Orphans & Outcasts: Chapter Nine
We must not fight,
We must not fight.
When Ra has fallen beyond the horizon,
When Osiris is scattered amongst the Data,
When my Lilies whither.
How can I appease you,
Private Communications Link. Utillian Time 19:36PM. Signal: Strong. Upload: Completed.
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Clive’s bountiful energy had returned. It was as though it had never left. Denvy chuckled, watching the boy tumbling on the large bed beside him with all the agility given to his race. Denvy startled as Penny pounced on him, wrapping a deep red scarf around his neck and tying it in an intricate knot at his chest. The sensation of the fabric against his bare neck, void of its magnificent mane, was a strange one. Penny smiled into his eyes.
“It will hide the yoke, and add some weight. Mother would wear an apron after my little brother was stillborn, she said it made her feel better. I thought…it would help you, too.” Her hands were trembling as they often did whenever she mentioned her family. Like all his cubs, she, too, had her share of horrific memories and great loss.
“Thank you, my dear.” Denvy touched the scarf. “Red, the colour of Messengers.”
Penny hugged his large arm. “I am so glad you are all right, Khwaja Denvy.”
“I am, too.”
He set her down upon the floor as Clive dived into his lap, whooping loudly.
“Khwaja Denvy! You must see this place. It is so amazing! There are more Kattamonts here, just like you. I ate this disgusting thing. It was like a slug, but it was worse. Only, it tasted really nice.” The boy’s voice was hoarse, his neck still purple with bruises, but the swelling had improved. Denvy tipped him upside down, blowing a loud rasp into his bare stomach, which earned him a squeal in delight. He set him down, tapping him lightly on the head to send him scooting out the door.
Penny dusted off her dress, and, for the first time, Denvy took note of its little apron. Her eyes turned his way for approval and he inclined his head. Quickly she followed Clive, yelling at him to slow down. Denvy smiled faintly. Children. They had so much energy. Wearily he heaved himself off the bed. It took too much effort and it was frustrating, but with gradual ease in each step he navigated his way through the sand-ship and out onto the top deck. The wind of the morning had the briefest touch of winter, blowing across from Pennadot. It was enough to make him shiver and his fan-tail curl. The burning-sea was beginning to shine, though, and warm with the heat of the Sun. Winter would never be as harsh in Utillia, and the Long Night never as dark with the refracting crystal shine of the land.
The deck was a hive of activity, none of which he understood. He had known Zaprex vessels, and the startling chaotic rhythm that flowed on a flying machine. Folk looking upon the central control room of a lord or lady ship might have seen nothing but mayhem, but he had always experienced it as a symphony. He had been part of it. When it had been ripped from him, his life had lost its harmony—he had become a lone instrument.
It was a nice feeling, though, to be back upon the deck of a ship, even if it was not a flying machine. His foot-paws drew him to the railing, where the distinctive figure of Titus, cloaked in his rippling robe of black, stood out against the burning-sea’s golden glow. The Hunter was stooped, but he straightened at his approach, throwing on his charismatic smile. Denvy felt relief. Titus did not look at his shaven mane, his sunken cheeks, and sagged skin. The Hunter knew well how demeaning a stare could be over something one could not control.
“How’re yeh feeling, old man?”
“A lot better.”
“Good. That is good.” Titus released a pent up sigh. “Yeh had me worried, yeh know. Dying on ma watch would’ve been…well, none of ’em back home would’ve been happy about it.”
Denvy leant against the rigging, watching the glossy wings of the sand-ship work against the gravity swells of the burning-sea. Further out, he caught sight of the distant tip of a Zaprex turret, glittering in the Sun’s light.
“Do think yeh could get a message to ma wife?” Titus’ voice was hesitant, soft, and almost child-like. Denvy’s ears flipped back.
“I am sorry, Titus. The yoke still binds my dreamathic mind. My will is considerably strong, but—”
“Tah. It’s all right.” Titus gave his arm a friendly pat. “I know. I know.”
