the gods give you strength.”

At the Soul Guild leader’s dismissal, the crowd gathered in the burial chamber stirred and began to disperse. Some of them were more reluctant than others to make that final parting from their loved ones.

Solonn was one of those who lingered, staying seated on the stone floor and holding the now featureless space in the center of the room in a sorrowful gaze. Mere minutes ago, they had been there, lifeless and encased in ice like all the others who’d died in the temple with them. Now that they were sealed away beneath the floor, their absence weighed on him more than ever. Once he left this chamber, he’d be leaving them behind for the rest of his life.

He wasn’t left alone much longer. A prod at his side interrupted his thoughts, and he rose and turned to see who was responsible. There, he found one of the Security Guild members. She was looking up at him with an unspoken question—no, a command—in her eyes.

“I’ve been sent by my guild to escort you,” she said, telling Solonn nothing he hadn’t already guessed. Hagen had told him he could expect such a thing. Still, Solonn frowned at her, wishing she weren’t there—and not only for his own sake. “You have better things to do right now,” he told her quietly, “and you know it.”

“I’m afraid that’s not for you to decide,” the guild member responded. She circled around and took up a position right behind him—or tried to. He turned to face her again the moment she got back there. “Get moving, please,” she said. “I don’t know where you live. You’ll have to lead.”

Solonn gave her an odd look. “Who said I was going home?”

“Well, it’s not as though you have anything else to do, now is it?”

He did, but he most certainly couldn’t tell her as much. Letting on that he still wanted to try and warn people of the threat they still faced would just get him knocked out and thrown in a cell. And no one would hear his warnings if he got himself shut away.

Meanwhile, Solonn didn’t particularly like the thought of leading someone who didn’t trust him (or at least answered to someone who didn’t) back home. Very briefly, he considered trying to pick Zilag out of the crowd and go with him instead. He hadn’t even been able to spot Zilag among the mourners, but Solonn was sure he was present. But associating himself with Zilag in front of the authorities quickly registered as a bad idea. He didn’t want Zilag and his family to get wrapped up in any trouble that the Security Guild might give him.

But even if he avoided Zilag, Zilag was unlikely to avoid him—sooner or later, especially in the wake of what had happened, he’d probably pay Solonn a visit. And either that guild member or another would probably still be hanging around.

Resigned to that notion, he sighed and nodded to the guild member, then turned his back on her and began drifting toward the exit. After a short distance, he looked back to see if she was actually following him—she was. She was probably going to tail him literally anywhere and everywhere he went. Solonn gave one last glance toward Azvida and Jeneth’s resting place, sending them a silent farewell and apology for having to leave so soon, then exited the chamber.

The presence behind him did nothing to put his mind at ease. She represented the mistrust of a leader who, as far as Solonn could tell, cared more about being right than about the welfare of his own people. She was also a constant reminder that the nation’s defenders were being wasted on keeping people quiet rather than keeping them safe.

Maybe she trusted him better than the lahain had, but Solonn couldn’t help but suspect otherwise. The lahain had said that he’d give Solonn and the other witnesses a chance to live free (or as free as one could be under constant watch) provided they could stay quiet. But Solonn couldn’t put it past him to decide—or, the chilling thought occurred to him, to have already decided—to forcibly silence the witnesses after all.

Would she do it? he wondered of his escort. He couldn’t be sure what she’d do once he was alone with her, though he felt fairly certain that she wouldn’t just knock him out and drag him to prison before then. Some of the people sharing the tunnel with them hadn’t been there at the temple or the council chamber; they might not understand why people who were supposed to protect them had suddenly turned on them. That in turn might force the guild members to take them out as well, in order to nip any loaded questions in the bud. Surely the guild would prefer to avoid that scenario.

At least, Solonn dearly hoped they would.

Before long, the tunnel branched off in multiple directions. The crowd began to split up down the separate paths, and Solonn’s sense of safety in numbers began to fade. Already, he’d seen a couple of pairs split off and disappear down their chosen tunnels—did those pairs contain guild members? Were those guild members going to strike their charges down as soon as they got someplace private enough, and was the same true of the one who followed him?

It seemed there was truly nothing to be done about it other than continue on his way; another gentle but insistent prod of his escort’s horn emphasized that point. Knowing no other way home from here, Solonn could only retrace his figurative steps and go back the way he’d come, choosing the path that led past the council chamber.

Very few others went that way along with him, and in the distance between the council chamber and what had once been the temple, the number of people taking his route quickly dwindled until there was only his escort. There were no potential witnesses now. No one to see, hear, or ask questions if the glalie behind him made a move.

And he wouldn’t know she had until it was much too late. That was the thing about the mother element’s highest power: it was summoned with a mere thought, and it struck in a near instant. It gave its victims virtually no warning…

Virtually none.

There was a way to see it coming, Solonn remembered, astonished that he’d forgotten about that particular quirk of the technique. Then again, he hadn’t actually seen it since the last time Azvida had hunted alongside him, back before he’d worked up the nerve to hunt on his own. That had been years ago

Hoping his next actions wouldn’t trigger the exact thing he was trying to avoid, he stopped and turned to face his escort, earning an odd look from her.

“Sir, what do you think you’re doing?” she asked.

“I’m just going home, just as you suggested,” Solonn said as evenly as he could, and with that he resumed his drift toward home, but in reverse.

The guild member maintained that baffled look upon him, but otherwise gave no objections and simply kept following him. Whether she knew why he was moving backward or had simply decided he was strange and she shouldn’t try too hard to make sense of him, Solonn couldn’t guess. But he wasn’t really concerned about what was going on behind her eyes at this point. It was what happened in them that mattered at the moment.

If she tried to fire off a nhaza, he’d see it coming. The telltale white flash in its user’s eyes just before its release would give it away. He kept a protect on standby, hoping dearly that he could call it up in time if she attempted anything against him.

Solonn had gone between his home and the temple so many times that he knew the way by heart; he was confident that he could navigate it backward. He knew the number and positions of all the offshoots of the main path, and he silently counted them as he passed them by—those landmarks would tell him when and which way to turn. All the while, he watched his escort’s eyes; thus far, their light remained still and blue.

Their owner kept obligingly quiet as she followed him—to a point. Eventually, “Are we almost there?” she asked.

Solonn winced slightly, trying not to lose the number in his head. “Yes,” he responded quickly, thankful that was the answer, “it’s just a li—”

His voice was abruptly cut silent, lost in a loud crack. Despite his efforts, he’d failed to see it coming. Its source emerged from an offshoot not far behind where Solonn now lay unconscious.

The newly arrived guild member rose a bit higher off the ground to see past Solonn. His partner returned his gaze with an approving nod, silently commending his work. He responded likewise, then sank back down to his normal hovering height and moved closer to their subdued target. The two officers secured the insensible glalie to themselves with ice, then lifted him with an effort and carried him away.

* * *​

The next thing Solonn was aware of was pain: a somewhat dull throbbing sensation in the back of his head. Groaning, he stirred and lifted himself from the floor, slowly opening his eyes as he rose. What he saw left him all too certain about what had happened to him.

She’d got him. Somehow, in spite of his watchfulness, she’d managed to knock him out. Now he was imprisoned in one of their cells—and he wasn’t alone. There was Grosh, lying half-coiled at the opposite side of the room, still out cold. Solonn made to rush to his father’s side at once, but he was caught short by a familiar voice that spoke up in nearly the same instant.

“Good, you’re awake. You can help out with the psychic, then.”

Solonn turned toward its source. Seated nearby was none other than Zdir, the sole member of the council who’d seemed willing to hear the witnesses out, the only one who’d seemed willing to give Grosh and Oth a chance.

Solonn wondered what she was doing in their cell, though he certainly had his suspicions. But for now, he was much more concerned about Grosh and Oth—particularly the latter. He looked upon the claydol with concern tightening his brow; they were still utterly motionless, their hands still lying detached beside them, with nothing but the glow of their faint warmth to suggest that they were even alive.

That glow was notably dimmer than it should have been. The glalie who’d been guarding the cell had clearly done a sub-par job of keeping them warm—on purpose, Solonn suspected with disgust.

“Are they going to be all right?” he asked.

“Can’t say,” Zdir responded. “I don’t even know what this creature is, let alone how they work. But I suspect they’ll come to a lot faster if we can get them warmed up—and we need them to come to as soon as possible.” She dipped a horn toward the other side of the room, where another glalie lay in the corner opposite Grosh. “I doubt he’ll stay out much longer, and sooner or later his relief will show up.”

Zdir turned back to Oth, lowering her head slightly and staring intently at him. “Try to draw the cold from this creature as fast as you can, but don’t shut everything else out completely. We could have company at any moment now.”

That thought certainly wasn’t comforting. Nonetheless, Solonn tried to keep most of his mind on the task before him. It helped that it was his friend lying there in front of him. He most certainly didn’t want to let them down.

Simply protecting another creature from the cold was generally effortless for his kind, but what Oth needed at this point was to be rid of a chill that had already settled into them. Solonn thought back to times when he’d made ice melt or turn to vapor—opposite actions to freezing. That was the power he needed to use, or rather a much slower and gentler version thereof.

He went to work at once. At his side, Zdir was doing likewise, and as the two worked together, Oth’s temperature began to return to normal.

Moments passed, and Solonn began to wonder if maybe he and Zdir should stop—he didn’t want Oth to become overheated. Just as he was about to voice that concern, the claydol awoke, a few of their presently half-closed eyes simultaneously meeting the gaze of the two glalie at their side.

<What…> they began, their mindvoice and their true voice both sounding weak. <Solonn… what is happening?>

“We’ll have to explain later,” Zdir spoke up before Solonn could even begin to answer. “First, we need to get out of here, all of us. We need you to transport us.”

Oth wobbled in place for a moment, struggling to rise, their hands ascending to rejoin their body at different speeds. They tried again almost immediately and succeeded this time, but Solonn remained concerned for them. With a particular vulnerability to the ice element, recovering from an ice-type strike must surely be all the more difficult.

<Where?> Oth asked, still clearly fighting to keep their levitation stable even as they spoke.

“As far away from here as possible,” Zdir said.

Oth nodded slightly and began floating slowly and less than gracefully toward Grosh. Once the claydol was at his side, they proceeded to scan him, checking to make sure the steelix was in any fit state for teleportation.

“We need to go,” Zdir reminded them urgently.

Thankfully, Oth found out what they needed to know quickly. Satisfied that Grosh was more than well enough to survive the journey, <Come here,> they said to the two glalie, who went to join Oth and Grosh at once, Zdir lagging slightly behind.

“Oth… are you up to teleporting right now?” Solonn asked, worried not only for the claydol’s sake but their passengers’, as well. If Oth wasn’t quite strong enough to teleport them, and something went wrong… Solonn didn’t know what the results might be, but he strongly suspected they weren’t pretty.

<Yes,> Oth said. <Do not worry… What about him?> they then asked, gesturing toward the unconscious guard in the corner with one of their hands.

“Leave him. He’s not with us,” Zdir told them. “Now go!”

Without another moment’s delay, the claydol delivered the prisoners from their cell.

* * *​

The golden glow faded out, and its passengers found themselves in a place that contrasted greatly with their previous surroundings. The sky, though overcast, was backlit by late afternoon sunlight, and nearly everything below it was blanketed in green. Steady white noise filled the air: the rushing of a waterfall that lay on the opposite side of a deep, wide chasm and poured endlessly into a river below.

Zdir eyed the water with uncertainty. “Where are we now?”

<Mordial,> Oth answered. <Do not worry—we are nowhere near your territory.> They turned to face the forest behind them, moving a very short distance into it. <There is an herb that grows here that will help Grosh greatly,> they said, gesturing toward the trees. <I will try to find some of it for him as quickly as possible.>

“It would probably be found faster if more than one of us searches for it,” Solonn said. “What does it look like?”

There was a brief delay in Oth’s response, and then an image appeared in the two glalie’s minds simultaneously. The herb in question was a bright yellow-green, with long leaves that curled slightly at their tips. It seemed vaguely familiar to Solonn, but he couldn’t really recall anything about it for certain.

“All right,” he said, moving to Oth’s side. He turned back to look at Grosh, who was still lying there helplessly. Though searching for this herb would benefit the steelix, Solonn found himself reluctant to leave him there in that condition.

“I’ll stay with him,” Zdir spoke up, having read Solonn’s hesitance correctly. “And don’t try too hard to rush back; this herb you speak of sounds like it might be something we’d do well to have readily available. Gathering more of it than he needs would be a good idea.”

“Agreed,” Solonn said. “And… thank you for agreeing to stay with him,” he added sincerely. The significance of her decision wasn’t lost on him—here was a Virc and a near-total stranger to boot, willing to be left alone with a creature whom so many of her people had feared. “It’s good to see someone else who doesn’t fear him.”

“If what you claimed he was doing in the temple is true, then I have nothing at all to fear from him,” Zdir said. “And I’m inclined to believe that it is.”

The light in Solonn’s eyes brightened and trembled. He thought to say something in response, but he was moved beyond words. The way Zdir was treating his father and his friend contrasted so greatly with the way the lahain had that for a moment, it all but overwhelmed him.

“…Thank you,” he finally managed, very quietly. Then he turned and allowed Oth to lead him deeper into the forest.

Making his way among that many trees was no easier for Solonn than it had ever been, but the relatively slow pace at which the two moved helped him avoid losing track of Oth. They didn’t rush, scanning the ground carefully for the plant they sought, but Solonn couldn’t help but suspect that Oth couldn’t speed up even if they wanted to. Their levitation was still a little unsteady; it was clear they still had some recovering to do. Their condition had actually factored into his decision to join them in their search for the herb; he was even less comfortable with the notion of leaving Oth all alone.

“How common is it?” he asked. “How long do you think we’ll need to look?”

<Not terribly common,> Oth answered, <but fortunately not terribly rare in this area, either. I think we will be able to gather a sufficient amount within a reasonable frame of time.>

Solonn nodded slightly, but he couldn’t help making a faint, disappointed noise. Whatever Oth considered a “reasonable frame of time” probably wasn’t as short as he hoped. Aid for his father just couldn’t come soon enough as far as he was concerned.

At least something will be done for him, he told himself silently. That was more than could be said for most of the people who were affected by the recent tragedies…

“Oth,” he spoke up; he saw the claydol pause and turn to face him from a couple of yards away. “Thank you for doing this, for bringing us here,” he told them. “I’m glad you’re willing and able to help him.”

Oth lowered their head in acknowledgment of Solonn’s gratitude. <You are welcome,> they said softly.

Relative silence fell over Solonn and Oth as the search wore on, neither of them saying anything. The very faint skittering and buzzing of insects and the calls of birds in the background were the only sounds either of them could hear. Then, finally, <There! I have found some!> Oth said, beckoning with one of their hands, then sped up slightly as they made their way forward and to the left. Solonn followed, and soon the two reached a small cluster of plants that matched the picture Oth had provided. Oth telekinetically harvested the leaves, lifting them into the air, then gathered the leaves up against their chest with their hands and held them there.

<This will serve Grosh with plenty to spare,> Oth said. <We should be able to return now.>

Solonn eyed the gathered herb samples; there looked to be about half a dozen of them. He hoped Oth was right about there being enough, all the while trying, with no real success, not to think about why keeping the medicine in stock had become prudent.

Well… if it’s not enough, we could always come back for more later, he figured, and he couldn’t help but suspect darkly that they’d end up having to do so sooner rather than later. “All right, let’s go,” he said, and the two of them began making their way back through the forest.

Upon returning to Grosh and Zdir, they found the steelix still unconscious. Zdir was waiting next to Grosh’s head. She looked up from where she sat to acknowledge Solonn and Oth as they took their places at her sides.

Oth let go of the leaves and brought them together in a tight bundle in midair, right in front of Grosh’s face. The claydol kept them hovering there for a few moments, letting Grosh breathe in the scent of the leaves for a while. Eventually, the steelix stirred, albeit not much; his head rose a couple of inches off of the ground, and he groaned very faintly, but his eyes remained closed.

<Open your mouth,> Oth instructed him gently.

There was a slight delay, but then Grosh’s mouth fell open, the jaws slackened. Oth let one of the leaves drift free from the bundle as they brought the rest back up against their chest, directing it onto the steelix’s tongue. The flavor awakened Grosh further; his eyes opened partway, unfocused for the moment, and he grimaced, his mouth working as though he were trying to get the offending herb out.

<No, Grosh. You need to consume it.>

That earned another faint groan from the steelix, but Grosh complied nonetheless, closing his jaws and forcing the herb down. He shuddered and stretched, flexing and twisting his segments, then slowly lifted his head further and shook it a bit as if trying to clear something out of it.

Blinking a few times in succession, he stared out at the unfamiliar scene before him for a moment, finally coming back to his senses in earnest, then turned his gaze upon his son.

“Where…?” he asked hoarsely, unable to finish the question.

Where is she? Solonn couldn’t help but suspect that meant, judging by the anguished look on the steelix’s face. But he couldn’t quite find the strength to speak of Azvida, especially not with his father’s grief staring him in the face and stoking his own all the higher.

Sinking wearily to the ground, “We’re in Mordial,” Solonn finally responded, answering a different but likely present question. “We had to flee Virc-Dho… we were being imprisoned there.”

Grosh’s reaction was delayed, but when it came through, there was something dark in his expression, something that spoke of burgeoning, sickened outrage. “No…”

“I’m afraid so,” Zdir said. “You and… Oth, was it?” She looked to the claydol, who nodded. “You were deemed responsible for the murders in the temple and the kidnapping of the children who were at the snowgrounds at the time.”

Oth’s reaction was left untranslated, but the gist of it was clear enough: they sounded distinctly astonished, even hurt. Unconsciously, they reeled back a bit from the others, then lowered their head and closed all of their eyes. Grosh, meanwhile, reared back as if something had lashed out at him, the motion surprisingly forceful for someone who’d just regained consciousness, and his expression was both the most furious and the most pained that Solonn had ever seen.

“How dare they…” the steelix said in a near-bottomless tone, one that somehow sounded just as vulnerable as it did threatening. Fresh streams of tears welled up and poured from his eyes. “How dare anyone even suggest that I’d—” He winced at the thought, shaking with fury. “—that I’d do anything to hurt her!”

“They also accused you of stealing her son,” Solonn said quietly past a lump in his throat. “Jen… he was in the snowgrounds. He was taken.”

Grosh just stared at him for a moment, still shaking, his jaws parting silently and his eyes widening further in the wake of that news. Then his head sank, his gaze dropping to the ground, tears still falling. “Dear God…” he all but whispered, the words cracking. “And… God, I would never…” he managed before his ability to speak failed him altogether.

“I tried to tell them that,” Solonn said miserably. Hearing the hurt in his father’s voice worsened his guilt and shame over failing to get through to the lahain all the more. “I tried to tell them you wouldn’t hurt anyone, either of you…”

“We both did,” Zdir added. “I refused to take ‘it’s not possible’ as an answer from the rest of the council, even knowing what it would cost me.”

What she seemed to be suggesting came as no real surprise to Solonn. “He dismissed you from the council, didn’t he?”

Zdir nodded. “Tried to take me out and throw me in the cell right alongside you three, furthermore, but I saw that coming and headed it off. The lahain—our leader,” she added for the benefit of Grosh and Oth, “just couldn’t stand to take any chances with those of us who weren’t so willing to let people believe his conclusions.”

<Those who were at the temple when we arrived there… the survivors… they saw that we were not the ones responsible, did they not? What about them?> Oth asked.

“Oh, I don’t think the lahain is concerned about what they saw anymore,” Solonn said bitterly. “He seems to have them all convinced that they were only being tricked into seeing glalie attacking them…” He was almost too ashamed to elaborate any further, to tell Oth how his fellow countryman had portrayed them, but finally managed to do so. “He said that you’d deceived them psychically.”

There was a very small delay in the claydol’s reaction. Then their eyes all widened dramatically, and a noise escaped them that suggested they were even struggling to speak in their true voice, let alone their mindvoice.

“I don’t think I can apologize enough for how you’ve been wronged, all of you,” Zdir said sincerely. “Just… just know that not everyone believes these horrible things about you two,” she said with a glance toward Grosh and Oth, “and that you,” she said to Solonn as she turned to face him, “weren’t wrong to stand up for them.”

Grosh’s only response was something between a growl and a sigh, the look on his face telling that he was far from consoled. Solonn looked at him regretfully, knowing that even just one person believing that Grosh could have done something so horrible to someone he loved so much was one too many for the steelix to bear. He wished dearly that he could have done more to prevent his father from having been accused of such things.

Oth lowered their head slightly, some of their eyes shutting halfway and the rest closing completely. They tried and failed to speak again, but finally managed it on the third attempt. <…I appreciate your trust,> they said, both of their voices subdued, <and I thank you for it. I just wish there were something more that I could do for you and for your people. You are still in danger since whoever was actually responsible has not been identified, let alone apprehended… and in return for rescuing us, you deserve anything I could give.>

“Well… perhaps it’s a good thing you feel that way,” Zdir said. “Perhaps it’s a very good thing…” She rose, moving back a bit so she could hold eye contact with all three of the others more easily. “Against our enemies, there’s little we can do. We don’t know exactly how many there are—though if they’re who I think they are, they number in the dozens. At least.”

“Oh gods…” Solonn hadn’t imagined they were quite that numerous—the thought of how high the death toll might be if the enemy were to attack in full force made him feel like his blood had frozen in his veins. “This is exactly why the people back home need to be made aware that the real threat’s still out there. None of them have any idea just how much danger they’re in!”

“Actually, I suspect they’re about to find out it’s not over yet,” Zdir told him. “By now, the Security Guild has probably discovered the empty cell we left behind. I imagine the people will be told about the escape and warned of the possibility of future attacks by more of those ‘illusory’ glalie.”

Solonn looked at her in silence, conflicted about what she’d just told him. Though the Virc still wouldn’t know the whole truth, they’d at least know to look out for trouble from other glalie now. It was a step in the right direction… but still, the Virc would likely continue to believe that two people who meant very much to him were there behind those glalie…

“Anyway,” Zdir went on, “the exiles are clearly well-trained to have been able to take as many lives as they did. My point is, if any of you are thinking of vengeance, I’m afraid you’ll need to think otherwise.”

The noise Grosh made at that and the way he shifted uneasily suggested that he was indeed harboring such thoughts, at least to some degree. An image of what the steelix would likely do to Azvida’s killers appeared in Solonn’s mind, an image of powerful steel coils crushing bodies, a massive tail falling like a hammer and splitting them wide open… Solonn shuddered hard, grimacing, fighting at once to get the gruesome thoughts off his mind.

“There is, however, one thing we may be able to do,” Zdir said. “I believe we might very well have a good chance of being able to rescue the children—a better chance than the Security Guild might have, anyway.”

Four of the eyes upon her widened instantly, and all of Oth’s blinked in surprise. <You truly believe we are capable of such a thing, given the advantages you believe these exiles to have?> they said.

“We have advantages of our own—you especially,” Zdir responded. “Your ability to teleport people could prove invaluable in getting us out of a dangerous situation, getting the children away from their captors, getting anyone who’s suffered any harm the help they’d need…”

She turned a meaningful gaze on Solonn while speaking those last several words, and he recognized just what she was referring to. He’d mentioned the Haven back in the council chamber, albeit not by name. It was a resource that, as far as he could figure, the Security Guild couldn’t provide for the kidnapped children, or for any of their would-be rescuers if it came to that.

<I… must confess that I have a particular concern about this,> Oth said. <While it is true that I can do as you say, the nature of our enemies presents a problem that could undermine my ability to help in that capacity: conceivably, any one of them could subdue me—and for that matter, any of us—in an instant, without warning.>

“Oh, there’s a warning that comes with it, if you’re talking about what I think you’re talking about,” Zdir said as she turned to face the claydol. “If it’s sheer cold or its mother technique, there’s an elemental telltale preceding them that you can feel and react to if you know how. How else do you suppose I avoided being knocked out and shut away with the rest of you? Get away with living for as long as I have and do the kind of work that I’ve done and you learn a few things.”

Solonn stared at her, not sure what to think of her claim. Yes, those techniques came with a perceptible elemental surge. But in his experience, the part of it that came before the execution of those techniques could only be felt by their user. Any observers would only be able to feel the part that accompanied the execution at the most, with no time to react to it.

But then again, that was only what he knew from his experience. Zdir’s extended back decades before his—quite conceivably time enough, he supposed, to have trained herself to catch that telltale in time to thwart such an attack.

<Well,> Oth said, sounding slightly relieved, <if you can indeed perceive these attacks before they connect, I could share in your perception and thereby teleport us away in response… if you will consent to the mental link, of course.>

“Of course,” Zdir said. “So I take it that means you’re willing to take this on?”

<I will,> Oth confirmed.

Zdir gave a faint smile of gratitude. “Thank you,” she said earnestly. “Your decision could save lives.”

She turned to Solonn again, and the question in that look was as obvious as if it had been spoken aloud. He hesitated to answer at first, still uncertain about their chances and all too aware of what could befall them if they failed, and he couldn’t keep the fear out of his eyes.

But ultimately, he couldn’t deny that he felt even worse about how someone especially vulnerable to ice and someone Zdir’s age would fare on their own. They and the children who might very well depend on them needed all the help they could get. Solonn didn’t know what the exiles had in store for the snorunt they’d taken, but every possibility that came to his mind was unacceptable—especially where a member of his own family was concerned.

“Yes,” he told her quietly. “My brother’s out there—if there’s anything I can do to help bring him back, I will.”

“Well then,” Grosh spoke up, lifting his upper body from the ground once more. “You could’ve counted me in from the start, but now it’s even less of a question—I have to go with you.”

Zdir held his gaze for a moment, then turned away with a faint, concerned sound. “Grosh…” she began uneasily, “as much as I’d appreciate your help, I’m… well…”

“You’re what?” Grosh urged her to finish as gently and calmly as he could manage, which wasn’t much of either under the circumstances.

“I’m concerned that your accompanying us would be at the expense of something we need to have on our side—specifically the need to keep our enemies from becoming aware of our presence well before we’re aware of theirs. Grosh… was it you who came to Virc-Dho all those years ago? Were you the silver creature whom people described as… well, as making a lot of noise whenever he moved?”

The steelix blinked, then groaned, recognizing what Zdir was getting at there. “Yes… yes, that was me,” he said, wilting with a sigh. “You’re right… there’s no way they wouldn’t hear us coming if I went with you.”

<Perhaps… that is not necessarily true,> Oth said a bit hesitantly. All eyes turned toward them. <I think I might be able to keep him off the ground. That should eliminate the sound of his slithering.>

Solonn frowned at Oth. It wasn’t that he didn’t want them to try what they were suggesting—he knew how much his father wanted to pitch in on this mission, knew what it meant to him. He was just concerned about them exerting themself in such a way. Even though they’d been specifically trained for shows of strength, it would be no easy feat even to lift, let alone carry, something as heavy as Grosh had to be. Not to mention the fact that given their recent ordeal, Oth surely wasn’t in peak condition…

Holding his tongue, not wanting to undermine Oth’s confidence and make them choke, Solonn watched as bright, fuchsia light filled the claydol’s eyes. Slowly, Grosh rose up from the grass, coming to a stop just a few inches off the ground. Oth held him there for a few seconds… but then the light in their eyes began to falter. The claydol shook slightly as they struggled to maintain their telekinetic hold on him, but not for long—they abruptly lost their grip, and Grosh fell back down with a loud thunk that sent birds from the forest behind them scattering into the air.

Oth hovered unsteadily for a moment, their hands hanging lower than usual as they worked to regather their telekinetic strength. <I am fine…> they told the others, noticing their worried expressions, <and I am sorry,> they said to Grosh.

“That’s all right,” Grosh told them, his voice a low, resigned rumble. “You don’t need to be busting your brain carrying me around, and I don’t need to be slowing you all down by making you have to stop every few seconds to give Oth a break. I can stay here,” he said, though the words were followed by a sigh that told that he still dearly wished he didn’t have to.

Zdir nodded at him, though she looked earnestly sympathetic. “I’m sorry you can’t join us,” she told him. “Don’t worry—we’ll do our best to return safely.” She turned to Oth. “Before we begin our search, I have a few relatives whom I think we should inform about the situation—at the very least, I think they deserve to know what I intend to get myself into. Is there anyone you feel you need to pay a brief visit to before we head out?” she asked of the claydol.

<No,> Oth said. They gathered the unused herb samples back up as they spoke; the leaves had fallen during the claydol’s attempt to hold Grosh aloft. <I am ready whenever the rest of you are.>

“And you?” Zdir asked Solonn.

Solonn nodded. “Just one stop,” he said. Part of him wouldn’t have minded getting a chance to touch base with his old friends from Lilycove again, now that Oth’s presence made such possible. Especially since he couldn’t help but think that the extra stops Zdir proposed were partly intended as a chance to say goodbye… just in case. But he was concerned about taking too much of the time that could be spent searching for the snorunt; he didn’t know how much they had to spare.

He’d have answered Zdir’s question just as Oth had if it weren’t for the fact that Zilag and his family were back there in Virc-Dho—and therefore potentially in harm’s way. He wanted to make absolutely certain that they knew the threat hadn’t passed.

“All right,” Zdir said. “Come on, then. We should be on our way.”

“Just please come back safely,” Grosh said. “Bring her sons back—both of them.”

“We will try,” Zdir tried to assure him.

Solonn looked to his father, swallowing against a lump in his throat at the pain and worry still plain on the steelix’s face. “Goodbye,” he said with difficulty.

“Goodbye,” Grosh returned hoarsely. “Please be careful. Please.”

Solonn could only nod in acceptance of Grosh’s plea, hoping to all gods that everything would turn out all right as Mordial vanished from his sight.
 
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The Vulture Queen
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Finally reading/reviewing this thing. Be prepared for the return of the Rediamond ramble review.

Stylistically, there's a lot to like here. Most passages are well-constructed, and character tensions tend to work well. When you really get down in to arcs, they tend to be very compelling...

...which leads in to the biggest flaw of the story. Arcs tend not to get delved in to. Don't get me wrong; you have some wonderful starts. With the exception of the original arc, every time it looks like the story's dug in its heels and is ready to stay there, I got excited about what was coming ahead. Solonn trying to deal with being held captive by a kind master—but still a master he "couldn't" leave—was almost the start of a very interesting story exploring how humans and Pokemon felt about the process of effective enslavement of wild creatures. The contest scenes were well written. Then—nope. On to something completely different.

Jal'Tai is a sadistic bastard arguably trying to achieve good through bad means? Orwellian re-education and torture sequences ending in a "he loved big brother" moment? OK, I'll give you that arc. That one was solid. But then the entire city of Convergence and training to love a role that he would ultimately discover he was never meant to have (because drama)? That really could have been a solid story. But nope—on to something completely different. Looks like we won't really be paying attention to running Convergence after all, which kind of made me wonder why you'd even bother including it in a story that is otherwise about trying to navigate family/home politics.

(Also, wouldn't Solonn's literal years of political training have given him better tact/skill with navigating the council? Did Jal'Tai ever teach him how to move a people, persuade higher authorities, or read situations? How was he even a successful mayor without those skills...)

As that implies, I'm also kind of thrown off by how little the Convergence arc even matters to Solonn in the future. That was literally years of his life... oh, and also the whole "humans are dead now" seems like an odd and unnecessary plot twist when that arc, which also held a fair amount of potential, ended after two chapters. Admittedly, the story seems to have settled back in to something with the intent of actually staying with it. And I hope that's the case, since otherwise the odd pacing, tearing away from promising arcs, and ignoring important aspects of old ones (Morgan, Jal'Tai, the speech, convergence, the apocalypse) gets old. It was a cool twist the first two times or so it happened with being removed from captivity and then introduced to Convergence. Now... the massive time skips have kind of overstayed their welcome. If the story kept a coherent plotline throughout that just happened to need told at different times, it would be understandable. But it really feels like you're trying to tell about five stories in just one and as a consequence not giving any of them the time and development they deserve.

With that said, I'll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you have some massive To Kill a Mockingbird-type scheme to bring together many vignettes in to a coherent message or plot. But even if the forest is good, it still gets old being torn away from the trees when they start to look promising.

Still, Jal'Tai is an interesting antagonist, Solonn a good protagonist, and if supporting characters stayed in the story for more than three chapters I'm sure they'd be decent. They just don't tend to stay in the story for long.

tl;dr

You're a good writer. The story doesn't just have promise—it presents several clearly developed storylines that I would love to see as a full story. But over time it really does feel like you're trying to tell too many stories for any to have meaning. Slow down and tell stories to their completion. It it's worth giving a scene in a time frame, surely you could add in others so that the period's inclusion doesn't seem forced and readers aren't jarred away almost as soon as they'd settled back in.
 
*aromatisse noise*
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@Athena God yeah, this thing. I think somewhere earlier in the thread I described it as a pseudoanthology, and it's the "pseudo" that makes it step on its feet from time to time.

Meanwhile Solonn, I suspect, was never quite a proper mayor so much as something called that, in-universe, for the sake of convenience.

Thanks for the read 'n' review/ramble! :D

______________

Chapter 27 – The Search


Solonn, Zdir, and Oth appeared in a chamber a short distance from the Zir-Arda residence. It was as close as Oth could get them, now that there were a few others in tow. The only other option was to make more than one trip, and Oth had been advised against teleporting too much for fear that they’d tire out.

The additions to the search party were Ronal, Zereth, and Narzen, though Solonn had too much on his mind to recall their names very easily. He also couldn’t remember exactly how they were related to Zdir; one of them had called her an aunt, but he’d already forgotten which.

Solonn broke away from the small crowd, and the others began following him toward his destination. Once he spotted the familiar ice wall that blocked off his friend’s home, he paused, signaling that the others were close enough. He’d be going in alone, just as Zdir had done on their previous stops; she’d reckoned it would be easier and less startling to break the news to each of them without strangers watching, and he’d agreed.

He moved over to the barrier, glancing back at the others waiting just out of sight from the threshold… out in the open, in conspicuous numbers, with an alien creature hovering among them. Zdir had assured him that the psychic link she now shared with Oth would keep them out of trouble if someone spotted them. In that event, Oth would collect the party with a couple of teleports in quick succession, and they’d all be elsewhere before their discoverers could react.

Hopefully Zdir was right. Hopefully things would go smoothly if it came to that.

Somewhat cautiously, wanting to make as little noise as he could, Solonn tapped on the ice wall a few times with his horn. He heard hushed voices from the other side—glalie voices, thankfully. He hadn’t wanted to wake Katir and Ryneika, Zilag and Hiledas’s children. A blurred pair of blue lights drifted into view, approaching the wall, and then the clouded ice before them vanished.

“Oh hey.” Zilag’s tone fell notably short of its usual energy. “Come on in…” He turned and moved back into the main chamber, and Solonn followed. Solonn saw Hiledas Zir-Arda lingering over by the entrance to the couple’s bedroom, watching him enter.

“What’s going on?” she asked, keeping her voice low, though her tone suggested that she already knew the answer.

“I think it’s fairly obvious,” Zilag said quietly as he resealed the chamber, then turned a somber gaze on Solonn. “Go ahead and have a seat,” he said, then generated some ice for Solonn. Solonn muttered a wordless thanks as he sat down, then took a couple of small bites. He didn’t want to snub the hospitality, and he figured he’d do well to have a little more on his stomach.

Zilag settled down himself, facing Solonn from a few feet away, and Hiledas sat next to her mate. “I tried to get a hold of you after the service,” he said, “but the crowd was…” He shook his head. “I just couldn’t get to you. And when I went to your place, no one was there.”

Zilag sighed again, and for a moment he looked like he was struggling to speak. Finally, in a rather brittle voice, “There was no one at… at Azvida and Jeneth’s home, either. Jen… he was one of the ones who was taken, wasn’t he?” he asked. Solonn nodded regretfully in response. Zilag swore under his breath. “Gods… they’d better find him,” he said.

“I… don’t have much faith in them.” The admission had just slipped out. Solonn had intended to warn Zilag and Hiledas about the lingering threat to the warren prior to letting them know what he was about to try and do, but the way their faces saddened further at his words compelled him to go ahead and let them know something else was being done about the situation. “So a few others and I are going to go search for the children, as well.”

Zilag’s brows drew together in distinct worry, while Hiledas’s rose in what looked like disbelief. “Solonn…” Zilag said tentatively, “that’s certainly brave of you, but… I don’t know. I’m not sure this is something you ought to be doing—I mean, you know what the ones responsible for this are capable of. I can’t say I like the sound of you going right into their lair like that.”

“Oth is with us,” Solonn told him, “as are a few other glalie. Oth can teleport; they can get us out of trouble very fast if need be. And if any of us—or, gods forbid, any of the children—are hurt, they can take us to a place where we can get help—really good help.”

Hiledas cast a meaningful, rather troubled glance at Zilag, who mirrored it somewhat. She looked toward Solonn. “I’ve heard of this… ‘teleporting’,” she began slowly. “And I’ve also heard that it’s a psychic ability…”

Solonn’s expression hardened, his eyes narrowing; he didn’t like the direction the conversation was taking. “That’s irrelevant,” he said sternly. “That ability could be the very thing that saves those children. And I’ll have you know Oth is one of the last people you should be mistrusting right now.” He turned to face Zilag. “You should understand, at least. You remember what I’ve told you about them, don’t you?”

“I do…” Zilag said, but with a hesitance that suggested something left unsaid.

“But what?” Solonn pressed, filling in the blank, sounding more than a little hurt. There he was, having to convince Zilag that Oth and Grosh were innocent when he’d been sure his best friend would just take his word for it. “Please… don’t tell me you think I only trust them because they’re making me trust them.”

“Maybe you should at least consider that possibility,” Hiledas suggested. Solonn glared at her in response.

“Look…” Zilag said carefully, “I want to believe this Oth person’s all right. I really do. But the same time… there are some very, very strange things going on around here lately—very strange and very dangerous. And it’s not the first time something strange has happened to one of us—I’m not assuming Oth had anything to do with your abduction,” he added hurriedly when he saw the pained frustration on Solonn’s face. “I’m trying not to assume much of anything at this point.” He drew a deep breath as if bracing himself for something. “And that’s why I’m going with you.”

Hiledas shot Zilag a rather distressed look, while Solonn could only stare blankly at him, at a loss for how to feel about his friend’s choice—especially given the reasons behind it.

“Are you insane?” Hiledas hissed at Zilag. “You can’t go out there facing gods only know what with people we don’t even know if we can trust!”

“If we can trust them, if they really are the best chance those kids have at being rescued, then they should get all the help they can. I don’t want to have to wonder someday if things could have gone better if I’d helped out. Hiledas… that could have been Katir out there.”

Much of the severity left Hiledas’s features, her mouth falling partway open. “…I still don’t like this,” she said quietly, lowering her gaze.

“I know,” Zilag said. “But I have to do this. I have to do my part, and I have to look out for my friend.”

“I don’t need you to protect me from Oth,” Solonn insisted, but his tone told that his anger was beginning to dissolve. Even if Zilag still fell short of understanding the situation, his earnest desire to help make things right made up for it somewhat.

“Hopefully you don’t,” Zilag said. “And hopefully you won’t need protecting from anything else, either. At any rate, I’m still going.”

Solonn held his gaze in silence for another moment, then sighed and nodded in acceptance.

“Fine,” Hiledas conceded as well, but she still sounded none too happy about Zilag’s decision. “I’ll stay with the kids—you’d better come home,” she told Zilag, but there was earnest concern there alongside the warning. “Don’t you dare make me have to explain to our daughters that they’ll never see their father again.”

“I’ll try,” he told her, though he sounded a little less than confident. “I’ll try as hard as I possibly can. Just… well, just in case… tell them I love them, okay?”

Hiledas’s frown deepened, the light in her eyes wavering. She nodded, apparently unable to find her voice in the moment.

Zilag moved closer to Hiledas, closing his eyes and lowering his head, allowing his forehead to touch hers. “Goodbye,” he said, adding, “for now.” He lifted his gaze once more and looked toward Solonn. “Guess we’d better head out, then,” he said, moving toward the exit.

“Wait,” Solonn said, halting him. He turned to face both Zilag and Hiledas once more. “There’s something you both need to know—that’s the main reason I came here in the first place.” Zilag and Hiledas both looked at him attentively. He opened his mouth to speak… but then paused. Telling them to spread the word about the mistaken leadership and lingering threat could get them knocked out and thrown into prison chambers. Their children might never see them again.

He inhaled and tried another approach. “Just… look after yourselves, all right?” he said finally, opting for a more general warning. “Look after yourselves and everyone you know. Zilag has a point about keeping an open mind,” he acknowledged aloud, though he aimed the notion in a different direction. “Don’t assume you’re safe just because the authorities say you are, and tell everyone you can to stay vigilant, too,” he advised.

Zilag nodded at this, as did Hiledas, though the light in the latter’s eyes still fluttered with uncertainty. Hoping that they’d heed his warning, “Goodbye,” Solonn said to Hiledas. “You and your daughters stay safe. Please.” Then he turned back toward the exit. Zilag removed the ice barrier, replacing it once he and Solonn were in the corridor outside, and the two went down the hall to join the rest of the party.

* * *​

The search began in the border-cavern. Through Oth, Zdir explained that the Security Guild most likely had the warren covered, and that the children were likely being held by exiles somewhere outside of Virc territory anyhow.

She instructed the others to exercise caution around any glalie they encountered and to avoid conflict—with the exiles, with guild members on a search of their own, or with anyone else—unless it was absolutely necessary to engage them. Meanwhile, wherever circumstances allowed it, they’d seek information from members of other species. Perhaps they’d noticed something that could point the way to the missing snorunt.