They stood in silence, studying the long horizon.
Denvy shifted, his foot-paws growing weary, exhaustion filling his legs. He moved to nearby rigging, letting it take the weight off his aching limbs. “There are two dreamathics on this sand-ship. I think they might be mid-level classes.”
“The white lion and the cripple?”
Denvy shook his head at the Hunter. Messengers, and their insistence on categorising people by trait rather than acknowledging the soul within. Despite Titus’ own experience with hurtful labels and assumptions, it appeared it was a habit hard to break.
Titus rubbed his bristled chin, fingering the reddened beard beginning to grow. “Does it appear strange to yeh that, despite all the effort the House of Flames puts into breedin’ dreamathics for the war, we never seem to manage anythin’ higher than a minor class and yet, here in Utillia, yeh run into not just one but two mid-level classes?”
Titus looked his way. “I mean, Rein was the first high-level born in centuries. According to the records she was an abnormality. But yeh know that’s not the case.”
“No.” Denvy breathed out wearily. “She was designed.”
“Right. She was part of the first batch of the breeding program. The ones who survived, at least.” Titus’ voice dropped low. “You don’t think…?”
“Something similar is happening here?” Denvy tucked his tail against his lap, casting his gaze back towards the Zaprex turret in the distance. “I hope not. I really hope not.”
Titus’ jaw tightened. Denvy himself tried to hold back the shiver that ran up his spine at memory of the horrors the Messenger’s so-called ‘breeding program’ had produced and the subsequent campaign to bring down a corrupt government.
Zinkx had never wanted to play a part in politics, but, alas, his young ward had seemed to have a way of manoeuvring himself right into the pathway of the eldership. It was not surprising, though, considering who and what his ward truly was: the greatest secret of the Northlands, perhaps—could he claim that?
“Khwaja Denvy! Khwaja Denvy! Look. Look. Lady Zafiashid gave me a new earring!”
Denvy rubbed a paw against his ear at the sound of Clive’s shrill voice. Titus’ gaze softened, his lips managing a fond smile. Denvy felt a stirring of sympathy for the Hunter, whose children had been little red-haired bundles so much like Clive—and just as loud—the last time he’d seen them.
Clive tore across the deck, wobbling against the uneven gravity without the grav-boots the crew wore. Denvy had a sudden vision of the little Human flying off into the burning-sea to be swept away by the rising dunes. He shook his head, clearing his mind. Surely the queen trailing after his cub had taken many measures against such a terrible thing happening.
Zafiashid’s smooth movements across the deck were a testament to the sol-cycles she had spent upon the burning-sea. Her tail swayed rhythmically, keeping time with the rolling of the sand-ship. Denvy eased himself off his perch, inclining his head at her approach. Her eyes glossed over him, her jewelled gaze piercing enough to make him feel like he was a cub again, every inch of his fur being scrutinized. It did not help that her scent followed him everywhere, in all the clothing he wore, in the cabin and bed he slept in, and through the very walls of the sand-ship.
She owned every inch of the Lawless Child—and she let it be known.
Clive latched onto his leg, hugging it tightly. “See? Look at my new earring!”
Titus crouched down, admiring the new jewel in the collection that dangled from the boy’s ear. The Hunter ruffled Clive’s mop of hair. “Yer old Abbot would be proud.”
Clive beamed. “That’s what Lady Zafiashid said.”
“Queen.” Denvy corrected.
“What?” Clive cocked his head.
“The correct term of address for a female Kattamont such as Zafiashid is Queen.”
Clive frowned. “Then what is Nixlye?”
“She is a princess, a neutral Kattamont who has not yet become a queen.” Denvy held up his paws. “We Kattamonts have three roles we can perform. A prince, a neutral, or a queen. Princes are few, because princes are born into their role. No neutral can become a prince, but a neutral has a chance to become a princess under a queen, and, eventually, if the queen dies, they will take the place of that queen. Most Kattamonts you will come across will be neutrals or princesses.”