There were nods of acceptance from the others, but there was poorly concealed uncertainty on some of their faces, including Solonn’s. He had a hard time imagining any of Shoal Cave’s inhabitants wanting to cooperate with a bunch of predators, to say nothing of how they might react to Oth. But the alternative was a virtually blind search through caverns that extended gods knew how far and in gods knew how many directions. If they wasted too much time…

He caught Zilag’s eye. His friend returned the most reassuring look he could manage. Solonn suspected the sentiment was directed inward as much as outward.

The seven moved through the border cavern in a tight cluster with Oth at the center, staying close together to ensure that no one was left behind if they had to make a sudden escape. But when they reached the narrow passageway leading out into Shoal Cave proper, they were forced into single file.

Oth was fourth in line, hovering high enough to let them see over the heads of the glalie. Worry gnawed at Solonn as he followed at the very back, hoping that he and everyone else at the ends of the line were close enough for Oth to spirit away.

No danger had showed itself thus far. The border-cavern had been devoid of life, and the tunnel that led out of it was proving likewise. As the seven emerged into an open space once more and proceeded to explore it, that trend continued. Minute after minute passed, and one stone chamber after another turned up empty.

This did nothing to ease the tension that hung over the air. Sooner or later, the party knew, they’d run into someone. They could only hope it wasn’t the wrong someone.

Sure enough, the glalie in the party soon detected someone warm-bodied, and everyone heard the sound of flapping wings. The party halted, and several pairs of blue eyes turned toward a tunnel that curved rather sharply out of sight. The creature was just around the bend.

They lay in wait for a short time to see if there was anyone else down that passageway—more specifically, anyone who wasn’t warm-bodied. Apparently there wasn’t; no crack sounded to indicate a hunter picking the unseen creature off. The heat signature remained steady rather than suddenly vanishing, and its source was staying put rather than fleeing.

Zdir turned to face the others and nodded. The party entered the narrow passageway in the same formation as they’d entered all the rest: three glalie ahead of Oth, three behind, and Zdir in the lead. Just as she was about to disappear around the bend, a shrill chittering arose.

In almost the same instant, a thick ice barrier formed behind the party, sealing off that end of the tunnel. Solonn could hear another one solidifying up ahead—the flying creature could no longer escape.

<It is only a lone male zubat,> Oth informed the others. To the zubat, <Do not be afraid. We mean you no harm,> they said, using the most calm and soothing mindvoice they could manage. The zubat had stopped chittering but could still be heard fluttering about out of sight. <We are merely seeking information. Please try to respond as quietly as possible. We need to know if you have smelled or heard anything out of the ordinary recently, and if so, where.>

“Other than you just now, no!” the zubat said. To his credit, he managed to keep his voice down to a hiss. “Now please, go away! Leave me alone!”

<Very well. Thank you for your time.> The ice barriers vanished, and the wingbeats dwindled away as their maker finally fled. <We shall proceed, then,> the claydol said to the rest of the group, and the line began moving once more.

The search wore on. A detached sense of fatigue and hunger was starting to set in, but there was far too much on Solonn’s mind for him to care—a mind that was beginning to play tricks on him. Anything even remotely shaped like a snorunt warranted extra glances back to confirm that it wasn’t one. Phantom movements in the corner of his eye kept seizing his attention only to have nothing to show, with no indication that any of the others had seen anything, either.

The seven encountered and questioned more zubat along the way. Just like the first, the second knew nothing of any value to the party, and the same was true of the third. The fourth’s initial response was to fire a confuse ray at the party; the attack was foiled by Ronal’s protect aura, and an ice beam fired as a warning shot by Zdir dissuaded the zubat from attacking again. But even once he agreed to cooperate, he had nothing useful to say.

At length, the seven found themselves in walrein territory… or what should have been walrein territory. They’d been prepared for trouble from the natives, but the natives were nowhere to be found, alive or otherwise.

Their total absence troubled Solonn further, especially since were no signs of any struggle here. Maybe they’d simply relocated, but the lack of evidence as to why they weren’t around reminded him uncomfortably of what had happened to the missing snorunt—they’d also been described as simply gone. If the same thing was behind the abduction of those snorunt and the emptiness of this place…

He didn’t want to believe it. The possibility reminded him too much of Hagen’s theories. But it was getting harder and harder to imagine that exiled glalie in any numbers could make people vanish so thoroughly. Believing that the enemies might have a teleporter in their midst after all, meanwhile…

Solonn shuddered hard and tried to chase those notions away, tried to remind himself that the walrein and their charges still could have left of their own accord. But the other possibilities just wouldn’t leave him be. He could no longer be certain of what he was facing, leaving him all the more worried for the snorunt, for the party seeking them, and for the Virc.

The caverns beyond the deserted territory mirrored those just beyond the border-cavern; there was no one about, not even any zubat. The imagined presences and movements kept popping up, however, and now that Solonn was helplessly entertaining the notion of enemies who could teleport, his mind’s tricks had him more on edge than ever.

Then a faint blue light appeared in the chamber they’d just entered, followed by a glalie who was carrying a pair of dead zubat in his jaws, and neither Solonn nor anyone with him could dismiss the stranger as an illusion. Solonn automatically raised a protect shield around himself; out of the corner of his eye, he saw some of the other glalie in his party do likewise.

The stranger noticed them right away. “Hey!” he shouted, the zubat falling from his mouth, and as the stranger surged forward, Solonn caught a glimpse of more unfamiliar glalie rushing into the room—only to immediately lose them in a briefly-lingering burst of golden light.

The party reappeared somewhere else altogether: suddenly they were out in a snow-filled clearing in a forest of conifers, under the weak sunlight of the early morning. There was one more glalie in their midst than there should have been, and as he tore away from the others in a hurry, Solonn recognized him as the first stranger they’d seen in their previous location. They were alone with him now.

Why, Solonn wondered at once, did Oth bring that glalie with them?

The stranger lit up with a dark blue aura as he backpedaled, and Solonn realized in nearly the same instant that his own protect shield had fallen. His heart hammering, he tried to bring it back up as fast as he could, feeling the slightest relief when he succeeded.

The stranger’s eyes, already wide and blazing with obvious bewilderment and fear, gave a brilliant white flash—just as everything went gold and featureless again. The picture that followed was nearly identical to the one that had come before; the white light in the stranger’s eyes was gone, and Oth had moved a few yards forward.

The stranger looked about frantically until he found the claydol. Without really giving it any thought, Solonn tapped into the highest power of his element and kept a hold on it, ready to strike the moment the stranger’s shield fell—

—And then there was a third burst of golden light, another lingering one. The first thing Solonn saw in its wake was the now shieldless stranger dropping to the floor as an echoing crack sounded.

Solonn looked over the rest of the party to try and figure out who’d beaten him to the strike. He saw Zdir breathing heavily and staring at the unconscious glalie, and he immediately suspected the nhaza had been her doing.

Though not ungrateful, Solonn couldn’t deny that there was an easier way to have solved the trouble they’d gotten into: she’d said that they’d avoid any conflict wherever possible, and they could’ve gotten out of that situation altogether the moment it had reared its head.

He was inclined to ask why they hadn’t done just that—as it stood, it seemed like Zdir had put them in needless danger. He saw looks on the faces of the other glalie that suggested they might be thinking likewise.

<For any among you who are wondering where we are, we are in Aderi. We are far from Shoal Cave—we are safe here from anyone who would pose a threat to us,> Oth spoke up from beside the fallen glalie, fielding the question of their current whereabouts before anyone could voice it. <We are also far from Mordial,> they added for Solonn’s sake.

<Zdir has identified this person as one of the exiles,> they went on. There was a distinct unease in their mindvoice… a hesitance, Solonn thought. <As such, she believes that he is likely to have been involved with the abduction of the snorunt. He may therefore know their current location.>

A chill ran through Solonn as he looked upon the stranger, his throat going dry, the light in his eyes unsteady. It had just truly hit him: this might have been the one who took Jen. This might also have been the one who took Azvida’s life or Jeneth’s, or even both… Solonn felt his stomach turn at the thought, and he gritted his teeth.

<If it turns out this person had nothing to do with the kidnappings and murders, we will return him to Shoal Cave and resume our search.> They lowered their head very slightly. <I will now determine if that is the case, as well as if this person knows anything else that would be of use to us.>

Solonn’s eyes went wide. He’d realized at once just how Oth was going to determine those things, and he couldn’t pretend it didn’t disturb him in a deep and very personal way. He shot a rather shocked and disappointed look at Zdir—it had to have been her idea. He couldn’t imagine Oth volunteering that course of action. Not when they’d always asked for consent before looking into someone else’s mind.

“Is this really necessary?” Solonn asked her.

Zdir looked at him with an expression he couldn’t decipher. “You can’t mean what you’re asking. Surely you of all people would recognize this as something that needs to be done,” she said somberly. “You heard Oth: this person is very likely to know where the children are—probably moreso than anyone else we’re likely to encounter anytime soon. If he does know something about it, we need to know it, too.”

Offense moved swiftly into Solonn’s features; he didn’t like even the slightest suggestion that he wasn’t giving the kidnapped snorunt due concern, especially considering who was among them. “Well, yes, of course we do, but—”

“But what?” Zdir interrupted him. “Should we really take the time to wake him, deal with any further attempts to fight us or flee from us, and then try and get him to answer our questions once we’ve got him cooperating that far? That could be time that the children don’t have. We don’t know what their captors ultimately intended to do with them when they took them.”

Solonn tried to respond to her. Instead he ended up breaking eye contact with her and shutting his mouth almost as soon as he’d opened it, not knowing what to say. He wasn’t even sure what to think. He agreed with Zdir in a way; he couldn’t stand the thought of further harm befalling the snorunt, and he especially didn’t want it to happen just because they’d failed to stop it in time. But he still had a hard time agreeing with what she’d decided to do with that glalie’s mind.

Gods… why do you even care so much about him? part of him asked, reminding him who that person lying there might be and what that person might have done. Images of broken bodies in the mist-filled temple raced through his mind, images of ruined eyes on a painfully familiar face looking up at him as their owner’s life ebbed away, and he couldn’t bite back the choked, near-voiceless sob they brought from him.

Then another mental image intruded: a dragon made of blazing light with pitch-black holes for eyes. The sob sharpened into a hiss.

Solonn turned to face Oth and ask if they, at least, were fine with what they were about to do… only to find the claydol hovering before and slightly above the exile with their head lowered and all but the foremost of their eyes closed. They’d already begun their scan.

He looked away at once. It was hard enough to see someone hanging there and probing the mind of another person, enemy or not, like some kind of psychic parasite. It was even worse since that someone was his friend. He only hoped at this point that Oth’s search would bear fruit, that it would indeed lead to the children’s salvation.

Minutes passed, a wait made no easier by his awareness that searching the exile’s mind might not yield anything useful, thus resulting in precious time wasted and a mind invaded in vain. Come on, he urged Oth, at least get it over with…

Finally, <This person is indeed involved with the guilty parties, and he knows exactly where the children are being held.> Even now, with the deed done, Oth still sounded hesitant, and something of a somber tone had crept into their mindvoice, as well. This immediately struck Solonn as ominous—had Oth discovered even more bad news regarding the children? <I will be transporting us there shortly, picking up the snorunt, and then transporting them along with the rest of us and this glalie to the Haven. I am sorry to say that someone has… tampered with the children’s minds, making them believe that they belong among the exiles—hopefully the people at the Haven can undo this tampering.>

Solonn could have sworn his heart stopped for a moment at those words. The news that there was someone among their enemies who could control minds and that such a thing had been done to those children—to his own half-brother—hit him so hard and on such a personal level that he had to sit down before he could simply fall from the air. He saw the others moving toward Oth for their imminent teleportation and tried with little success to calm himself, leafing through his memories of the Haven and its various psychic therapists as he managed to rise and join the rest of the party.

Please… let one of them fix him.
 
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Chapter 28 – Strangers


The golden light lingered yet again, for longer this time, but not quite as steadily. Here and there, it tried to fade out like it always did when its passengers had reached their destination, only to pulse right back to full intensity before it could get more than a little dimmer. Every time it happened, those it carried felt a bizarre sense of only possibly having arrived somewhere.

As such, when they finally, definitely reached their destination and the light vanished completely, all but Oth and the still-unconscious exile were left fairly disoriented. The sheer contrast between where they were and where they’d been didn’t help matters.

Once he was finally convinced that he physically existed again, Solonn recognized his artificial, pale-walled, brightly-lit surroundings: he was in the Haven. He recognized something else, as well: a familiar face in a small crowd of snorunt. Relief washed over him, only to falter when he saw a fuchsia aura bloom around the children. It was Oth’s telekinetic hold, there to keep the snorunt from escaping, and it swiftly reminded him of just why they needed to be here.

Most of the snorunt started struggling almost immediately, but to no avail. “Help!” one of them called out, and a couple of the others followed suit. “Help!”

“They’re… they’re not gonna come…” another said, sounding as though he were on the brink of panic, his frantically-sweeping gaze taking in his unfamiliar surroundings. “They can’t…” Most of the shouting snorunt fell silent at his words, but one kept on, raising her voice close to its breaking point in desperation.

The sound of footsteps mingled with her cries, multiple bare feet slapping against linoleum. Solonn turned and saw a trio of chansey rushing to join the group, and he heard what was likely another one coming from the opposite direction.

“What’s going on here?” one of them asked, sounding a bit startled.

<These snorunt have been subjected to some sort of psychic tampering,> Oth answered her; the shouting snorunt went dead silent at the sound of their alien speech. <This person—> They gestured toward the exile. <—is involved with the ones responsible for this tampering.>

The chansey frowned, exchanging not-quite-readable glances with her three coworkers. Then she cast an equally inscrutable one upon the snorunt, and then the exile, and then Oth. “Go fetch Adn, please,” she said to one of the other chansey, who set off at once. “We’ll need Saul and Chandra to tend to him,” she then said with a nod toward the unconscious glalie, “and someone needs to place a call to the station.” Two of the other chansey left to carry out those instructions.

Looking up slightly toward Oth, the remaining chansey said, “Don’t worry; someone will be here to have a word with him soon, and Adn should be here to take the snorunt off of your hands any moment now. He’ll also be the one who’s going to see what can be done about this ‘tampering’ you spoke of.”

Adn… The name didn’t ring a bell, but there were a lot of little details about Convergence that Solonn couldn’t reach with so many things on his mind, one of which was almost literally right in front of him.

He looked back to the snorunt, identifying Jen as one of the still-struggling ones, and he gently nudged his way past Zereth to move closer to his half-brother. “Jen,” Solonn said, trying to keep the worry out of his voice in a desperate attempt to calm the snorunt. “It’s going to be all right,” he tried to assure Jen as well as himself. “They’re going to take care of you.”

Jen stopped struggling against his confines and looked up at the massive glalie who’d just spoken to him. Fear was written all over the snorunt’s face, but his features tightened suddenly, an imperfect and very deliberate hardening. “You’re… you’re not gonna get away with this,” he said, trying to sound tough but failing completely. “You’d better let us go!”

Solonn backed away slightly, involuntarily, the light of his eyes wavering with concern and dimmed by sadness. He sighed, disappointed despite not really being surprised. Jen had no real reason to trust him in his current condition—for all Solonn knew, his half-brother might not even recognize him at the moment. His eyelight dimmed even further.

Nonetheless, “It’ll be all right,” Solonn said again, if only for his own sake.

Once again, footsteps approached from down the hall: lighter, longer strides this time. Their source, a blue-haired gardevoir, almost seemed to glide rather than walk despite his audible steps.

“I’ll take them from here,” the gardevoir said in a warm, resonant voice, thereby identifying himself as Adn. Oth relinquished their psychic hold over the snorunt, but Adn gathered the children up in his own before they could really do anything with their newfound freedom.

“Do any of you know what sort of being is responsible for this?” Adn asked of the party, waving a hand over the snorunt.

<I am afraid not,> Oth answered. <Will this interfere with your work?>

“Well, it may take me a bit more effort if, for example, their reprogramming turns out to be the work of a ghost’s methods rather than a psychic’s, but I’m certain I’ll be able to undo it regardless of its cause.” As he spoke, he lifted the eight snorunt off the ground in unison, levitating them in midair all around him. “It just might have shaved a little time off the process if I could’ve known how to approach it from the start. They still ought to be just fine when I’m finished with them,” Adn said.

“All right, then, let’s let everyone get to their work,” the chansey who’d stayed with the group spoke up as a pair of machoke arrived on the scene to carry the exile away. “Come with me,” she said to the party, beckoning with a stubby, fingerless paw as she began to turn away.

The party followed her out of the room. Solonn glanced back at Adn and his patients, who soon moved out of sight. He hoped Adn was right to be confident in his own abilities, and he reminded himself that he’d had enough faith in the Haven to have brought it up even when he hadn’t known for sure if it was still up and running. He’ll fix this, he tried to assure himself.

The chansey led them into a fairly spacious room with a pair of large windows to the outside showing an early-evening sky over a street with sparse traffic. There were chairs lining the walls, but no one took any of them, the glalie merely seating themselves on the floor while the chansey stood by the entrance and Oth hovered close to her.

“Adn will be here with the snorunt once he’s finished treating them,” the chansey said, holding the crowd of somewhat large creatures together in her sights as best she could. “The people who’ll be questioning the other glalie you brought in will also be here later on with a few questions for you.

“In the meantime, if any of you would like some refreshments, the cafeteria is down the hall to the left,” she told them, gesturing in that direction. “There are restrooms right next to this room—don’t worry; there are instructions posted in there if you need them. And if you need anything else, just ask Catherine at the front desk, okay?” With that, the chansey left.

“Hmm…” Zdir said once the chansey was out of sight. She turned toward Solonn. “Do you know who these ‘people’ who’ll be asking us questions later are or why they want to question us? Is there any chance they think we’re the culprits?” She cocked her head slightly. “Or might they be inclined to offer us aid?”

“It’ll be someone from the police department,” Solonn reckoned aloud. “Their Security Guild,” he clarified almost immediately. “And… I can’t say if anyone is suspicious of us or not, but they’ll want to be as sure as possible before they decide that it wasn’t us.” Unlike some people… he thought bitterly.

“As for offering us aid…” he said, pausing briefly to peruse his memories of Convergence’s policies. Only then did he truly realize just how much they might’ve changed since he’d lived and worked there. “…I don’t know for sure,” he admitted. “They might only be concerned with making sure whatever we’re dealing with back home poses no threat here.”

“Depending on what this unknown, mind-altering being—or, gods help us, possibly beings—the exiles have on their side is, they might very well pose a threat here,” Zdir said grimly.

“Whatever the motives and intentions of our hosts might be, we’d probably do well to have as many answers for them as possible under the circumstances,” Ronal said.

A couple of the others nodded in agreement at this. “How much did you learn while you were looking around in there?” Narzen asked Oth, turning to face them as he spoke.

<Not as much as we might have preferred,> Oth said, <but a fair amount nonetheless. The exile is named Anzen Vin-Siara. He did not participate in the attack on the temple, but he did aid in the abductions. Those of his group call themselves the Sinaji, and their lair is in the far western areas of Shoal Cave, as far from Virc-Dho as one can go without leaving Shoal Cave entirely. Their leader—the one who, according to Anzen, reprogrammed the minds of the children—is named Sanaika Val-Harka.>

That got an immediate reaction; every face other than Zdir’s looked at the claydol incredulously. “Wait, that guy? Seriously?” Zereth asked.

“That can’t possibly be right…” Solonn said. He just couldn’t imagine the same Sanaika he’d encountered all those years ago—or any other glalie, for that matter—having the ability to warp people’s minds. There had to be something else in the equation…

“That’s what I said. I can believe that he’s their leader. That he could have done what else Anzen thinks he did, however…” Zdir shook her head. “No, that, I suspect, is just something Sanaika wants his followers to believe so he can garner more respect from them. There’s something else among them, I’m quite certain, something that people like Anzen don’t know about…”

Solonn looked away from the others, ill at ease all over again in the wake of her words. They didn’t tell him anything he hadn’t already suspected, but they did serve as a chilling reminder that the true nature of their enemy still eluded them.

He looked away and spotted a clock upon the wall next to a dark and silent television set with an “OUT OF ORDER” sign taped to its screen. How long it had been since they’d come here and how long before they could leave, he couldn’t guess. However certain Adn was that he could help the snorunt, it would surely take some time, especially with eight minds to restore. And the police might have their hands full with Anzen for a while before stopping here.

“Gods, I wish someone would get back to us…” he said aloud to no one in particular. “Or that I could have gone with him,” he added.

“That Adn guy?” Zilag guessed from beside him. Solonn made a faint, affirmative noise. “Don’t worry,” Zilag said as comfortingly as he could manage. “I’m sure he’ll be done with them soon enough. He seemed like he really knows what he’s doing.”

“He probably does,” Solonn said, even though he couldn’t help but worry to the contrary. “It’s just… the way Jen looked at me, the way he talked… I really don’t think he recognized me. It’s… it’s almost like we haven’t really got him back yet,” he said with a pained, concerned sort of frustration. “Not until Adn takes care of him.”

“Which he will,” Zilag assured him, though he still sounded a little concerned himself.

Minutes passed in relative silence. Then tapping sounds from somewhere outside the room caught the party’s attention. Solonn’s heart skipped a beat as he realized at once what they signified: they were the footsteps of snorunt. Adn had succeeded.

The gardevoir came into sight, leading the snorunt before him. The children moved with a not-quite-rhythmic, slightly uncertain gait that went with the rather confused and overwhelmed looks on their faces. Adn gently shepherded them all in before him, encouraging them to sit down among the glalie.

As they entered, Solonn noticed that something was still amiss about the snorunt: there were only seven of them. He also noticed that none of them seemed interested in approaching him, and when he looked them over, he didn’t see Jen. He shot a look at Adn, his eyes brightening in a burgeoning panic. Had the gardevoir failed Jen for some reason—or worse still, hurt him somehow?

“I’ve succeeded in restoring their memories,” Adn told the six glalie and the claydol, “and yes, with one exception, I’m afraid,” he added quickly before any of the confused or panicked people in the room could say anything.

“Why?” Solonn asked him, sounding accusatory as well as fearful despite an earnest effort to keep that question coming out as a demand. “Why can’t you fix him?”

“I can,” Adn said, unfazed by Solonn’s tone, sounding every bit as calm and confident as he had every other time he’d spoken. “It’s just going to take a bit longer than it did for the rest of them. Minds are unique—they vary in their resistance to psychic procedures, and for some reason that I’ve yet to determine, his is being particularly stubborn.”

Solonn wondered why in the world that could possibly be the case. He quickly began to fear that it was a sign of some further harm done by whatever had brainwashed Jen—harm that couldn’t be undone. Still… he glanced at the other seven children, all of them successfully deprogrammed—he wanted to believe that Jen would be among them soon. Those seven snorunt were proof that Adn had indeed known what he was doing. He’d solved their problems. Solonn wanted to have faith that the gardevoir would solve Jen’s, as well.

“You’re sure you can help him,” he said, reaching for confirmation, for anything that could help him feel certain that things would turn out all right.

“Absolutely,” Adn said, kindness and reassurance playing about his orange eyes. “Don’t worry, any of you. However long it takes, I’ll make sure that he—”

Quite suddenly, thoroughly unexpectedly, the gardevoir’s voice dropped out, as did all sound. An all too familiar golden emptiness filled the air, lingering for more than a moment and wavering ever so briefly at one point.

When it faded out completely, the Haven was gone with it. Stone surfaces had replaced the painted walls; a wide tunnel winding out of sight had replaced the waiting room. All of the glalie were still present, as were Oth and the seven snorunt who’d been successfully treated. There was no sign of the gardevoir who’d been speaking to them the moment before.

Inexplicably, they had teleported, leaving Convergence behind.

Multiple pairs of blue eyes looked about in confusion, their owners rising in near unison, with several of them turning to the only one there who could’ve pulled them out of the Haven in such a way. “What… Oth, why did you do that?” Solonn couldn’t help but ask, his voice barely above a whisper.

<I… I did not mean to teleport,> Oth said, and they actually sounded rather afraid. <The thought of doing so never even crossed my mind…>

“Well, you need to get us back there!” Solonn hissed. He had to get back to Jen—the thought of leaving him behind was unacceptable as it was, but doing so while the snorunt’s well-being still hung in the balance…

Oth gave no obvious response at first. A few seconds passed, and then they emitted a noise that might have indicated worry, frustration, or both, briefly shutting all of their eyes as if trying to focus harder on something. <I cannot get it to happen… I cannot even find the energy to access for its use!>

“Keep trying!” Solonn urged them, now fearing for both Jen and Oth. What in the world could have made them teleport—and was the same thing involuntarily suppressing their powers now?

“Where are we?” one of the snorunt spoke up, plainly fearful.

“Well… I don’t think we know yet,” Zilag answered him quietly. There was a hint of unease in his voice that suggested an answer might be occurring to him, and not one that he liked. “Do we?” he asked of the others.

“Yes and no,” Zdir said. “I’m quite certain we’re in Shoal Cave—this place looks familiar. Which part of Shoal Cave it is, however… that, I can’t say.”

It seemed no one else among them knew exactly where they were, either. Solonn only knew that their current location put them all at considerable risk; if they were spotted by the wrong people now, especially with those children in tow… He felt sick just thinking about it, and he could tell by the looks on the other glalie’s faces that they were having similar thoughts and feelings about the situation.

“So… now what do we do?” Narzen asked.

“We go home!” the snorunt who had spoken last said. “Please, I just wanna go home!”

“Yeah!” another one said.

There was a brief silence. Then, “Yes. We’re going home,” Zdir said. “I’m going to try and remember the way from here. Now, I won’t lie to you: it might get scary on the way there, but we’ll protect you. We promise.” There were several noises of assent and nods from Oth and the other glalie at those words. Zdir looked down the tunnel in one direction and then the other, deep in thought. She looked to Oth for a moment, the claydol nodding at something she’d just told them privately.

“Come on,” she then said. “Now, don’t be afraid of what Oth’s about to do,” she told the children. “They’re only going to carry you so that you don’t have to walk and so that no one will hear you walking. Just try to relax as best as you can and try not to talk unless it’s really important.”

With that, Oth telekinetically took hold of the seven snorunt and lifted them a few inches off the ground, at which a couple of them couldn’t help but gasp or yelp despite Zdir’s assurances.

Shhh…” Zdir reminded them. “As for the rest of you,” she said to her party, “if at any point you realize where we are and how to get back to Virc-Dho from there, let me know. You can take the lead from there.”

Zdir began moving forward, and everyone else followed, with the adults surrounding the children. The tunnel they traveled through led them on a path that was winding but as-yet unbroken. But sooner or later, it was sure to branch out. They’d be forced to stop and choose a direction—Solonn hoped Zdir would pick the right one.

When they finally did stop, the sight before them pushed those concerns aside.
 
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...so, psychic manipulation and interference with teleportation from an unknown enemy... is he coming back? Is it really happening?

IS IT HAPPENING?

Other than that, good job on the male Gardevoir that wasn't the butt of a joke or anything. Especially since, post-extinction, judging species on human gender norms makes no sense. I have nothing else to say, though. I'm bad with individual chapter reviews. Just wanted you to know that I'm still reading and thought that the last two chapters were good.
 
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@Melissa et al IS IT?

We shall see. :>

In the meantime, thanks lots for the read 'n' review. Made me smile. :D
 
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Chapter 29 – To Return


If the sight before the party hadn’t already stopped them in their figurative tracks, the sound that came with it—a long and incredibly loud roar, six powerful voices calling out in unison—certainly would have. The snorunt and glalie and the single claydol in their midst now stared at a cluster of walrein blocking their path. Each of the bulky, blue creatures wore an expression that told all too clearly that they weren’t interested in letting the party pass without giving them a hard time about it.

Solonn eyed the foremost of the walrein warily. The Virc didn’t encounter them anywhere near as often as they came across spheal and sealeo. They generally left walrein alone whenever they did stumble upon them, and with good reason. Those who’d gotten on the bad side of one hadn’t come away unscathed, and their tales of those encounters had spread—all Virc glalie knew of the strength, resilience, and dangerous tusks of the walrein.

Taking on just one of them was generally considered risky, and here were six—a potential threat even given their own numbers. The party had planned to simply teleport away from walrein if they ran afoul of them, but that was no longer an option. Now, with the children still in their custody and something clearly wrong with Oth, Solonn wished more than ever that it still was.

<We apologize, sirs,> Oth spoke up. A couple of the walrein’s eyes darted around momentarily, trying to pinpoint the source of the words without sound. The rest of the walrein guessed where it had come from right away, casting an acknowledging and appraising glance at the claydol. Then they went right back to staring the glalie down. <We did not mean to startle you, and we do not mean any harm,> Oth went on. <We merely need to pass through—we must bring these children home. We will not cause any trouble for you in the process.>

The foremost of the walrein drew a deep breath, his already broad chest expanding greatly. “I don’t know who you are,” he said in a booming voice, still keeping his eyes locked onto the glalie in front of him as he spoke, “let alone what. But I reckon you’re not from around here, and I imagine you haven’t been given the most complete picture of how things work around here if you’ve chosen to ally yourself with those creatures. At any rate, no, you’re not passing through, not any of you.”

He’d had to raise his voice on those last few words; a great thundering noise had arisen and was growing louder by the second. A large crowd of sealeo was amassing behind the walrein, and from what Solonn could see, they looked even less hospitable than the walrein had.

“I won’t attack children of any kind,” the apparent spokesman of the walrein went on, “and neither will any of my men here, but they…” He gave a quick, backwards jerk of his head toward the crowd behind him. “They might not be so inclined to show that kind of mercy.”

<With all due respect, sir… do you have any authority over them?> Oth asked.

“We do. But at the same time, we understand their caution may well have saved their lives or their loved ones in the past. Now then, if you’re really interested in getting those children home safely, you won’t push your luck in here. Go find some other route to take,” the foremost walrein said, and his tone told that he was done discussing the matter.

There was a moment that was silent save for the shuffling about of restless sealeo. Solonn worried that they might decide to just charge and try to drive the party away, or worse. It was surprising that they hadn’t done so already.

Then, <We will go. Again, we apologize.> To the rest of the party, <Go quickly, but not too quickly. Zdir does not entirely trust that the sealeo will not charge after us, and neither do I, but we must stay together.>

Not quite in unison, the glalie turned around. The party began making their retreat in nearly the same instant. The sounds of the sealeo were still audible, including something that suggested flippers slapping against stone. For a moment, Solonn was sure that he and the rest of the party really were being pursued, but all those sounds grew softer rather than louder as they left the creatures further behind. Seconds passed, and Oth gave no indication that anyone was following them.

Eventually, <Stop,> Oth said. <We are back where we began. I… regret to inform you that I remain unable to teleport,> they said heavily. <We have no choice but to take the opposite route from here this time. Again, if any of you recognize our surroundings at any point, please let us know.>

Zdir made her way to the front once more as the claydol spoke, and Solonn looked at her with uncertainty as she moved past him. Maybe she’d simply made a mistake leading them to the walrein and sealeo, and the opposite path was the one that led back to Virc-Dho all along. But there was also the possibility that she’d chosen correctly the first time, that the right way back to the warren—and maybe the only way—was now impassable. They were more lost than ever before if that was the case. He caught a look on Zdir’s face as she passed that suggested similar concerns, as well as a hint of embarrassment and apology in the way her eyelight fluctuated.

As the party moved out, Solonn tried to focus on the lingering possibility that Oth would regain the ability to teleport before the party could get hopelessly lost or run into any more trouble. The fact that it was still just a possibility made it hard for Solonn to be too optimistic about the situation. Neither he nor anyone else even knew exactly what was wrong with Oth, though Solonn still harbored dark suspicions about the way that guard back at the holding cell had treated them. He had very little understanding of how a claydol’s body worked; for all he knew, too much exposure to hostile elements could damage whatever mechanism allowed them to teleport, and perhaps permanently.

Please, gods… don’t let that be the case. Please let them heal…

At length, the path split. Both branches led leftward, with the main route curving out of sight a relatively short distance past the entrance to an offshoot in the left wall. After a few moments’ worth of tight-browed consideration, Zdir guided the party into the farther path.

That path ultimately turned out to be a dead end, opening into a somewhat large, oddly-shaped room. Solonn prepared to turn back around and saw Zereth already turning, but Zdir stayed put and looked as though she were thinking.

Then, <We will stop and rest here for a while,> Oth announced; Zdir began leading the rest of the party well into the room, away from the exit, as the claydol spoke. <I will make further attempts to teleport while we are here.>

Most of the glalie put a little bit more space between themselves and the snorunt and sat down, many of them leaning against the walls. Zdir remained where she was, staying airborne, and she turned to face the children as Oth lowered them to the floor. Some of the snorunt looked confused or worried, while a couple of the others looked annoyed.

“Now, don’t stray, any of you,” Zdir said in a quiet, gentle tone once Oth had relinquished their hold on the snorunt completely. “The ones who took you are still out there, and until we get you back home, we’re the only ones who can protect you from them.

“Speaking of the ones who took you…” she went on, “can any of you tell me anything about the one who tampered with your minds, made you believe things that weren’t true?”

All of the snorunt shook their heads or said “no” in one way or another.

“I don’t think we were awake when it happened… were we?” one of the slightly larger, presumably older ones asked of the others, which sent another wave of negatory responses through the children. “I was at the snowgrounds just minding my own business—we all were—and then a couple of glalie showed up. They knocked out Jeril right away. Her and Seska. We couldn’t get out of there. Pretty soon, they got all of us.”

“I tried to fight back,” the snorunt at her side said, looking proud for a moment, but wilted just as quickly, looking aside. “…It didn’t work.”

“At least you tried,” said the snorunt who had been speaking previously. She sounded a bit regretful, even ashamed. “But anyway, yeah. Next thing I knew, I woke up somewhere else, and I thought I’d always been there.”

Zdir nodded in acknowledgment, drawing and releasing a deep breath with a look of disappointment. “Is that what all of you remember, more or less?” she asked, at which the snorunt all nodded in near-unison.

“I’m sorry I can’t remember any more about it,” another of them said quietly, earnestly.

Zdir’s features softened a bit. “That’s okay,” she assured her. “It’s not your fault.”

There was a quick flash in her eyes, and a small pile of snow appeared just beside her. She moved back a bit, and Oth went over to her side a moment later. “Eat,” Zdir told the snorunt. “You’ve certainly earned it.” Four of the snorunt obliged right away, with the rest only hesitating briefly before digging in. She watched them for a moment, then turned to face most of the other glalie.

<Are there any among you who have not successfully hunted in the past couple of days?> Oth asked.

That question seized Solonn’s attention at once. His eyes widening slightly, he looked over the snorunt, not knowing for sure how they might react to such a question… but found them all just sitting there and eating snow, giving no indication that they’d even heard the last thing Oth had said. Oth had transmitted the message to the glalie alone.

Solonn had to stop and think about Oth’s question for a moment. The last few relatively mundane hours preceding the hell that had broken loose in Virc-Dho were hard to reach. He finally managed to remember having hunted shortly before he’d gone to sleep the night before the attack, and he was fairly sure that fell within the time frame Oth had just inquired about. He looked back toward the claydol and shook his head.

Someone else had apparently done the opposite; <I am afraid you will have to make do with ice until the children have returned to Virc-Dho,> Oth said. <Zdir believes that hunting in their presence might disturb them too greatly. She wishes for them to remain as calm as possible, for the sake of their safety and our own.>

That made sense—no one needed to be losing their heads at a time like this. Solonn just hoped that no one, including himself, would be weakened too much by the lack of proper food. Ice could occupy the stomach, could pacify hunger to a degree, but without meat, the glalie in the party would start getting weak and sick before too much longer.

Solonn conjured up a moderately sized block of ice in front of himself. The rest of the glalie served themselves likewise. Though he still felt oddly disconnected from the hunger he ought to be feeling by now, he started in on the ice right away, trying not to eat too slowly. The party should and probably would move on before much longer.

As he fed, he saw Oth and Zdir make their way over to Narzen, who looked up from his ice with a questioning expression. Narzen maintained eye contact with Oth, and he nodded a couple of times over the seconds that followed. His expression changed from vague disappointment to something that suggested he was intrigued by something, and then to something that looked rather eager.

Oth and Zdir then moved away from Narzen, leaving Solonn to wonder what that silent, one-sided conversation had been about. That question moved aside when he saw Oth and Zdir stop in front of Zilag and start up a similar conversation with him.

Solonn frowned in puzzlement, wondering what the two of them—or rather just Zdir, he imagined—could’ve seen fit to discuss one-on-one with the others rather than saying it to the entire party at once. He suspected they weren’t discussing the same thing with Zilag as they had with Narzen, however; Zdir had a more serious expression while Oth spoke to Zilag, and this conversation wore on longer than the last.

It was all too clear that the topic was unsettling Zilag to some degree. But at the same time, Zilag seemed to respond affirmatively to every silent question, and Zdir looked satisfied with those responses.

The two drifted away from Zilag and back to the snorunt. Zilag still looked troubled, and Solonn felt an urge to go over to him and ask what that had been all about.

But before he could, <Zdir wishes to know if anyone else among you wants to stay in Virc-Dho when we return the children,> Oth spoke up.

Solonn was shaking his head before he’d realized he was doing so. He was a fugitive, and a fairly recognizable one at that. Showing his face in the warren was a bad idea, and he got the distinct, unpleasant feeling that it would be for a long time—possibly forever, much as he hated to consider it.

<Very well, then,> Oth said. <If any of you change your minds later, please let me know. Even if we have already returned the children by that point, we will help you get back to the warren.>

Zdir looked pleased enough with the silent answers the rest of the glalie had given her, returning her attention to her ice and sending no further messages through Oth for the time being.

Solonn, meanwhile, was less at ease with the matter. Something in the way Oth had asked about it had struck him and struck him hard: if anyone else among you wishes to be left in Virc-Dho, they’d said. Perhaps by “anyone else” they’d been referring to Zdir, but he promptly dismissed the thought; Zdir had the same good reason not to return that he had, and he was sure she knew it. Instead he suspected that Oth was referring to Narzen and Zilag—that the matter of whether or not they wanted to go back to Virc-Dho was what those private conversations had been about, and that they’d both said “yes”.

This didn’t really come as a surprise, at least not where Zilag was concerned. Of course Zilag would want to go back home to his family. Solonn just wasn’t sure if it would really be safe for Zilag or anyone else in the party to do so.

Once again, he’d remembered the lahain knowing his name back in the council chamber, and once again, he’d wondered just what else the Virc authorities saw fit to know. This time, however, it had occurred to him that maybe they already knew whom he associated with. If they did know such things, then the authorities would likely look to those associates for any information that might help them track down the fugitives. And if they decided those associates weren’t cooperating enough to suit them… Solonn swallowed hard, feeling as though the rest of his ice had just tried to force itself down his throat at once.

But then something else crossed his mind: Zdir had been one of them. Part of the council. She likely knew what they knew, in which case she’d probably know whether or not Zilag and Narzen would be in that kind of danger. And if they were, then she wouldn’t let them go home, would she?

That, he couldn’t answer. He sort of figured she wouldn’t, given how she hadn’t been able to stand the thought of leaving innocent people trapped in the Security Guild’s custody. Still, the possibility that Zilag and Narzen might face trouble from the guild upon returning sent fresh currents of worry through his nerves.

That was yet another reason to hope Oth would be able to teleport again soon, as if they needed any more. If anyone who decided to stay in Virc-Dho got thrown into the Security Guild’s cells, he could see no other feasible way to free them.

<We will now resume our journey toward Virc-Dho,> Oth said, sounding regretful, and telekinetically gathered up the children once more. As the other glalie began to rise and cluster around the snorunt, Solonn hurriedly finished his ice, then quickly got up to join the others. The party and their charges departed the cavern and went back out into the unknown, with Solonn still concerned about what might happen after reaching their destination in addition to what might happen on the way there.

The party backtracked to the fork in the road, taking the other route this time. Not long afterward, they were met with another fork and subsequently ran into another dead end, but they didn’t stop there, and they only made a brief stop for necessities at the third dead end they encountered.

Meanwhile, nothing of their surroundings looked familiar in the least, and no one had given any indication that they recognized anything around them since Zdir had. Maybe that wasn’t the place she thought it was after all, Solonn considered dismally. It truly seemed that they were traveling blind at this point—and there was the chance, he couldn’t help but consider, that they were headed straight for the Sinaji’s lair.

That thought sent a fresh bolt of fear into him. Before he had long to dwell on it, however, <Solonn! This place… we have been here, have we not?>

Being addressed directly when he hadn’t been expecting it startled him at first; he threw a gaze about, but couldn’t seem to connect any of what he saw to anything he could remember.

Then his wits congealed once more, his eyes widening, and he nodded at Oth as he realized that yes, he and the claydol had been here before, and recently at that. He’d been here alone several times beforehand, as a matter of fact. This was simply his first time looking at it from this angle.

Oth had moved to the front of the party and was now leading them toward an irregularity in the path ahead, which turned out to be a large, deep hole in the floor. The party had managed to stumble upon Grosh’s home.

Oth came to a stop at the edge of the pit, and they once again relinquished their hold over the children. <Be careful not to fall in,> they warned them.

The claydol leaned forward, peering down into the hole in silence. Next to them, Zdir was doing likewise, wearing a look of contemplation. She nodded at something no one but the two of them could hear.