Clive made a face and Zafiashid laughed. She gave his head a fond pat as she knelt by his side. “Be glad you are not in Sin’musk’qu, my boy. The Batitics, you will find, are more complex by far.”
“I am so glad I am Human!” Clive threw his arms out dramatically, spinning on his heels. Zafiashid scooped him up, setting him on her shoulder. “You do have your advantages, even wingless.” She smiled warmly.
Titus stood formally. “We thank yeh for the aid yeh’ve given, Queen.”
Had her paw not been clamped firmly on Clive’s small legs, the nonchalant shrug she gave would have rolled him off her shoulders. “Perhaps the Rythrya Guiding Stones directed me through your path.”
Titus smiled. “Paladins be honoured if that is so.”
“My son tells me you are not a being of this Realm, Elemental.” Zafiashid’s tail flicked.
“I was just a boy, once.” Titus slowly removed a glove. Denvy wrinkled his nose, smelling already the odour of burning flesh as the skin was exposed to the sunlight, peeling away until only the bones remained. He curled them together into a fist. “I’m not anymore. Like yer son, I’m the host of an Elemental. Only I took full control of the parasite. Twizels do not leave one with much choice. It is either conquer them, or be conquered.”
“We are all touched in some way by the Secondary Realm’s collapse.” Zafiashid swung Clive and settled him upon the railing. “Some of us are just more aware of it, and bear the scars. The reminders.”
She did nothing to hide the lash marks down her back, the flesh marred by whips, weapons, and claws, no longer able to grow fur to cover the wounds. Denvy rubbed his own scarred arms. He had lived centuries as an unchangeable mountain, chipped at by barely a harsh wind, and yet this young queen had more battle scars than he could ever lay claim to.
“We shall be docking at Ishabal.” Zafiashid pointed towards the Zaprex turret in the distance. “It is a small trading city between Utillia and Pennadot. We must restock on Mist supplies.”
Clive gaped. “If that is small, what happens to be big?”
Zafiashid laughed. “The Three Wind Cities are enormous, cub. They travel in a constant rotation around Utillia docking at all the little cities and islands between their routes. You have not seen the magnificence of Utillia until you have visited one of the Wind Cities.”
Clive’s eyes lit up with wild, excited hope. He bounced, balancing on the railing with the ease only a Human could attain. Denvy caught his arm before he could topple off, though the lad did not seem to notice how close he was to falling overboard. His pink, freckled cheeks puffed out before he erupted into a burst of loud, enthusiastic words.
“Can we go, Khwaja Denvy? Can we see the Wind Cities? Please, oh please, oh please!”
Looking across at Titus, Denvy saw the Hunter’s worry, the shift of his body towards the west—toward Coltarian—the home of all Messengers. Titus’ heart was not yet home. To a Messenger, duty was the burden borne until the freedom of death. The etched lines of the weariness of war carved eons into Titus’ features.
“Jarvis has something he needs to tell yeh.” Titus spoke over Clive’s excitement. “It’s important.” The young Hunter turned, shifting into the safety of the shadows, away from the Sun that cursed his steps.
Denvy sighed. His ears tweaked rearwards as Zafiashid’s voice spoke from behind. “I do not think it is the yoke that burdens you, old one. I think it is the weight of all the fears and worries you carry.”
“You may be right about that, Queen.”
Ki’b seemed in much merrier spirits, her smile brighter and the anxiety that she had been wearing like a cloak was no longer wrapped tightly around her. It was breathtaking to see the little girl dance like a child should. Leaving her, Clive, and Penny in the company of a half-breed Kelib in the galley, as stories were shared about sand-sea beasts and mighty sailors that battled them, Denvy eased his way down the corridors, tracing the dreamathic signature he had come to know as Nixlye’s lavender-pink, cotton touch. He rather liked her dreamathic mind. Without the crystal visor that young Messengers wore to communicate via the dreamathic nexus, he was free to envision her mind however he desired and he pictured her as patchwork quilts, wrapped snugly about his shoulders as a comfortable, caring presence. A small, bottled-up part of him was curious, though, to know what her mind would feel like when the lioness within her lashed out without hesitation. Would the lavender-pink turn to deep white hatred and the cotton texture become piercing needles?
The door into the cabin of the little pride was unlocked and he carefully opened it, poking his head in. It was luxurious, not having to duck whenever he entered through a door. He wondered if Humans and Kelibs who dwelt in Utillia ever felt out of proportion as he had at the House of Flames or in Pennadot.
He chuckled at the amusing sight of Jarvis seated on the edge of the immense bed. Indeed, there was little doubt Humans had to feel tiny. Jarvis looked even more a child in the large cabin, designed for the stature of Aaldryn and Jythal.
Jarvis looked up, grinning.
“Khwaja Denvy, sir!” He slipped off the bed, landing on bare feet, and rushed to him. Denvy breathed out as the young lad bumped up against his midriff, hugging him tightly.
“You are looking much better, Jarvis.”
Colour had returned to the young Wynnila’s cheeks, though it was a flush of blue and not the usual red of Human blood. It made for a strange ferrous tone to his skin’s hue, even in the light of the lanterns and candles. Jarvis rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. “Thanks.”
He stepped back, allowing entrance and Denvy eased inside, closing the door behind him. Titus lounged in a chair at the table, sipping on a large flagon of what smelt like fine beer. Denvy brushed at his nose. Typical of the hunter; they made dock at a port and the first thing the Messenger did was buy a cask of alcohol. Jythal was seated beside him, his laugher rich with crinkled lines of cheer written across his features as he listened with erect ears to the wild tales of the Hunter.
“Master Titus has been going on about the Battle of Phebes for a while.”
“Ah.” Denvy puffed out his chest. “One of Zinkx’s greatest moments.”
“Is it true he killed a High Class Twizel?” Jarvis piped up. “Or is it just a story?”
Denvy raised his eyebrows and placed a paw gently on Jarvis’ shoulder, leading him towards the merriment in the kitchen corner of the cabin. “It is honestly not my tale to tell.”
“Though I do hear you have quite an interesting story yourself.”
A mechanical glow brightened behind Jarvis’ eyes as a soft pattern of light played gently down the skin of his cheeks. He hopped onto a large seat beside Titus, reaching for one of the enormous mugs on the table. “It was amazing, Khwaja Denvy.”
Jarvis pulled the heavy flagon closer, sloshing the honey-dew within. Nixlye rolled over and passed Jarvis a smaller tankard.
“Here, I think this one might be easier for you to use. This is one of mine. Bit smaller.”
“Thanks.” Jarvis gratefully accepted it, eagerly sipping the sweet liquid. Denvy watched the boy’s bare toes curl in glee. He shook his head. Titus was a terrible influence already. At least it was only honey-dew in Jarvis’ mug. He glanced gratefully at Nixlye, who inclined her head.
Aaldryn placed savoury muffins, fresh from the stove, on the table and swung himself over a chair, grabbing the flagon Jarvis had discarded. “Thanks for the drink, Titus.”
“Ah, least I could do to thank yeh.” Titus held up his beverage in a toast.
“Haven’t had good beer in sol-cycles. Never enough coin for the clean stuff.” Aaldryn responded.
The two clinked their flagons together. Jythal grabbed a muffin before they were caught in the crossfire of sloshing liquid.
“It’ll be a long night now,” the blind doctor muttered.
“Well, they are getting longer.” Jarvis quipped.
“But worse with drunkards.” Jythal buttered his muffin. “So, I believe we have gathered for a purpose this evening?”
“Tah, always straight to the point, brother. Never any merriment with you.” Aaldryn pouted and leant heavily on Jythal’s arm, a loud purr emanating from his chest.