<Solonn… do you suppose your father would mind if we were to take shelter here while he is away?> Oth asked.

Solonn quickly realized where Oth was going with this. When he and Oth had been on their way to visit Grosh, he’d told them how the steelix had remained undisturbed in that hole for so many years. If such a creature had stayed hidden there for so long, then maybe the party could avoid being noticed there, too.

Solonn figured Grosh would have no problem at all with them using his home to stay safe—if anything, the steelix would be elated to know that he could help them, even if only in some distant, indirect way.

Gods… he’d be happy just to know we’re alive, he recognized, which made him rather heartsick. Solonn nodded to Oth in response to their question, silently praying that the steelix he answered for would reunite with his home and what remained of his family before much longer.

<All right, then,> the claydol said. <I have proposed that we stop here to rest for a while, longer than any of our previous stops,> they announced, which earned a groan from one of the snorunt. <This—> They gestured toward the hole with one of their turret-hands, the other still clutching the herbs that they’d gathered to their chest. <—has been the home of one of our allies for many years. He is elsewhere at this time, but I have assurances that he would not mind us staying here in his absence.

<Given a bit more time to rest, I may finally be able to teleport us to the warren. I sincerely hope that I will be. If not, that tunnel,> Oth said, pointing toward a passageway off to the left, <ultimately leads back to Virc-Dho, but fear not—it is a scarcely-traveled route. People virtually never come here. Our hope is that we may be able to avoid notice here, or at least likelier to avoid it than we might be anywhere else that we can presently reach.>

In truth, that’s all it was: a hope. Still, it was better than nothing, and Solonn reckoned that a good, long rest really could help the claydol recover. That would make the final phase of their rescue mission much easier to pull off without any further trouble. And resting out of sight in that pit was certainly preferable to doing so out in the open.

An ice platform appeared, covering the hole in the floor. Solonn looked to Zdir, saw the brightened light in her eyes, and figured she was responsible for it.

She moved out onto the platform once it was level with the floor, and Ronal followed her, but she shook her head when Solonn and Zereth tried to do likewise.

<Zdir and Ronal wish to make sure no one else is down there before the children are allowed to descend, just in case,> Oth explained.

As Solonn watched the platform slowly carry Zdir and Ronal downward, the light from the two glalie’s eyes dwindling as they went deeper into the chasm, a thread of concern for them uncurled in his mind despite the fact that he still doubted they’d find anyone down there. He didn’t question Zdir’s choice on the matter; he understood that no one else here—not even Oth, really—had as much reason as he did to believe this place was so rarely disturbed. Now that he thought about it, it occurred to him that maybe he was taking the safety of the pit before him for granted.

Before long, though, <They confirm that it is empty,> Oth said, and the platform rose again as the claydol spoke. There was no one on it as it ascended; Zdir and Ronal had presumably gone into the chamber next to the chasm.

Since the platform was too small to bring everyone else down in a single trip, Oth directed Narzen and Zilag to go and sit down on it next. The claydol went to hover over their heads, assuring the glalie that they’d attend to the snorunt on this descent and assuring the snorunt that they wouldn’t drop any of them in the process. Only a couple of the snorunt looked comforted by the claydol’s words as the fuchsia aura surrounded the children once more, and one of them failed to bite back a whimper as they drifted downward through the air after the sinking platform. Not long after, the platform rose once more, and the rest of the party rode it into the depths.

Grosh’s home lacked some of its familiarity as Solonn now beheld it. With more people gathered in the chamber further inside than he’d ever seen there before, it seemed smaller than he remembered. It was much brighter as well, with the light from so many eyes illuminating it.

“When can we leave?” one of the snorunt asked.

<We will leave once we have all had a chance to rest properly,> Oth answered.

The snorunt who’d just spoken frowned. “But I don’t like this. I don’t like hiding in a hole when we could be going home. You said you knew where home is, right?”

“We do,” Zdir said. “But Oth might not be feeling well. They might be hurt. We want to give them a chance to recover before we continue.”

The snorunt narrowed his eyes slightly, holding Zdir’s gaze, looking as though he were trying to decide whether he liked her response well enough or not. Finally, shooting a glance at Oth, “You’d better hurry up and get better,” he said, then stalked off to sit against the wall. Several of the other snorunt seated themselves as well, as did most of the glalie.

<In the event that I… do not recover during our time here or at any other point prior to our arrival at Virc-Dho,> Oth said, another of those psychic transmissions that excluded the children, <we have decided on an alternate means of getting the children beyond its border. For their safety, Narzen has agreed to escort them into the warren. He has also agreed to having a link established with me prior to doing so. This will allow him to keep us informed of happenings within the warren.>

Out of the corner of his eye, Solonn saw Zereth shudder slightly. A bit to the right, he saw Narzen with that odd, eager look on his face again—it seemed that Zdir had approached the right person about being the party’s eyes and ears back in Virc-Dho.

At any rate, Solonn was starting to like the thought of them having one of their own in that position. They could know if Narzen were in trouble, either through his transmissions via Oth or the conspicuous lack thereof, and Narzen could also tell them if anyone else who chose to stay in the warren was in any trouble.

He’ll have other things to keep an eye on, Solonn had to tell himself. He can’t spend the entire time guarding Zilag and his family.

<For now, we should try to rest as soon as we can,> Oth went on; the children apparently heard them this time, all of them turning to face the claydol. <One of us will keep watch at all times, and we will take shifts. Who wishes to go first?>

“I’ll do it,” Ronal said simply, rising, and he moved over to sit in the imperfect archway separating the two chambers.

<The moment you feel too tired to focus on your surroundings correctly, wake someone else,> Oth told him. Zdir shot them a glance. <Someone other than me,> they added.

Oth set about trying to fall asleep right away then, and the blue light filling the room gradually dimmed as most of the glalie and snorunt eventually followed suit. Solonn lay there, eyes closed, but remained awake as the time passed. Concerns about the party’s future and Jen and Grosh’s present, and even the knowledge that he probably wouldn’t get to sleep for long before someone prodded him awake, kept him too preoccupied to sleep. Above him, unbeknownst to him, ice crept over the ceiling, and the thoughts that attended him marred its surface with aimless, crooked lines that kept abruptly changing direction as if twitching.

At some point, he gave up trying to sleep for the time being. The moment he sat back up and opened his eyes, there was Zereth.

“You want to go next?” Zereth whispered.

Solonn glanced at the archway and found it unoccupied. Ronal was lying nearby, seemingly asleep, and Solonn realized that it was Zereth who was just finishing his shift. Solonn hadn’t noticed when Zereth had relieved Ronal of watch duties; he wondered if any others’ shifts had come and gone without him noticing.

Hoping he’d be more attentive in the task that was being offered to him, Solonn nodded and rose, taking his position in the archway. He tried to stay focused on the unoccupied chamber before him in case anything unwelcome descended into it, but only mostly succeeded.

It helped somewhat that some part of him was already dwelling on the possibility of someone finding them. It also helped that every so often, as he gazed out into the emptiness in front of him, he thought he heard scraping, rustling, or some other noise that compelled him to investigate. Every furtive look that he stole up the chasm showed him nothing, leaving him to chalk each of those sounds up to his mind playing tricks on him. Still, no matter how many times it happened, the first thing that crossed his mind whenever he heard something was the chance that they might have company.

“Hey. Been on watch for very long?”

The words were only whispered, but they sent a jolt through Solonn as if they’d been screeched right in his ear. He bit back a hiss and turned to identify the speaker—it was Zilag—then turned back to stare into the empty chamber once more.

“I don’t know,” Solonn admitted just as voicelessly. He heard Zilag sit down beside him. “I don’t feel like sleeping in the least, though. I think I can stay here a while longer. Go ahead and get some more sleep for now, if you want.”

“Hm. Don’t really feel much like sleeping right now myself, to be honest,” Zilag said. “Besides which… I don’t know. I guess I just kind of feel like you could use as much of a break as you can get after… well, you know. Especially considering what the folks back home decided to do to you and Oth and your dad afterward.”

Solonn turned a surprised glance toward Zilag, but that surprise faded quickly as he realized when and how Zilag must’ve learned about the lahain’s decision. “Zdir and Oth told you about that, didn’t they?” he asked, at which Zilag nodded. “And you believe what they said, right?” Solonn asked, unable to help himself, hearkening back to the way Zilag had spoken before leaving home.

Zilag sighed. “I’ll be honest with you: if your dad were anyone, anything else, I’d be a bit more skeptical. But I know how they feel about him, how… how deep it is, you know? Hell, I even felt a little bit of it myself the first time you took me to see him,” he admitted, looking away guiltily.

“Mm,” Solonn responded dismissively to that. “Don’t worry about that; I used to feel that, too. But anyway… since you do know what happened… what had to be done,” he said carefully, “you know they’ll surely want information at the very least, and they’re likely to see you as a good source. And if they don’t like your answers, they might…” He swallowed, suddenly especially concerned that his next words would make him sound paranoid, less credible. “They might just decide against taking chances and just put you out of commission, same as they did with me.”

“Yeah, she told me that, too. She says she doesn’t think they’re too likely to do that, but she wanted me to know they might, said she couldn’t in good conscience let me go without me knowing what I might be getting myself into.

“And I won’t lie: she had me pretty worried there for a moment, and there’s part of me that still is,” Zilag said. “But… well, I gave it thought; don’t think for a moment I didn’t. It’s been in and out of my head this whole time since, in fact. And what occurred to me is that yes, going back’s a risk, but so’s staying out here. Who’s to say that someone—maybe even the folks back home—won’t find us somewhere out here? If anything, honestly, it would probably look worse for me if I were found along with all of you than if I were approached alone.”

Solonn’s eyes widened slightly; that angle hadn’t occurred to him. “Gods, it might…” he agreed.

“And besides which…” Zilag went on, “besides which, Hiledas and the kids are still back there. I know that Hiledas at the very least is probably worrying herself sick about me, and Katir might be starting to get worried by now, too. Even Ryneika might be starting to sense that things are off. I can’t let them go on worrying about me for much longer, Solonn. I just can’t.”

Solonn nodded in solemn understanding. His own thoughts drifted out toward Mordial, toward the steelix who was surely fretting both for him and for Jen at that very moment, and he winced at the pang of guilt that those thoughts brought.

“Just… be careful, all right?” he said.

“You know I have no intentions of doing otherwise,” Zilag responded.

“Hm…” Solonn didn’t question that in the least, but he found it hard to be confident that Zilag’s caution would suffice. What he really wanted was for Zilag not to have to be so careful at all, and the only way such a thing seemed possible at this point was for Zilag and his family to be relocated.

“Maybe,” he said, “when Oth has recovered… if they recover,” he forced himself to add, much as he didn’t want to, “we could get you and your family out of there. You could leave Virc-Dho for somewhere safer.”

Zilag’s eyes flickered a bit, and he nodded slightly. “Well… we’ll get all this sorted out when the time comes, all right? My family, yours, these kids here… we’ll get it all taken care of. In the meantime, go and try to get yourself some rest,” he suggested gently. “I’ll go ahead and take over for you.”

Solonn hesitated at first, but then nodded in acquiescence and returned to the chamber where the others slept, still doubting as he sat back down that he’d see any sleep that night.

When he rolled onto his back and his eyes met the ceiling once more, he saw what he’d unknowingly done up there. Solonn looked at the patterns, the results of him unconsciously reaching out to his mother element for solace, and decided, albeit only half-wittingly, to seek his element once more. Hopefully he could vanish into it as he’d done so many times before—no thoughts for a little while, no fears, just that connection. In doing so, maybe he’d finally get some rest.

A short time later, the room got just a little darker.
 
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The Vulture Queen
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*sigh*

Necessary breather chapter before The Dragon Returns. The Walrein scene was good and I guess that it was necessary, but... I don't know. There wasn't anything terribly compelling in there. It's the sort of thing I wouldn't mind if I was binge-reading but being asked to comment just on it specifically will lead me to overestimate its impact on the story. The style was still good and nothing got derailed, at least, so it's about as good as you can hope for in Necessary Exposition/Plot Fulfillment.
 
*aromatisse noise*
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@Melissa et al Glad it did a good job of doing its job, heh. Especially with regards to the walrein scene, which i remember being hella uncertain about back when I was originally writing it. Which, in retrospect, was probably just because it was a chapter opener, and I'm pretty much always less confident when I start a chapter than I am near the end, heh.

______________

Chapter 30 – Take Care


Solonn opened his eyes. It seemed he’d been right about being unable to sleep for the time being. Sighing in resignation, he sat up yet again. Soon after, he took to looking in a different direction every so often, figuring it couldn’t hurt to have an extra pair of eyes watching over the party.

He looked out toward the exit, and at the same time, the glalie hovering there looked back into the chamber where everyone else still lay sleeping. It was Zereth who was currently keeping watch, and this struck Solonn as odd in a detached way; hadn’t Zereth already done his shift? But the strangeness of the situation vanished from Solonn’s mind before it could truly light there, and the fact that Zereth didn’t actually seem to see him couldn’t quite take root there, either.

The loud scraping noise that broke the silence in the next moment had no trouble seizing his attention at all, and it sent a spike of terror straight into his heart.

Much faster than he’d ever seen anyone make the descent, an ice platform brought a group of strangers down into the adjacent chamber. Zereth, still facing away from the shaft leading upward, seemed completely oblivious to their arrival—Solonn opened his mouth to alert him and the rest of the party, but couldn’t get a single syllable out before the intruders poured through the archway, far more than could fit on a single platform, filling the space around them with their eyelight. As if he were vaporized, Zereth simply vanished as they rushed past him.

Solonn tried to shout again, bringing up a protect aura to surround himself and attempting a
nhaza against one of the attackers as he did so, but neither his voice nor his powers answered his summons. Feeling his heart rate easily triple, he tried charging at one of the invading glalie instead—only to find that he couldn’t move.

On the verge of panic, Solonn made attempt after attempt to rise and defend the party and children however he could, but he still couldn’t move an inch or command any of his abilities. The intruders didn’t seem to notice him struggling there at all, but before his eyes, he saw them smash and tear into everyone else. Cries of pain and fear rang out, and the air became heavy with blood mist, and all the while he couldn’t do anything—


The horrible picture before Solonn’s eyes abruptly changed into an entirely different scene. Still, there was a delay before he truly recognized that there was no one there who shouldn’t be, that barring anything that might still be wrong with Oth, everyone around him was all right.

Oh, thank the gods… he thought, taking a deep breath of blessedly clear, mist-free air in an attempt to calm nerves that still couldn’t quite believe the dream was over, feeling his pulse reluctantly slowing back down.

“Come on, move aside,” he heard Zdir say quietly. He turned and saw her gently shepherding the snorunt closer to the walls, clearing a space in the middle of the room where she soon conjured another small snow pile.

<The rest of you should feed yourselves, as well,> Oth said, and the tone of their mindvoice told all too clearly that a night’s rest hadn’t replenished their power as they’d hoped. <We will be heading back out into the caverns above soon.>

Solonn looked at the claydol with dismay for a couple of moments. Something inside him offered up a silent reminder that it had been less than a day since Oth had lost the ability to teleport. Maybe it wouldn’t be much longer before they recovered. Still, the possibility that they simply wouldn’t recover seemed to loom larger than ever. So did the possibility that he’d never see Grosh or Jen again, and that anyone who ran into trouble in the warren would be unreachable.

He still didn’t know for sure if anyone else who’d decide to go back home was aware of the potential threat posed by the Virc authorities. There was a chance that Zdir might have warned them during those private conversations back in the warren; though he’d been within partial earshot of them, he’d had too much on his mind at the time to pay any real attention to what they were saying. At the very least, she might have had Oth run that matter by Narzen.

Still, he had to be sure. He approached Zdir, who turned a questioning gaze up at him at once.

“There’s something I need to know,” he said, whispering.

Zdir raised an eyebrow. “And that is…?”

“The others… do they know?” he asked. “About what was done to Father and to Oth and me, I mean. About what certain people might want from them, considering who they associate with.”

“Of course they do,” Zdir assured him. “All of them, including your friend. I made certain.”

A small wave of relief washed over Solonn. “Thank you,” he said.

“You’re welcome. Now go on, get yourself fed so we can move out soon.”

Solonn did as he was advised, and once again he found himself having to rush to finish when everyone else was ready to go. Soon, Zdir and Ronal were riding an ice platform back up toward the surface, and it wasn’t long before everyone else had come up, as well. With that, the party set off, leaving Grosh’s home behind.

Apart from a pair of zubat who immediately turned tail and fled as they drew near, they encountered no other living souls as they closed more and more of the remaining distance to Virc-Dho. In passing through the former walrein territory again, they found it empty save for scattered shells of some unknown marine creature, just like last time.

Perhaps the walrein and sealeo they’d run into the day before had come from here. Solonn wondered if such creatures really could have moved so far since the last time he’d been here prior to the attack, which hadn’t been terribly long before—from what he’d seen, they were rather ungainly. Meant more for the water than for the land, his mother had said of them once.

Then it occurred to him that the walrein and their people might have already departed the area sometime before he’d brought Oth along to visit Grosh—as he thought about it, he didn’t remember giving terribly much mind to his surroundings at the time, knowing the path by heart and being fairly preoccupied with conversation en route.

Solonn hoped the former inhabitants of this place really had just relocated of their own accord, by their own power. The possibility, however remote, that they might’ve been whisked away by some unknown teleporter in league with the Sinaji still brought a shudder whenever he thought of it.

There eventually came a point where he could see that the path up ahead was crossed by another, a landmark Solonn recognized as a sign that they were nearing the border-cavern. But before they could reach that intersection, <Raise your shields and retreat at once!> Oth called out suddenly, and Solonn didn’t hesitate in the slightest to obey that command—he’d seen what provoked it himself. There’d been glalie passing by through the tunnel that crossed their path, heading for Virc-Dho. The intersection had been just far enough ahead that there was still some hope that the party hadn’t been spotted; nonetheless, they swiftly moved more than half the distance from it again before Oth indicated that they could stop.

Some of the blue eyes that surrounded the claydol cast questioning gazes at them or at Zdir, while others warily eyed the intersection from which they’d all just fled. <Zdir recognized those glalie as members of the Security Guild,> Oth said to the glalie alone. To everyone present, they said, <There were some people up ahead, and we could not tell for certain whether they were friend or foe. Since they are heading toward Virc-Dho, we will wait here for a brief while before proceeding, long enough to put some more distance between them and us. Hopefully we will avoid any more close calls with them.>

Solonn continued to stare at the intersection ahead, more than half-expecting the guild members or someone else he didn’t want to run into to appear there at any moment, but minutes passed with no such thing happening. Eventually, Oth indicated that Zdir felt it was safe to continue.

When they reached the mouth of the narrow, curving passageway that led into the border-cavern, however, voices sounded from the chamber beyond. Moving ahead now would once again put them at risk of being noticed by the wrong people.

Solonn expected Oth to command them to turn back, but no such instructions came. Putting his protect ability on standby, he turned toward Zdir and found her with that familiar look of deep thought on her face. He frowned, hoping to all gods that she’d decide what the party was going to do quickly, all too aware that the owners of those voices could choose to head their way at any moment.

He caught movement out of the corner of his eye, but it was only Zilag nodding at something. Solonn was immediately sure that Zdir had just had Oth tell Zilag something, and he wondered what it could have been.

<Zdir is going to try and listen in on the conversation in the border cavern from out of sight to try to identify the nature of the speakers,> the claydol announced; once again, they spoke only to the glalie. <If she is able to determine that there are Security Guild members among them and no Sinaji, she will send the children ahead on their own into the border cavern and the guild’s custody. Narzen will stay with us, and I will be establishing a link with Zilag instead. We will allow some time to pass between sending the children into the border cavern and sending Zilag into the warren—hopefully this will reduce the likelihood of anyone believing that he had anything to do with them.>

Solonn stared at Oth for a second, surprised by the change of plans. His eyes darted to Narzen and then Zilag—the former didn’t look nearly as disappointed as Solonn had expected, given how keen Narzen had seemed on the previous plan. Apparently, however much that idea had appealed to Narzen, the idea of staying out with the fugitives appealed to him even more. Zilag looked less at ease, but the fact that he’d consented to the link at all gave Solonn the impression that he was entirely over any mistrust he might’ve held for the claydol, or at least almost entirely over it. Solonn managed to send a small, approving smile his way.

Zdir proceeded into the curving tunnel, and several moments that felt like several minutes passed with her out of sight. Come on, hurry before someone finds us here… he urged her, shooting a quick glance back toward the other entrance to the cavern they presently occupied, still fully aware that the glalie in the border cavern weren’t the only ones the party had to worry about.

But before much longer Zdir returned, looking fairly relieved. Soon thereafter, Oth set the children back on their feet, and the fuchsia aura that had surrounded them vanished. <The voices coming from up ahead belong to Security Guild members,> Oth said, their mindvoice sounding just as relieved as Zdir had sounded, and the way the snorunt all looked up at Oth when they spoke told that they hadn’t excluded the children this time.