Denvy frowned. “Should we not wait for Queen Zafiashid?”
“Mother is not permitted in this cabin.” Aaldryn’s air-gills spiked slightly as he breathed out. “Don’t worry. She banned herself. She does not like to be reminded of her loss of pride status. We’ll fill her in later.”
“She trusts you that much with the affairs of this sand-ship?” It was impossible to hide the surprise in his voice, but Denvy could not stop himself from looking at Nixlye. She reached out, giving his paw a pat.
“We’re a family. We trust each other.”
“I can understand that,” Titus said.
“I figured a Messenger would.” Nixlye leant her arms on the table. “Is it beautiful? The House of Flames?”
“More than yeh can imagine. But I grew up there, so I am a little biased.” Titus waved a hand. “In truth, Coltarian is a stunning land. Sure it tries its best to kill yeh every day, but it has its own unique beauty.” His gaze drew distant. “We like to say that the House of Flames isn’t so much a place—it’s the ideals, the values, the strength each Messenger carries wherever they go that make them the House of Flames no matter where they are. We all bleed red.”
Titus exhaled, shaking himself slightly. He fiddled in his jacket pocket, tugging out the folded piece of parchment discovered in the Zaprex Way Station on the edge of the Ovin-tu Mountains. Denvy’s heart raced, his mind thrown back to the last moment he had seen Zinkx, vanishing into the darkness of a Pennadotian forest on the back of a diabond, a Kelib woman tucked behind him, her eyes wide with fear. The note was the only thing he had to cling to the hope Zinkx was still alive.
A note scrawled with the foretelling of the coming kismet of the Northlands.
Titus passed it to Nixlye, as though it were naught but another missive, and not the guide he treasured. “This is why we’re here, passing through Utillia.”
Slowly Nixlye’s brow creased in a frown. Had she air-gills they would likely have begun to halo her head in a rise of concern, but, instead, a loud purr rose from her chest. Both Jythal and Aaldryn sat straighter in their chairs, their fur stiffening in reaction to their queen’s unease. She finally breathed out and read aloud.
“To all Messengers of Pennadot,
This is High Commander Zinkx Maz. Be warned: Coltarian is to erupt come the High Summer Solstice. Head as far North as you can. Take as many Pennadotians with you as possible. Seek refuge in Utillia. Get word to the House—the Key has been found, the Dragon is rising. The Age of the Black Sun has begun.
Nixlye settled her hands into her lap, staring down at the worn parchment on the table. Slowly she looked at Aaldryn. “As archaeologists we’ve always known about the Dragon. It is hard not to believe in something when every text you uncover in the sunken ruins refers to the Thousand Sol-Cycle Wars.”
“And Khamsin’s stories are terrifying,” Jythal muttered.
“But Coltarian erupting?” Nixlye squeezed her eyes shut, rubbing thumb and finger against the bridge of her nose. “Is that even possible?”
“It has always been a possibility,” Khamsin’s voice, so slightly lower than Aaldryn’s, interjected.
Denvy tensed at the intrusion of the Elemental Titan. The cabin’s air-pressure had shifted, just enough to feel tight against his skin.
“That is why the Zaprexes created the Obelisk System, so that my sibling would be chained nice and tightly to her little rock.”
“That’s just it.” Titus lifted a hand. “If Coltarian is going to erupt, why wouldn’t Prometheus have said something earlier? Surely she’d ha’ known the Obelisk System was going offline?” The Hunter massaged his temples. “She’d ha’ said something and started the evacuation—”
Khamsin snorted. “You are giving my sibling far too much credit. It has been a long time since the Zaprexes strapped her down. Mayhap she is tired of being contained.”
The Hunter bent forward, glaring at the Titan within the young Kattamont prince. “That doesn’t sound like the Prometheus I know. The Elemental who raised me loved all things, abundantly. She’d never willingly destroy the Northlands.”
Khamsin shrugged awkwardly. “We are Titans. We existed before the Zaprexes came here.”
Jarvis lifted his head suddenly, his voice eerily monotone. “Yes, but the Zaprexes gave you consciousness. You owe them that.”
Khamsin laughed heartily. “True enough, little Changeling. True enough.”
“This Key, though—” Nixlye’s glare settled Khamsin’s laugher. “I think it is mentioned in a few of the later records, but those tend to get very sketchy on details.”
“That is not surprising.” Denvy shifted forward on his seat, resting his paws on the table. “After the Cataclysm of Kemet, the Zaprexes sank the last of their cities, and the few who did remain survived here in Utillia trying to devise a plan to save Livila.” He cleared his throat, emotion threatening to choke his words. “It is those few Zaprexes we must thank today for our lives. They are the ones who make mention of the Key. For the Key was likely their hope as well.”
Jythal leant forward. “And what is it?”
“Ah, the Key.” Khamsin turned stiffly to face him. “The Key was apparently a legendary Zaprex device, perhaps a weapon created in the last hope to end the Sol-Cycle Wars, or an escape off this rock they tried to call home.”
“The Creators wouldn’t leave!” Jarvis snapped.
“Some say it was a guide to the lost Towers,” Khamsin continued, ignoring Jarvis’ outburst.
“Is this Zinkx Maz a good source? Can he be relied upon?” Nixlye stared down at the parchment.
“Zinkx is—was—my ward,” Denvy said slowly. “And the High Commander of the Blood Armada. He can always be relied upon.”
“Then we should stock up on Mist supplies.” Jythal scratched his chin. “Mist is about to become very, very pricy.”
Titus frowned. “Is that all yeh care about?”
“Think about it: if Pennadot falls our main source of water is gone. We barely make it with our Mist Farms now. You increase our population with refugees from Pennadot and we are going to have a problem sustaining ourselves.” Jythal shrugged. “Just saying. Tomorrow I think we should stock up.”
“Mother will agree.” Nixlye massaged her temples. “We are on the verge of change. The Era of the Black Sun. I like that.” She glanced briefly out the small window. “It gives hope despite the darkness.”
“There is always hope.” Denvy cut open another muffin.
“Yes, there is. Which is why what Jarvis has to say is rather interesting.” Titus raised his hand. “Jarvis, how about yeh tell everyone what happened in the Zaprex flying machine.” The Hunter accepted the torn note back from Nixlye, returning it to his shirt pocket.
Jarvis worried his hands anxiously in his lap for a few moments before breathing in deeply. His brow furrowed in concentration. “The Zaprex ship’s name was Bez-at:_Who_Lingers_by_Water: a warhawk class. When the Twizel attacked us, I was accidently thrown against one of its terminals, and I logged into the warhawk’s computers.” Jarvis frowned. “You have to understand— Bez-at:_Who_Lingers_by_Water, its Matrix Crystal had grown out of containment, so it had no way to control its firewalls. I was cast into the Secondary Realm, and—”
His shoulders curled. Nixlye reached out, laying a hand gently on one of his legs. Was she feeling something Denvy could no longer sense due to the yoke around his neck? The emotions the boy was radiating: fear? Was Jarvis afraid? His body was quivering in an uncontrolled manner and Denvy squeezed his paws tightly, horrified that he had missed it. He cursed himself inwardly for his continued reliance on his dreamathic mind. Had the box not taught him anything? To function with the yoke binding him, he needed to learn to read without his dreamathic skills. He needed to see with real eyes again, not those of a program.
“The Dragon was there.” Jarvis finished in a breathless whisper.
“You met the Dragon?” Denvy croaked out.
“Yes.” Jarvis’ eyes turned his way. Large, wide, white disks they had become, glowing with a backlight. “He tried to take over my mind. And, sir…I think he would have, if it hadn’t been for the Key.”