The claydol lowered their head slightly toward the snorunt. <What all of you—> Their free hand drifted away from the rest of their body and drew an invisible circle encompassing the children alone. <—need to do now is to go to them. We will remain outside and make sure that no one who poses any danger to you can come in. Now go,> they instructed the snorunt with a waving motion of their still-detached hand. <Hurry, while they are still in there.>

A couple of the small, gray faces that had been staring up at Oth looked with uncertainty upon the claydol for a moment, but soon their owners were rushing to catch up with the rest of the snorunt, who were now running into the passageway toward the border-cavern. In nearly the instant that the last of them disappeared around the bend, <Get back out of here as fast as you can manage,> Oth instructed the rest of the party. The claydol was rushing forward away from the border-cavern even as they spoke, and all of the glalie immediately followed suit at the claydol’s command.

They put a fair amount of distance between themselves and the border-cavern, stopping at Oth’s signal at the point where the path first branched. There, they positioned themselves just within one of the tunnels leading out from the fork, simultaneously watching over the furthest point from Virc-Dho through which all traffic must pass and the tunnel back to the border-cavern. They waited there for a while, giving the guild members at the border a chance to deal with what had just run into their midst.

Solonn gazed out over the heads in front of him toward Virc-Dho. He hoped the children had gotten safely into the Security Guild’s figurative hands and were now being reunited with their families, or at least that they’d be reunited with them soon.

Then it finally, truly hit him that some of them might not have families to return to any longer, and he turned away involuntarily as another wave of heartsickness rolled over him.

Eventually, <It should be all right to proceed now. Zilag, are you ready?> Oth asked, at which Zilag nodded from just inside the entrance to the cavern ahead of them. There was a flash of light in the claydol’s eyes that signified their telepathic connection with Zdir being broken, followed almost immediately by another that signified a new link being forged with Zilag. <It is done,> Oth told Zilag. <We are now connected.>

Zilag found that confirmation unnecessary; he was sure he’d sensed something entering his perception but staying just out of reach. It was like a memory he couldn’t quite recall, but with one difference: he could tell that it most definitely wasn’t of his own mind.

Trying not to let that foreignness distract him too much, he instead opted to test the connection. <Can you hear this?> he asked.

<Technically no, but I am receiving your message.>

Zilag couldn’t help but nearly laugh, wondering if Oth had actually intended any joke there. <Guess it’s time for me to head out, then, huh?> he asked.

<Yes,> Oth responded.

<Okay,> Zilag acknowledged, but didn’t depart right away. He held the rest of the party in his gaze for a few moments more, seeing varying degrees of concern and unspoken well-wishes in the faces there, with the eyelight particularly unsteady and the brows drawn tightly together on the largest face among them. <Tell them goodbye for me,> Zilag said. <And tell them not to worry too much about me; I’ll take care of myself. You all just concentrate on taking care of yourselves, okay?>

Oth relayed the message, drawing acknowledging nods from the other party members. Satisfied as he could be that he was ready to part ways with them, Zilag then turned away and began making his way back toward the warren alone.

<There may well still be Security Guild members in the border-cavern when you arrive there,> Oth told him as he traveled, <even if the ones we saw going in earlier have gone further inside since the children joined them. Zdir believes that there may be guards posted at the entrance now and that they were the ones who were speaking with the guild members we saw.>

Zilag absorbed this with very little surprise; he’d been steeling himself as best as he could to deal with Security Guild members ever since Zdir had told him that they might take an interest in him. <So I should probably just expect there will be, then. But I shouldn’t act like I expected to find them there if there are.>

<Correct,> Oth responded.

<Okay, then… They’re probably gonna want to know what I’ve been up to out here, right?>

<Most assuredly. You are advised to tell them that you had gone out hunting.>

<Yeah, that’s what I’d planned to do,> Zilag said. He’d been rehearsing the lie in his head from time to time since the evening prior. He just hoped to all gods that if anyone had been questioning Hiledas in his absence, she hadn’t told them anything that would clash with his story. <I’m gonna tell them I couldn’t find anything, though. I just don’t trust my stomach to keep quiet enough for them to believe me otherwise. Gods, I can’t wait to get some real food again…>

It wasn’t long before Zilag found himself approaching the barrier at the entrance; <All right, I’m here,> he sent back to Oth. It appeared there were indeed guards posted there; three glalie hovered before the barrier, and while none of them made a move to intercept him, their eyes followed him keenly as he drew nearer.

Hoping he looked sufficiently surprised to see them there, “Uh… what’s going on?” he asked as he came to a stop a couple of feet in front of them, wearing a perplexed frown.

None of the guards answered the question, at least not right away. “How long have you been out?” one of them asked, though not harshly. “And what have you been doing?”

Zilag had expected to be hit with questions upon his arrival, though the fact that he’d managed to get one in first did surprise him somewhat. “Too long,” he answered, half-sighing. “I was out hunting… or trying to, anyway. Went out late the night before last and found not a damn thing since. Had to sleep out there and everything.”

There was a moment of silence and a very brief look exchanged amongst the guards. “You’re lucky to have woken up,” another of the guards said seriously. “The steel creature and the psychic escaped while you were gone.”

Zilag’s eyes widened dramatically. “What? Oh gods, my family…” he said at once. “Are they all right? I need to get in there—”

He’d made a move toward the barrier as he’d spoken, trying to vaporize it as he did so, but the barrier remained fully intact, and the guards moved in unison to block him. “Your family is fine, I assure you,” the second guard said. “There have been no further attacks since the prisoners escaped.”

Zilag didn’t have to fabricate the relief in his expression. “Oh, thank the gods…” he murmured.

“Now, I’m sorry you weren’t successful in your hunt,” the first guard spoke up then, “but we’re going to have to ask that you don’t go out and try again on your own, at least not anytime soon, all right? It’s not safe for just anyone to travel alone right now. You’ll need to go with the next hunting party.”

“Okay,” Zilag said, nodding, “okay.” He looked questioningly at the barrier, hoping he’d be let in soon. He wasn’t altogether certain that the guards were buying his story, and every moment he spent with them made him ever so slightly less comfortable around them. He was somewhat grateful for his unease, though, and didn’t make any real effort to hide it at this point, hoping that any nervousness they noticed would be interpreted as an appropriate reaction to having just learned about the escape.

The barrier vanished, but before he could enter the warren, “I’m going to be going home with you, all right?” the first guard said. “Like I said, it’s not safe for just anyone to travel alone right now.”

Zilag nodded in acceptance, unsurprised and figuring he had no real choice in the matter anyway, especially given that the guard had decided on his destination for him. He only hoped that by “going home with you”, the guard simply meant that he’d be escorting Zilag back to his family’s place of residence and not staying with them for any length of time.

Zilag entered Virc-Dho, his escort following, the barrier immediately reforming behind them once they were past it. <I’m being escorted home,> he told Oth. <Looks like Zdir was right about them not wanting to leave me entirely alone. They haven’t acted blatantly suspicious of me yet, though—not that I imagine they would, of course. They’re just claiming concern for me, what with the escape and everything.>

<There does remain a chance that they genuinely do not suspect you,> Oth responded. <Still, remain cautious. Continue to do as you have been advised and you may yet avoid trouble.>

Zilag heard the guard behind him draw a rather deep breath and felt something inside him tense as if anticipating a strike, but the guard only spoke. “I’m afraid I have something to tell you that you’re not going to like hearing,” he said.

Zilag stopped, careful not to turn to face his escort too quickly, and gave him a troubled look. “Oh?”

The guard sighed. “You’re friends with a Mr. Solonn Zgil-Al, right?”

There was no use in denying it; as Zilag had been told, the authorities certainly knew who associated with those they didn’t trust, and the fact that the guard had asked such a question seemed to confirm it. Zilag nodded.

“Have you seen him recently?” the guard asked.

“Well, I saw him at the service,” Zilag said quietly, “but I haven’t seen him since then, no. Why do you ask? What’s going on?”

“Well, we think he might have been the one who freed the steel creature and the psychic. Now, I know you might not want to believe that, but there’s something you need to consider: if it was him, odds are he wasn’t doing it of his own accord. We think he’s under some kind of psychic control.”

Zilag cast his gaze to the icy floor, his brow furrowed, trying to look deep in thought. “This… this wouldn’t be the first time he’s run into trouble with something psychic,” he said, slipping a hint of dawning epiphany into his tone.

“No, it wouldn’t,” the guard said. “We do have reason to believe that the same thing that took him way back when is responsible for what’s going on now. They’ve even returned the children they stole, just like they brought him back.”

Zilag’s gaze shot back up to meet the guard’s, the light in his eyes brightening. “Really?”

“Just earlier today,” the guard confirmed.

“Oh, that’s good to hear…” Zilag said with a sigh of relief. He then turned back around and continued toward home. “At least something’s gone right lately…”

“Well, we don’t intend to let anything else go wrong if we can help it.” The guard’s tone suggested that he was trying to be lighthearted, but there was also something vaguely affronted-sounding in his voice, which sent a little wisp of worry through Zilag; had he said something he shouldn’t have? “Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that Solonn’s whereabouts are currently unknown and that if you see him… be careful, all right? He’s probably not himself, and he might attack you. If you see him, you should probably knock him out and call out for help right away. If it turns out he’s not being controlled after all, I’m sure he’ll forgive you if he really is any kind of friend.”

“…Okay,” Zilag said.

Soon after, the two arrived at the Zir-Arda residence. “So this is it, huh?” the guard asked.

“Yeah,” Zilag answered.

“Okay, then. Stay safe, all right?” With those words, the guard backed away a short distance, but he kept his eyes on Zilag.

Figuring the guard wouldn’t leave until he went on in—if indeed he intended to leave at all—Zilag opened the entryway and passed through it, sealing it shut at once. Inside, he found Hiledas holding a troubled and questioning gaze upon him, while Ryneika chased a somewhat irritated-looking Katir around the main room. The young child broke off her pursuit almost immediately when she noticed her father had returned, and she ran up to him with a squeal of joy. Katir smiled at Zilag, grateful to have been rescued from her sister’s pestering.

“We need to talk,” Hiledas said almost inaudibly.

Zilag shot a look back at the entrance. He saw no light beyond it to indicate a glalie lingering immediately outside, but he figured the guard would know better than to be so obvious anyway. Not knowing for sure if his escort was still within hearing range of anything said in the main chamber, and not exactly wanting his children to be privy to the conversation, he merely gave a quick nod and made for the couple’s bedroom. Ryneika tried to follow him in; “No, no. Play with your sister,” Zilag told her, earning a groan from Katir.

Once both Zilag and Hiledas were in the bedroom, the latter moved to hover at the former’s side. “Did you succeed?” she asked right into his ear, still whispering as faintly she could manage while remaining audible.

“Yes,” Zilag said, keeping his voice just as low. While it was true that Jen was still brainwashed in Convergence, Zilag was still confident enough that the snorunt’s memories would be recovered and that the rest of the party would ultimately be able to go back and retrieve him. As such, he considered the rescue mission a success.

“Thank the gods,” Hiledas said as she moved to face Zilag once more, “both for that and for your return.” She sat down. “The authorities came in while you were away,” she then said. “They asked questions, Zilag. They asked where you were and if either of us had seen Solonn lately.”

Zilag swallowed, turning to look her in the eye. “Well… what did you tell them?”

“That you were just out hunting and that the last we saw of Solonn was at the service.”

The light in Zilag’s eyes brightened, and he had to bite back a miniature peal of laughter in the relief he felt. Grinning, he moved forward to press his forehead against Hiledas’s. “Oh, thank the gods you said that…” he breathed happily.

“Well, what did you think I would’ve said?” Hiledas responded as Zilag drifted back once more. “I already could’ve lost you as it was. Do you really think I’d have done anything that could’ve even remotely risked getting you thrown in a cell if you did make it back?” she asked, looking somewhat hurt.

Zilag’s smile faded a bit. “No… no, of course I don’t.” He drew close to her again, his eyes closing, letting his forehead rest against hers once more. “Thanks for taking care of things. I appreciate it,” he said sincerely.

To Oth, he then said, <I’m back home. That guard who was following me may or may not be hanging around outside, but at least he’s not in here with us. I think he might actually trust me—don’t worry, though; I don’t intend to get careless. And Hiledas did get questioned, but her story matches up with mine—and… well, I’m not gonna get careless with her, either. I’ve decided not to tell her about our little connection here.> It had occurred to him that Hiledas might stop trusting him or go to the authorities with his well-being in mind if she found out that he’d come home with a psychic link he hadn’t had before.

<That seems like a prudent course of action,> Oth said. <From what I heard of the conversation that you two held with Solonn, she seemed… somewhat more inclined toward believing that I was responsible for the recent tragedies.>

<Yeah…> Zilag said, with a touch of vicarious guilt in his mindvoice and a further shrinking of his smile. But he also felt something of an urge to defend Hiledas in that moment. <But again, she’s already saved my hide once, so…>

<She most assuredly has,> Oth concurred. <It seems as though you really can take care of yourselves.>

A sense of pride washed over Zilag, and his smile widened once more. <It does, doesn’t it?> he said. Now that there was at least a little more hope that he and his family would be able to carry on without any real harassment from the authorities, he felt much more confident in such claims.

* * *​

<The Security Guild appears to have shifted its focus from maintaining the silence of the witnesses to keeping an eye out for potential threats,> Oth said to the small crowd of glalie gathered before them within the deep chambers that were Grosh’s home. After taking some time to hunt and feed, the party had decided that this would be their refuge, at least for the time being. They’d been there for roughly half a day by this point. <Zilag and Hiledas, as well as friends of the latter, have seen known witnesses to the attack going unescorted and have seen known guild members patrolling the warren, and I am told that guards are indeed now posted at the entrance at all times.>

“I’d figured as much,” Zdir said in the hushed tones that had become the norm for the group, nodding. “At least as far as the shifted focus is concerned, anyway. Now that his prisoners have escaped and Hagen’s been forced to let the people find out as much—to let them recognize that they need to be on the lookout for trouble from other glalie, even if they’re being led to believe that said glalie are merely illusions concealing something else—he’s undoubtedly well beyond the point of feeling like he needs to keep people believing that they’re not in any danger.”

“But Zilag and his family still don’t know for certain whether or not they’re being watched, do they?” Solonn asked.

<I am afraid not,> Oth answered. <Zilag wishes to assure you that both he and Hiledas continue to do their best to keep the possibility of the guild monitoring them in mind at all times, however.>

“Hm…” was Solonn’s only reply to that, sounding less than fully assured. He hadn’t really expected either of them to be careless in dealing with the guild, but the notion of them possibly being watched like that still gave him a degree of gnawing worry and a vicarious sense of indignation.

<He also has mentioned that there are rumors of the Security Guild intending to increase its numbers,> Oth then said. <There has been no official word from the guild on the subject, however. It may only be wishful thinking on the part of the public.>

“Hopefully that rumor will prove to be true. I’ll admit right now that I don’t exactly have the utmost faith in the guild’s current ability to defend the warren. At the very least, a small pack of guards at the entrance isn’t going to keep the Sinaji out if they show up in even a third of the numbers I suspect them to have,” Zdir said grimly.

“Sounds like they’d do best to just do away with the Security Guild,” Narzen mused aloud.

That immediately earned him a couple of bemused and alarmed looks.

“What I mean is, they should probably just train everybody to fight like they do,” he clarified. “Just make everyone one of them, basically. From the way you’re talking,” he said with a glance at Zdir, “it sounds like they’re gonna need practically the entire damn warren to stand a chance against the Sinaji.”

“I don’t imagine that’s literally the case,” Zdir said, “but I do agree that making sure that as many people can defend themselves as possible is something that should happen, yes. And that, incidentally, includes all of us, especially since we still have more than just the Sinaji to be concerned with as long as we remain here.”

“Which is unfortunate,” Ronal said. “I for one would like to have the guild on our side, especially with their numbers bolstered. I’d prefer to take the fight to the Sinaji rather than let them make another move against the warren.”

“Under those circumstances, that might well have become an option,” Zdir said. “As it is, though, we’re still fugitives and accomplices thereof in the guild’s eyes. We may be able to seek out allies once we can be teleported from this place—then, perhaps, we can deal with the Sinaji. For now, however, I don’t imagine that most of us are ready to face more than a stray exile or a guild member or two. You all need to be made ready. You need to be trained to fight for your lives. We need to make damn sure that we’re all truly prepared to face whatever lies ahead of us.”
 
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Chapter 31 – Wisteria


“Zdir…”

Pale eyes turned Solonn’s way, and he thought he detected a hint of weariness about them as though their owner were dealing with a tiresome child.

“Zdir… what if they hadn’t been Sinaji?”

No response, or at least none spoken. Her expression became harder to read.

“What then?” Solonn’s voice lowered of its own accord. “What would we have done?”

A pause. Then, “They could have joined with us if Oth had found them inclined and able to do so. If not…”

The lines of Solonn’s face sharpened further, his eyes narrowing. Something turned to lead inside of him.

“If not,” she resumed, but then sighed. “I think you already know the answer, whatever you feel about it—and for what it’s worth, no, Solonn, I don’t like it, either. I would hope that any Virc who found their way to us in the future would prove to be no liability, but if not…”

She let it hang. Maybe it was the fact that she couldn’t seem to bring herself to speak of it that stopped him from going off on her any further; maybe it made it easier for him to believe that she really did hate it as much as he did, or at least close enough to suit him.

He turned away, closing his eyes against the orange glow of the beams that were vaporizing the lifeless intruders in the adjacent chamber, wishing he could block out the accompanying sound and taste on the air likewise.

* * *​

The days were starting to shorten again. The forest behind was beginning to change its colors, and the river far below was hosting a different set of creatures than before.

To the large, silver figure coiled on the cliff, all of the changes to his surroundings served as reminders of one constant that had persisted since he’d come to southern Mordial. All this time, he’d waited for the burst of golden light that would bring news of what had become of his family. Months later, that light still hadn’t come.

Grosh had feared for Solonn and Jen from the start, but he’d tried to maintain some measure of faith, some hope that the search party had a chance in hell despite Zdir’s estimation that their enemies outnumbered them several to one. He’d known they’d be operating blind for the most part, scouring a network of tunnels that Grosh knew from personal experience was vast and sometimes confusing. Of course it was going to take a while for the party to return, even if things worked out all right in the end.

But even given that, Grosh hadn’t expected for this much time to pass without seeing any of them again. And he’d by no means forgotten what he’d seen back in the Virc temple. Things could have all too easily gone horribly wrong, and he had no way of knowing for sure if they had.

He hated not knowing. He hated being kept across the sea while God only knew what was happening to the last people in the world who meant anything to him. He’d never stopped wishing he could’ve gone with them. But with no small effort, and despite constantly wondering whether or not he was really making the best choice, he’d stayed in roughly the same area where they’d left him. He didn’t want to worry them with his absence should they return.

But the last drops of belief that they still could were starting to dry up. Now his waking thoughts were nearly as certain that something terrible had befallen them as his dreams had been during the past few months. His restlessness had grown as his faith had waned, and so had his hatred of the ones who’d murdered Azvida and stolen one of her sons.

That they could have killed the other—and by now, Grosh couldn’t help but fear, they surely had—sickened him to his core. The notion that Azvida’s dying wish might have been shot down tormented him, and there came a point when he just couldn’t wait around with that torment any longer. He had to act. Maybe it was too late to bring Solonn and Jen back to safety, but perhaps, somehow, he could make the ones responsible answer for what they’d done.

But despite the fact that his agitation was rising by the minute, threatening to fill his mind with haze, he knew he couldn’t do it alone. He couldn’t even get back to Virc-Dho without help, let alone take on what might amount to a miniature nation of glalie and snorunt.

Rising, he turned his back on the river and entered the forest, silently and occasionally not-so-silently cursing the noise he made as he twisted and crawled among the trees. He could hear local pokémon fleeing as he made his way through their territory, no more keen on interacting with the massive metal serpent than they’d been when he’d simply hung around on the outskirts of the forest. Just stopping someone long enough to hear him out about his need for transportation and aid against his enemies was going to be a challenge.

After some time, with no real luck in flagging down anyone who might be able to help him thus far, he saw the forest thinning before him. Not far ahead, a dilapidated highway stretched across his path. He headed toward it, sweeping a glance from left to right over its cracked, faded surface and the weeds sprouting up through its fissures. Where the road led, Grosh couldn’t tell; it extended all the way to the horizon in both directions with no clear destinations in sight.

Before he had any chance to decide whether or not he wanted to try following the road, a piqued instinct took hold of his attention. An elemental telltale was setting off a familiar warning that fanned out across his nerves in an instant, and it was accompanied by a light rumbling in the ground whose source was several yards off in front of him and approaching rather quickly.

Someone was coming, someone who might be useful to his cause… or who might already be aware of his presence, unhappy about it, and intent on driving him off the hard way. Grosh backed off a bit, his eyes trained on the disturbance and following it as it moved despite being unable to actually see its cause. The end of his tail rose off the ground, shining even brighter than usual as he held an iron tail attack at the ready.

Once they were just a couple of feet away from him, whoever was approaching from underground decided to make a proper entrance. The soil exploded upward, and three fuzzy, brown heads popped out into the open air, blinking and twitching their noses under the sunlight. Almost immediately afterward, a section of the street behind the newly surfaced creature burst apart, scattering chunks of asphalt as another dugtrio emerged.

“Oh, so that’s what that was!” said the second of them.

“Certainly wasn’t what I was expecting,” said the first.

“Or, well, not the silveriness, at least. That I wasn’t expecting. But I knew he’d be big.”

“Oh, same here, same here.”

“But he’s not big; he’s huge!”

“I’ll say.”

“Could probably snap one of us up in two bites, I’ll bet.”

“In one bite, even!”

Grosh had no such intentions—he’d even decided against bringing the iron tail down on them, letting the steel-type energy dissipate. But as the two rattled on, he found himself tempted to speak a little less kindly to them than he might’ve otherwise, his spiked segments twisting in impatience and a touch of lingering unease at the presence of the two ground-types.

He held down the outburst trying to shove its way out of his mouth, not wanting to scare them away. Instead, he merely cleared his throat to try and get the two dugtrio’s attention, though that still resulted in a deep, grating rumble that could easily be misinterpreted as a growl.

Thankfully, the noise didn’t register as anything threatening to the dugtrio; all twelve of their eyes locked onto his in unison, and neither of the dugtrio looked terribly worried despite having discussed the possibility of being eaten by the steelix mere moments ago.

“Hm?” the first of them said, cocking one of her heads. “Something you’re wanting from us?”

Grosh opened his mouth, but then: “Now come on, surely he can tell we don’t have anything on us,” the other dugtrio countered, his rightmost head turning to face the first dugtrio as he spoke, his other two faces still turned up toward Grosh. “Have you ever tried digging and carrying things at the same time? It’s not easy! I’ll bet Silvery here understands what I’m talking about; just look at him. Looks like a burrower himself, doesn’t he? Like a great big worm, don’t y—”

“My family and I need help,” Grosh cut in, his voice easily overpowering those of the dugtrio, who quickly fell silent at his interruption. “I’m wondering if you know anyone who can get me to our enemies and help me fight them.” He didn’t imagine they’d be much help themselves—however swift they were, he doubted they could last long against a horde of well-trained ice-types. He was prepared to dissuade them if they offered to join the fight themselves.

“Oh. You’ll want Valdrey, then,” the second dugtrio said.

“Oh yes, she’d be absolutely elated to help you out. Poor dear’s probably not seen a really good fight in years,” said the first dugtrio. “And she’s got friends all over; perhaps some of them’d be willing to pitch in, too.”

Grosh’s eyes widened and his head rose a bit further, but he made an effort to avoid getting too optimistic too soon. The dugtrio’s response was promising, but there was no way of knowing if this Valdrey person would really be that enthusiastic about joining his cause. Not yet, at least. There also wasn’t any way to know if she’d have enough friends—if indeed the dugtrio were right about them even being Valdrey’s friends—to stand any sort of chance against the exiles, even if every last one of them joined the cause. His search for aid wasn’t guaranteed to end with this lead.

“Where is she?” he asked before the dugtrio could get into another conversation with each other.

Both of the dugtrio jerked one or more of their heads back and to their right, toward the old highway. “That way,” they said in near unison.

“Just follow that path to Wisteria,” said the first dugtrio. “You’ll know it when you see it; humans used to live there.”

“Oh, now don’t assume Silvery knows what humans were,” said the second. “Doesn’t seem to be from around here; who knows what he has and hasn’t seen.”

“No, I’m perfectly aware of what humans were,” Grosh assured them. “Thank you both kindly for your help,” he added, then made his way around and past the two dugtrio and set off down the road.

“Don’t mention it!” the first of them called out to the departing steelix.

In time, stone walls started cropping up to either side as Grosh continued toward Wisteria. They soon rose above his line of sight. Along with the way the road now curved, this prevented him from being able to see where it was actually taking him.

Grosh hoped the dugtrio hadn’t sent him off in some useless direction—or worse, pointed him toward trouble. It was only now, with the faint glimmer of hope they’d given him clearing some of the haze from his mind, that it occurred to him that they might’ve been feigning trust him in order to guide him into a trap.

He started berating himself silently for trusting them so readily when no one else in Mordial had been friendly toward him up to that point, but caught himself short. Come on now, don’t beat yourself up over it too much, he told himself. This might still work out. And you had to give it a try. You know you did.

The steelix carried on in the direction he’d been shown, trying to focus on the name of the person he was seeking in case he needed to ask someone else for an audience with her. Eventually the stone walls shrunk back into the ground, and a cluster of buildings came into view soon after.

It was then that Grosh realized he’d left the dugtrio’s company before they could tell him just where in Wisteria he was supposed to go.

Grumbling in annoyance at himself, Grosh slithered along the downward slope toward the city below. Now he had more asking around to do—he could only hope it would go better than it had back in the forest.

Inauspiciously, the first few pokémon that caught his eye darted away as soon as they were sure he’d noticed them. Others, remaining unseen altogether, could be heard scuttling away from him, evading him among largely empty and decrepit shops and houses and down slowly darkening alleyways whenever he tried to approach them.

At some point, he thought he heard a whole crowd of people gathered and chatting somewhere neither too near nor too far. Before much longer, he pinpointed the source of the noise: there was a large, circular building up ahead, and as he got closer to it he could see a faded sign. He couldn’t read the words on it, but he recognized the IPL’s poké ball logo in its center from his time as a trainer’s pokémon. He was looking at an old gym, he reckoned.

Grosh figured that if there really were as many people hanging around in there as it sounded like, then at least someone among them might hear what he had to say before they could get a chance to flee. Granted, they were sure to know he was headed their way before he got there, but he still hoped that being all cooped up in a large building would impede their escape long enough for him to make someone hear him out.

As he approached the gym, trying to move as quietly as he could, he saw a sawsbuck emerge from it, using his red-leaf-covered antlers to push his way out through the large double doors at the building’s arched entrance. The moment the sawsbuck raised his head once more, his eyes met Grosh’s across the remaining distance between them, and he immediately turned tail and went right back in through those doors.

“Damn it!” Grosh spat, not quite under his breath. Now they’d have even more of a warning and more motivation to get the hell out of there.

Nonetheless, he decided against giving up. It could still work, he tried to believe as he continued onward. Hell, maybe this Valdrey’s in there herself. She doesn’t sound like the type who’ll run—not if those two were right about her, anyway…

Just as Grosh was about to reach the doors, they opened again. This time, three pokémon stepped out into the parking lot. There was the sawsbuck from earlier, accompanied by a rapidash and a golden-armored centaur pokémon that Grosh didn’t recognize: an aurrade.

Both the rapidash and the aurrade awakened little threads of elemental unease in Grosh, and the look on the former’s face suggested that the feeling was mutual between him and the steelix. The aurrade’s expression was a little harder to read; there were hinged plates of her armor covering most of her face, leaving only her eyes visible.

“Hi,” she spoke up crisply, her voice resonating a bit oddly from within her armor. She clasped her hands in front of her waist. “Care to share what brings you to these parts?”

There was a faint sense of relief at the fact that these three had willingly approached him, but Grosh remained wary. They also seemed well-trained, much moreso than the dugtrio had, and he wasn’t so sure he could take them all on if they decided they didn’t like what he had to say.

“I’m looking for someone named Valdrey,” he responded.

“Well, mission accomplished,” the aurrade said; Grosh saw the dark gray skin around her eyes crinkle in a way that made him wonder if she were smiling behind those faceplates. “Any particular reason you were looking for me?”

“I need help,” Grosh said. “Me and my son, and his brother, and their whole nation. They’ve got enemies, horrible ones. They…” He suddenly felt like a stone was lodged in his throat. “They took the love of my life from me,” he said, his gaze lowered. “They’ve taken many lives. And I don’t doubt for a second that they’ll take more.”

Valdrey cocked her head slightly. She cast a quick glance to each of the pokémon at her sides; both of them looked somewhat less apprehensive toward the situation than they had before, but neither’s expression had softened completely.

“Sounds like they need to be taught a lesson,” she said as she looked up at Grosh once more and folded her arms across her chest. Her tone was notably softer, more sober than before.

“Yes,” Grosh said, nodding. “But I can’t do it alone. I can’t even get back to them on my own—there’s an ocean and God knows how much distance in the way. Please… if there’s anything you or anyone you know can do to help…”

Valdrey stepped forward, then made her way around the sawsbuck to the doors and pushed one of them open. “Come on in,” she said. “Let’s see what we can do for you.”
 
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Chapter 32 – Allies


Crash.

A solid body was smashed against a stone wall. One of its horns snapped clean off, falling to the floor and rolling a short distance away. Ice cracked audibly, bits of it flying everywhere.

With the impact still ringing faintly in Solonn’s bones, he withdrew his horn from the side of his attacker’s head. He pulled back, panting, staring down at the broken form before him.

In the next moment, his victim dissipated into thin air.

“Well done,” Zdir said from nearby. “And that goes for you, too, as always.”

The other one she was speaking to was Oth. The claydol had been puppeteering the “glalie” against whom, or rather which, Solonn had been training, just as they’d been doing for him and the other fugitives in the months since Oth had volunteered the idea.

The ice dummies were conceived to reduce the amount of injury and need for recovery for the fugitives during their training, though they still included some sparring against one another to increase their elemental power. Though the glalie could manipulate the dummies themselves, Oth’s telekinesis was significantly stronger. It quickly proved better suited to making the artificial glalie move with the same speed and force as the real thing.

Oth was unquestionably grateful to be able to help out in this way. Solonn was glad for them, too, and not only because of their usefulness. Throughout all this time, the claydol still hadn’t regained the ability to teleport; being able to do another sort of good in the meantime was helping Oth finally stop blaming themself for that fact.

“I think that’ll do for now,” Zdir then said. “Back to the chasm, everyone.”

While Grosh had abandoned the place where he’d been waiting, the Virc fugitives and the claydol among them had stayed put for the most part, only venturing out of Grosh’s home to hunt.

They descended into the chasm a couple at a time as usual. Shortly after they’d all made it down, <I am receiving a report from Zilag,> Oth announced, at which everyone gathered around them, awaiting whatever news Oth had to relay this time.

Thus far, the news had largely been good. Zilag’s reports from Virc-Dho told that the Sinaji had stayed out of Virc territory since the initial attack. The Security Guild had indeed swelled their ranks, adding to the likelihood that the Virc would be sufficiently defended in the event of another strike. And while neither Zilag nor Hiledas were ready to assume the guild no longer monitored them, the authorities had avoided being overbearing about it.

After a few minutes, <A hunting party had an encounter with two exiles yesterday,> Oth told the others. <All of the Virc survived. Beyond that, there has been no trouble among the Virc.>

“That’s good to hear,” Zdir said.

“Yeah,” Narzen said. “Sounds like two fewer problems for us.”

The fugitives had dealt with some of the Sinaji themselves during their time up in Shoal Cave. They’d had a couple of run-ins with them during hunting excursions, which had left a couple among their number with some new scars and had partially depleted their already short supply of dried and frozen revival herbs.

On top of that, it had become clear that the chasm wasn’t as impervious to discovery as they’d hoped. A pair of Sinaji hunters, separated from the rest of their party and lost after a skirmish with a gang of walrein, had stumbled upon the hole in the ground and opted to descend into it. They’d been struck down almost as soon as they’d appeared, and once they’d been identified as Sinaji, their fate had been sealed.

Apart from Sinaji, the fugitives had neither encountered nor been visited by anyone. There’d been no run-ins with the Virc, guild members or otherwise, and no one from outside Shoal Cave had shown up, either. Questions of whether or not they could ever expect help from Convergence, from the ones who might still be holding one of the Sinaji in their custody, had come up more than once, but by this point no one really expected them to pitch in—assuming, of course, that they hadn’t already tried and failed.

Following the report from Zilag, the evening proceeded just as most evenings had since taking refuge in the chasm. The five glalie conjured ice for themselves and began conversing in lowered voices among themselves and with the claydol. At some point, “All right, let’s resume,” Zdir said. Everyone who wasn’t already hovering rose and gathered behind her to return to the cavern above for some more training.

She’d barely begun to generate the ice platform for them to ride on when she immediately dissipated it. No one questioned her actions. They’d all heard the faint voices coming from outside just as she had.

The tension in the chamber where the fugitives now warily and watchfully huddled together seemed to harden the air, making it difficult to breathe. Solonn stared into the adjacent room, keeping himself as still as he could manage, his heart pounding. Its pace only quickened at the sound of ice slithering down the walls of the chasm.

As every other glalie alongside him did likewise, he put a nhaza on standby, hoping to the gods that if it came down to his shot saving their lives, it would succeed. The rigorous training Zdir had put everyone through in the past several months was intended, among other purposes, to put the advantages of the elemental weapon into their figurative hands. They’d be likelier to withstand any attackers’ nhaza, and their own would be likelier to work. But since both the Sinaji and the Security Guild were well-trained, too, there was always the lingering doubt that it had been enough.

The fugitives waited for their uninvited guests to descend further, and Solonn disliked the suspense. He accepted it all the same, understanding well why they waited. It was better to get a clear line of sight before attempting to strike. Better to avoid knocking out whomever was generating the ice platform, in which case its riders could come crashing down before their innocence and what should be done with them could be determined. The intruders would be allowed to come down far enough to make getting back out—and taking knowledge of the fugitives’ location with them—more difficult.

A silver of deep blue light framing the lower halves of gray-and-white bodies lowered into view. The eyes watching it maintained their color, the turret-hands pointed toward the approaching intruders holding their fire. No sense in striking at shielded targets.

And then there the intruders were. Just a few feet away, three glalie in a triangular formation and a fourth actually sitting atop their heads were staring with wide eyes behind protect auras that were due to fade at any moment.

“Wait, don’t strike!” the foremost of them cried out. “We surrender! We don’t want to hurt you!”

“Oth,” Zdir prompted, not missing a beat.

<We must subject you to a psychic scan to verify your claims,> they said.

“What?” another of the intruders responded, sounding more than a little alarmed at that prospect.

But, “Fine, fine!” the one who was being carried said, nodding rather frantically, raising an unpleasant noise as the armor covering her belly scraped against that of the glalie beneath her. Then, as a few seconds passed with apparently nothing happening, “Are they done yet?”

“No,” Zdir said.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” the intruder who’d spoken first said, then winced as if she feared she might be pushing it. A second later, the intruders’ protect shields fell.

“That,” Zdir responded, at which Oth drifted forward. The rest of the fugitives kept staring at the intruders, ready to strike again at any moment.

Oth rose and stopped in front of the glalie who was still perched atop her party members’ heads, and said glalie made a valiant but not entirely successful attempt to conceal her unease at Oth’s presence. Solonn narrowed his eyes at her, hoping her discomfort wouldn’t lead her to try and attack the claydol.

Meanwhile a faint and familiar discomfort of his own reared its head, but it was fleeting. The scan was voluntary this time, after all, and the awareness that he still might have to strike in order to save Oth at any moment was taking up too much of his mind to allow much else to linger there.

Eventually, <Our visitors are Evane La-Zyar—> Oth pointed toward the glalie whom they’d just scanned. <—Viraya La-Zyar, Moriel La-Virj, and Alij Van-Zaria.> They swept a hand from left to right over the other three glalie as they named them off. <Evane intends no harm to any of us, and from her knowledge of the others, it appears unlikely that any of them do, either. They are all deserters. They have all fled from Sinaji territory, and all of them have expressed very strong disinterest in re-affiliating with them.>

Evane watched Oth as they moved backward away from her, then turned her gaze toward Zdir. “…Can I please come down from here?” she asked tentatively. “This is really rather awkward.”

The set of Zdir’s brows suggested that she was somewhat deep in thought, but nonetheless she spared a nod for Evane. Acknowledging this, Evane extended a sheet of ice downward between Moriel and Viraya’s heads, descending the ramp she’d just made toward the stone floor and then making it vanish in a cloud of vapor.

“You can come forward as well,” Zdir told the others, who did so a bit hesitantly.

“Will we need to have a scan, too?” Alij asked.

“Possibly,” Zdir said, “but probably not. For now, I’d like for you to tell me what finally convinced you to leave the Sinaji.”

“There’s something wrong with their leader,” Moriel said. Narzen made a derisive noise at her response; she ignored him. “He hasn’t been acting like himself. Not since they were invaded. Some enemies of theirs got in and out without anyone even noticing, and ever since then… I swear, the leader’s gone crazy. He’s been babbling something about ‘repayment for the blood of the Rannia’, whatever that means.”

“And something about the honor of the ‘Vanished Ones’. Maybe they’re the same thing,” Evane supposed out loud.

“Maybe,” Moriel said. ”All I know is that he didn’t even sound like himself anymore, and neither did the ones closest to him. And there near the end, before we got away, they were threatening us, threatening our lives. And they made good on it with some of us.”

“We’re not the first to try and get away from them,” Viraya said morosely. “Just the first to survive trying.”

No one said anything for a few moments after that. Then, “Understandable that you’d want to get away from such a climate,” Ronal said. “But I do find it troubling that knowing these people were involved in murders and kidnappings wasn’t enough to convince you that you should want nothing more to do with them.”

All of the apparent defectors turned toward him with what looked like genuine shock. “What… When the hell was this going on?” Moriel demanded.

“Right before that invasion you mentioned. Are you telling us you honestly weren’t privy to these doings?” Zdir asked.

“We had no idea,” Alij said hollowly.

“None whatsoever,” Moriel said. “You can have the psychic look in our heads again if you don’t believe us.”

“Sanaika and his gang have had a bad reputation in Virc-Dho for a long time,” Narzen said. “Surely you knew what kind of people you were involved with from the start.”

“Whatever reputation they had down there is news to us,” Evane said. “We haven’t lived in Virc-Dho since we were children. Not since the humans took us.”

“So that’s what became of you,” Zdir mused aloud.

“You knew they’d gone missing?” Solonn asked. But of course she’d had the means to know such things, he realized just as quickly. The Security Guild, and by extension the Council, had found out when he’d been taken. The same was probably true of all abductions.

“Yes. And I know the names of Virc-Dho’s exiles. None of theirs are among them. So,” Zdir said to the deserters, “I suppose when you finally got back here, you encountered Sanaika’s people first?”

“Yes,” Evane said. “A clefable brought us here—teleported us to just outside these caverns, under the sun. The Sinaji told us that Virc-Dho had become corrupt. That their leaders had been overthrown and anyone who acted against them was being attacked and driven out. There was a lot of fighting going on up in these caverns when we arrived, and the Sinaji told us we’d only be safe with them. Since no one else seemed to win when they took the Sinaji on, we believed them.”

“They trained us,” Moriel said. “Trained us in case the Virc showed up and we had to defend our new nation against them. We made them regret it.” She smiled, but there was something rueful in it. “We had to use every last trick they taught us, plus spring a few surprises we picked up on the outside. It was just barely enough… well, mostly enough.” The light in her eyes dimmed considerably. “Wasn’t enough for Kanjara, but…”

“Well,” Zdir said at length. “We are willing to provide sanctuary to you if you’re willing to accept it.”

“Yes, yes of course,” Moriel said; the other three nodded in agreement. “Thank you.”

“Now, considering the training the four of you have undergone, we’d also appreciate it if you were to aid us in any future confrontations with the Sinaji,” Zdir told them.

“Of course,” Moriel repeated. She lowered her head slightly, averting her gaze. “It’s… the least we could do.” She shook her head and sighed. “I regret ever having anything to do with them.”

“We all do,” Viraya said. “I’d definitely have liked to have given them more of a… parting gift, but… well, there were only five of us against nearly three dozen of them.”

“Three dozen of them and some unseen mind-controller,” Narzen said.

“I suspected as much,” Evane said, and she sounded distinctly uneasy. Her eyes shifted toward Oth. “It would explain why some of them have been acting so strangely.”

“The fact that we know next to nothing about their psychic—or whatever they are—is still a strike against us,” Zdir said. “But the numbers of the Sinaji… that’s welcome news. I’d allowed for the possibility that there could be thrice the number you’ve reported.”

“It’s a good thing there weren’t. We wouldn’t have had a chance if…”

Alij’s voice faltered, a look of vaguely troubled confusion on his face as, from above, a strange, continuous grinding sound came rumbling through the stone overhead. Solonn, Oth, and Zdir, meanwhile, looked notably less perplexed.

Eyes wide, Solonn shot a look at Zdir, feeling a thrill of hope surge through him. “Gods, that sounds like…” He couldn’t quite dare to finish the sentence. “Is it… could it be possible?”

<Conceivably. Perhaps he found a way to return somewhere in Mordial,> Oth said.

“What’s going on?” Evane asked, sounding concerned.

Solonn stared up toward the wonderful, presently invisible possibility that had just reared its head, hearing the sound slowly grow fainter as its source kept moving onward. He’s not coming down here, he reckoned, all but certain at this point that yes, he was hearing exactly what he’d hoped he was hearing. He didn’t doubt that they’d be able to track the source of the sound by its sheer loudness and catch up with it easily if it came to that, but he wanted to know if he was right about what it was, and he didn’t want to wait. ”We’ve got to go check it out,” he said.

“Agreed. Come on,” Zdir said with a dip of her head toward Solonn, then led him into the chasm leading upwards. Solonn promptly generated the platform that would lift them out, his eyes blazing and his heart racing as he willed it to ascend as fast as it could.

Please let it be him, please let it be him, please…

The two of them reached the top, and the sight that greeted them halted Solonn’s thought processes at once.

There was Grosh… and there was a small, multispecies army alongside him.

For a moment, Solonn could do nothing but gawk at the sight. Then, “Father!” he greeted him.

The steelix turned his head immediately, as did most of those who’d arrived with him. His face lit up like the sun. “Oh my God, you’re all right!”

The pokémon accompanying him parted as he turned and made for his son as fast as he could. Solonn had begun rushing toward him in nearly the same instant and soon reached him. He buried his face against the steelix’s chest, shaking with joy and relief, and as Grosh gently brought his coils around him in an embrace, he felt tears fall upon his head from above.

“Father… how did you get here?” Solonn asked.

“That’s how,” Grosh answered, nodding toward a lanky, red-furred biped with a long, skull-like face and a black mane. “Quiul here was kind enough to help round up these people for us and bring us here.”

Solonn met the gaze of the mercirance Grosh had pointed out. “I can’t thank you enough,” he said sincerely, the light in his eyes wavering. He’d had legitimate reason to wonder if he’d ever see Grosh again, and now here the steelix was. And Solonn recognized that maybe now, he could also be reunited with other loved ones…

“Oh, it was nothing,” Quiul responded with as much of a warm smile as her face could manage.

“I do hope one of you will consent to a psychic scan,” Zdir spoke up. Solonn looked up in initial disbelief… but then he followed her line of sight. There was a pack of unfamiliar glalie there. None of them looked particularly hostile, but that didn’t mean anything.

“I… what?” one of them responded.

“We’ve been under threat of attack from not only our own kind but collaborators of an unknown kind for months now,” Zdir said.

“Those guys are from Sinnoh,” the aurrade who stood next to Quiul said. “They’re here for the same reason we are: to make your enemies wish they were never born.”

“Valdrey’s telling the truth,” Grosh said. “She and Quiul spent most of the past couple of days getting these people together. I was with them the entire time.”

“I don’t personally suspect them,” Zdir said, “or you. But it would be irresponsible of me to not seek confirmation.”

“That’s fine,” said another of the newly-arrived glalie, drifting forward a bit. “I’ll volunteer.”

“Very well,” Zdir said. She turned an expectant look toward Solonn, who followed her back to the hole in the floor and descended with her.

“So what’s the situation?” Narzen asked them once they reached the bottom.

“We may have just received reinforcements,” Zdir answered him, “as well as access to teleportation and a safer place to stay.”

“Ha, excellent!” Narzen responded. Several of the others mirrored his enthusiasm in some way, particularly among the defectors.

“So it’s really happening, then?” Moriel asked. “We’re really gonna take them on?”

“So it would appear,” Zdir said. “But we do need to have one of them scanned first, just to be certain of what we’re dealing with.”

Wordlessly, Oth moved forward, accompanying Zdir and Solonn as they returned to the cavern above. Zdir indicated the glalie who’d offered himself up for scanning, and the claydol went to work at once. <This is Roskharha Nharitas,> they eventually reported. <He is not of this region, nor has he ever been here before, and the same is true of the rest of the glalie with him. They are soldiers of the Hirashka people.

<These are allies,> they said, and there was distinct hope and wonder in the tone of their mindvoice. <All of these people—> They indicated the entire crowd of various pokémon gathered there. <—are here to try and deal with the Sinaji.>

Zdir looked back toward Valdrey and Quiul. “We’ll aid you in your endeavor,” she told the two of them. “We and our new associates. They used to be involved with the enemy, and they’ve already yielded useful information about them. They may have more to offer us all.”

Valdrey tilted her head back, making a faint, intrigued-sounding noise. “Sounds like your people and mine could do with a good chat.”

“Yes, we could,” Grosh agreed. “I’d like to know how you’ve all been holding up these past few months.” He cast a look down toward Solonn as he said this, one that told that he hoped for the best.

For Jen too, no doubt. Solonn tried to put on a face that suggested good news on that front—they had, after all, successfully delivered him from the Sinaji, and as far as anyone was aware, he was still somewhere very safe. But he didn’t imagine Grosh would be happy about Jen being left behind, and he suspected the steelix was hoping to see him tonight.

It’s all right, Father. We might still bring him back very soon. With a teleporter available, there was a chance they could retrieve Jen in a matter of hours—though not as much of a chance as he’d have preferred.

Valdrey swept a glance over the room. “This doesn’t seem like the best place for that, though. Mind coming back to my place? It’s safe and spacious.”

“That sounds fine,” Zdir said.

<I will go inform the others,> Oth said, at which Zdir nodded in assent. The claydol drifted down into the chasm, and soon after they re-emerged, glalie began filing up to join the pokémon gathered above a few at a time.

Once they were all up, “All right now, gather together, everyone,” Valdrey instructed them. When it looked as though everyone had, “Are we all ready to go?” Valdrey asked, at which everyone gave some form of confirmation that they were. “All right then, let’s go!” And with those words and a burst of light, the small crowd vanished from Shoal Cave.
 
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Chapter 33 – Safe


The fugitives and their new allies all reappeared under a night sky, but there was a degree of harsh, artificial light shining upon them from nearby. Solonn initially winced, but soon he’d adjusted enough to take in his new surroundings… insofar as he could. He was partially surrounded by other pokémon, some of whom were taller than he was.

But he didn’t have to see much before he realized that he recognized this place. This was the Wisteria gym in Mordial. He’d been here before, back when he was traveling the world to spread word of the Convergence project. The gym had been lit by sunlight back then rather than by the few of its lights that still functioned, and there’d been humans dotting the bleachers, watching as the gym leader’s pokémon raced each other for fun on the track that ran around the actual battle platform.

“Welcome to Wisteria,” Valdrey said as the rather tightly packed crowd began dispersing a bit, the eyes of some of the pokémon sweeping the alien environment in curiosity or wonder or mild wariness. She stepped out in front of Zdir. “This is my home, and for as long as you have need of it, it can be your home, too.”

“Thank you for your hospitality,” Zdir said. She settled herself at the edge of the racetrack, and the rest of the Virc fugitives, along with Oth and Grosh, joined her there. Many of the other pokémon clustered off into little groups, as well. “Of course, I do have to wonder what inspired you to come to our aid.”

Valdrey shrugged, spreading her arms wide. “It’s just the kind of thing we do. Me and most of these guys here used to do this kind of work all the time back in the days after the Extinction. I guess we just never got tired of being able to lend a hand. Or, well. A figurative hand, in some cases.”

What the aurrade was describing sounded awfully familiar… “You wouldn’t happen to know an alakazam by the name of Sei Salma, would you?” Solonn asked her.

“Hmm… no, can’t say I do. What about you?” she asked Quiul.

“I’m afraid not,” the mercirance replied. “Sorry.”

“That’s fine,” Solonn said, supposing he shouldn’t be too surprised. It wasn’t as though Sei and her group of psychics were the only ones who could’ve come together and aid people in the wake of the Extinction.

“So I take it you—” Zdir nodded up toward Grosh. “—found her, or the other way around, and she took it from there,” she surmised aloud.

“Some locals directed me toward her,” Grosh said. “But yes.” He drew in a breath and let it out on something of a sigh. “I… regret not seeking help sooner than I did. I was just worried about not being there if you came back.”

“It’s all right,” she assured him. “No real harm came to us or the Virc as a result of your timing. They’ve been lucky these past few months.”

No sooner were the words out of her mouth than her eyes darted almost imperceptibly toward where the defectors were gathered together, and there was a hint of guilt in her expression. Solonn remembered Moriel mentioning one of their own not making it away from the Sinaji. He could only wonder if that person could’ve fared better if help had arrived sooner.

<I would nonetheless have liked to have been able to come back for you sooner,> Oth said. <Unfortunately, I lost my ability to teleport shortly after we rescued the abducted snorunt. We have yet to determine what caused this, and I have yet to regain the technique.>

“Hmm…” Quiul approached the claydol. “What you’re describing sounds rather like a case of spontaneous move deletion.”

Solonn’s eyes widened. That was a phrase he hadn’t heard for many years, not since the days of his involvement with the IPL. He’d heard of humans inducing the loss of techniques via artificial means, and he supposed he must’ve been told of it happening on its own, as well.

“Can it be cured?” Zereth asked.

“I can’t say for certain,” Quiul said. “All I know is that it’s not within my capability to heal.”

“It might be within the capability of the people at the Haven,” Solonn pointed out. “And… we might be able to get Jen back while we’re at it.”

Grosh frowned. “You didn’t get them back?”

“We did,” Zdir said, “but Oth’s teleportation misfired and then failed altogether before Jen’s memories could be recovered. He was left behind at the Haven.”

“Well then we’ve got to get him back!” Grosh said, throwing a glance at Quiul.

Solonn sighed. “It… might not be that simple,” he said. “Considering how long it’s been since he was left there, they might’ve decided that we abandoned him. Even if they haven’t, they’re not necessarily keeping him there. And even if we knew where they were keeping him, it might not be a simple matter to get him back.”

Grosh stared down at Solonn all the while as the latter spoke, and Solonn knew that whatever was going on behind those red eyes, it probably wasn’t acceptance. Solonn wasn’t fond of the way things were, either, nor was he especially fond of the way Zdir had told him to approach these complications back when he’d first recognized and spoken of them. But ultimately, he’d come to understand her position and agree with it.

“If it is, it is,” Zdir said, addressing them both and holding the two of them in her gaze as best she could. “We’ll bring Jen here. He’ll be safe. If not… he is, as Solonn has said, safe there, too. Safer than the Virc are in their own homes. We should do what we can for them first. We mustn’t delay them that help for much longer, and we mustn’t squander the time and generosity of our new allies.”

“I’m ready anytime,” Quiul said. “Just say the word.”

“Would it be all right if we could bring Zilag’s family here as well?” Solonn asked. “It would probably be a single trip.”

“Sure,” Quiul answered.

“See if they’re ready to go first,” Zdir instructed Oth.

Oth nodded in their fashion. A couple of minutes passed, during which a couple of the groups of gathered pokémon began conversing among themselves; then, <They are.>

“Very well,” Zdir said, and nodded toward Quiul.

The mercirance made beckoning gestures toward everyone who’d discussed retrieving Zilag’s family and Jen. But only Solonn and Oth moved toward her.

“I… think I ought to stay here,” Grosh said, though he sounded fairly regretful about it. “Jen’s obviously been through a lot since he was taken, and even though he knows about me, it might be a good idea for you to let him know well in advance that I’m gonna be here before he sees me. And… I don’t need to be in Virc-Dho again. Not even for a second.”

Solonn almost tried to reassure him on the first point, at least, but decided against it just as quickly. It made sense, he realized, especially if, gods forbid, Jen’s memories still hadn’t been restored and he had to learn about the massive steel-type all over again. As for the second point, he didn’t even think of arguing against it. Grosh would probably never be safe in Virc-Dho after what had happened, nor would he likely be comfortable there ever again.

“I’m going to stay behind, as well,” Zdir said. “There are a few things I wish to discuss with Valdrey and with the defectors; I might as well get to them.”

“I guess everyone’s ready, then,” Quiul said. “I assume at least one of you has been to the places we need to go?”

<Yes,> Oth answered. <I will transfer the memories to you at once if you wish.>

“Please do,” Quiul said.

As soon as the memories were transferred, “We’ll see you all later, then,” Quiul said, and then teleported away, taking Solonn and Oth with her.

* * *​

Solonn, Oth, and Quiul appeared in front of the Haven. They’d already made their stop in Virc-Dho to retrieve Zilag and his family and dropped them off in Mordial.

Though the family had agreed well in advance to leave Virc-Dho someday, it was clear when the time had finally come that they had their regrets about it. Months ago, Oth had raised the possibility that they could still live among their own kind, in some other nation, in the hopes that letting them retain some familiar element in their lives would make the transition easier on them. The Hirashka were perfectly willing to give them a home in Sinnoh. But while the family and especially Hiledas had latched on to the idea, the fact remained that they were still leaving their home and their lives as they’d known them behind. As they’d sat there, all at once in this alien environment and surrounded almost completely by strangers, their faces told that only now was the change they’d chosen truly sinking in.

Solonn felt for them, and as he entered the Haven with the mercirance and claydol at his sides, he hoped his newly displaced friends would be at peace with their new situation soon. At the same time, however, most of him was focused on Jen and Oth and the hopes, however cautious, that he’d be leaving Convergence tonight with the former at his side and the latter in full possession of all their powers once more.

The three crossed the lobby to the front desk, where a chansey sat watching them approach. “Can I help you?” she asked when they stopped before her.

<Yes,> Oth said. <We came here several months ago with eight snorunt who had suffered mental tampering and a glalie who was involved with the tamperer. One of the snorunt was left behind when I involuntarily teleported before his treatment was finished. I subsequently lost the ability to do so, voluntarily or otherwise. We have returned to retrieve him, as well as to inquire about our captive and to perhaps have my lost technique restored.>

The last item on that list was even more of a longshot than the first, Solonn knew. He’d recalled that there were once humans who could restore techniques just as there’d been some who could erase them, but he didn’t know if anything of that art had survived the Extinction. And similarly to the situation with Jen, if they determined that it would take too long to restore Oth’s ability to teleport, that restoration would be postponed.

“…One moment, please,” the chansey said, and turned her sights downward toward something on her desk and out of sight. “Teresa?” she said to what was apparently some sort of paging device there. “Could you come to the front desk, please?”

Soon after, another chansey arrived on the scene. “You came back,” she said simply.

Solonn nodded. “We never meant to leave,” he said.

“They claim something went awry with the claydol’s teleportation,” the chansey behind the desk said. “Something that caused them to teleport away with the others involuntarily and prevented them from coming back.”

“Have you been trying to teleport without any success all this time?” Teresa asked.

<Yes,> Oth said. <It is as though I never even knew the technique.>

“Hmm…” Teresa’s mouth drew into a thin line. “We might be dealing with a move deletion here,” she said. “We can run a couple of tests to confirm it, but in the event that your teleport technique has deleted itself, I’m afraid there’s nothing we can do.”

<We had anticipated as much,> Oth said, though they still sounded disappointed all the same.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to work this out. If you’ll follow me, we can find out.” Teresa began leading the way out of the lobby, and Oth, Solonn, and Quiul followed.

When they reached their destination, Solonn was expecting to find the same gardevoir there that he and the other fugitives had dealt with before. Instead a hypno stood behind that door, giving them an inquiring look. Teresa explained the situation to her, then motioned Oth into the room with the hypno, closed the door behind them, and began ushering the others toward a waiting room.

“What about Jen?” Solonn asked as he and Quiul followed her lead. “The snorunt who was left here,” he clarified. “My half-brother. Were his memories ever successfully recovered? Is he here?”

“I’m afraid the answer to both of those questions is ‘no’,” Teresa replied.

Solonn’s heart sank heavily. He’d dearly wanted the tampering to be undone, and the thought that he’d be greeted with confusion or disbelief or even fear whenever he finally reunited with Jen was hard to bear. Especially since it seemed likelier than ever that their reunion lay further in the future than he’d hoped.

“Is—” He tried to remember the gardevoir’s name but failed. “Is the gardevoir here? Can I speak with him?”

“If you’re referring to Adn, then I’m afraid that’s another ‘no’. He’s not here right now and won’t be back before the weekend is over.”

Solonn sighed, vaguely wondering just what, exactly, he’d hoped to accomplish anyway by talking with Adn. “Could you tell me where Jen is, at least?” he asked as the three of them entered the waiting room, turning to face Teresa directly as he spoke.

Teresa gave no response at first. Then she took a deep breath. “He was declared abandoned,” she told him. “He was placed in another’s custody, and I’m sorry, but we’re not at liberty to mention whose.”

Solonn stared at her. Their decision didn’t exactly come as a surprise, but he hadn’t expected to be barred from him so completely. “Is anyone?” he asked.

Teresa shook her head, insofar as she could. “I’m sorry.”

For a moment, Solonn couldn’t respond. The light in his eyes dimmed, and his throat threatened to close up on him. Then, “But… he’s safe, right? He’s being cared for?” He almost couldn’t continue. “…He’s happy?”

“I can assure you that he is,” Teresa said consolingly.

“…Good…” Solonn managed, very quietly. “That’s good… Now, what about the glalie we brought in, the one you called the authorities on?” he then asked. “Are you at liberty to tell us how that went?”

“Yes and no,” Teresa said. “I can tell you they didn’t really get anything out of him beyond his name and the fact that yes, he was involved with whoever altered the snorunt’s memories. He passed away in their custody before they could learn more, apparently of natural causes. I’m afraid that’s all I can say on the matter.”

Solonn’s eyes went wide, his brow furrowing over them. He’d suspected that they wouldn’t be getting much more information about the Sinaji from Anzen than they already had. It had sounded as though Oth had already found everything useful that Anzen actually knew during their scan. The reason why they definitely wouldn’t get any more now was rather more of a shock.

He pulled in a deep breath and released it. “Well, it… sounds like they can’t tell us anything we don’t already know,” he said. “Could you send them our thanks for trying, at least?”

Teresa nodded. “I most certainly could.”

She then gave the two of them a quick rundown on where certain facilities were before departing. Solonn watched her leave, then sank to the floor.

He heard Quiul sit down beside him. “Hmm… sounds a little fishy,” she said. “The whole business of your captured enemy perishing before he really had a chance to talk, I mean.”

“It does, yes…” Solonn agreed. “Though I don’t suspect the authorities here of any foul play. I’m… not really sure what I suspect, honestly.”

“I wonder,” Quiul said, “if perhaps a killing mechanism of some kind was implanted. Maybe by whoever brainwashed those snorunt. It could have been set to go off if he was questioned too rigorously about what these people have been up to.”

“I don’t know… It seems like it would’ve been triggered by Oth’s scan if that were the case. They learned more from him than the police did, from what I gathered.”

“Hmm,” Quiul said again, then shrugged. “Maybe it really was just an unfortunate coincidence.”

“Maybe.” Solonn sighed. “More questions. I’d hoped to come back with more answers. And I’d hoped to come back with Jen.”

“I’m sure you would. But the way things have turned out tonight doesn’t mean you’ll never see him again, you know,” she told him gently.

“I know,” he said, though in a way it still sort of felt as though he definitely wouldn’t. “I just… wish I could see him with my own eyes. I wish I could really confirm that he’s all right… insofar as he is. And I wish I weren’t being treated like I can’t be trusted around him, for the gods’ sakes.”

Quiul laid a hand upon his back. “Someday this will be sorted out.”

Someday… Solonn drew in a breath that shuddered slightly, hoping she was right.

Eventually, Teresa returned with Oth beside her. Solonn and Quiul both rose to greet her.

“I’m afraid it was move deletion,” the chansey reported once she and Oth had entered the room.

<It is all right,> Oth assured everyone present. <I do not need to be able to teleport.>

Solonn supposed Oth was right, especially with Quiul on their side now. Still, he’d have liked at least some of the night’s endeavors in Convergence to have succeeded. “Thank you regardless,” he said, “and give the hypno my thanks, as well. At least now we know for sure.” Teresa nodded in acknowledgment.

“I suppose that concludes our business here,” Quiul said then. “Unless you’re wanting to retrieve that glalie?”

“You’d have to speak with the police department about that,” Teresa said.

“I don’t think we have time for that,” Solonn said. “Zdir wanted us back as soon as possible.”

“Then we’d best not keep her waiting anymore. Thank you for your time,” Quiul said to Teresa.

“You’re welcome,” the chansey replied.

Oth joined Quiul and Solonn where they stood, and then the three of them departed.

After they’d vanished, Teresa stood there for a moment, blinking the lingering flash out of her eyes, then turned and left for elsewhere in the Haven. As she walked, she felt a strange sense of something being off, and not for the first time in the past few months.

She frowned at it, wondering if she should see Adn about it. But that would have to wait. For now, she simply carried on about her business, as did everyone around her.
 
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