The lights lining the tunnels had dimmed to a dull glow, faint even for the semi-twilight of Autochthon, when Aegis called a halt. Explaining that it would be best to get some rest during this cycle and finish the journey upon waking, she had set up watches, and the soldiers had pulled out their rations - as had the Solars. There was some brief but spirited trading immediately afterwards; the scouts were intrigued and amazed by the trail rations the Solars had brought with them, while Kieran found the food bars that the Autochthonians ate filling, but a bit bland for his liking.
Now, Tenrek was earnestly discussing Autochtonia's cycle of souls with Aegis, having managed to use the rest stop to disrupt her own increasingly confused and curious questions about Creation. Fokuf and Kieran sat to one side, listening intently, while Alina had moved a short distance away. Kieran glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. She had been all but silent for the entire day, and he wondered if she was missing her lover that badly already.
â€œRight, but the souls have to go somewhere.â€ Tenrek was on the subject of soulgems.
â€œWhen Autochthon was awake and managing the systems, yes. But since he Sleeps, they are simply classified as another sort of energy.â€ Aegis sighed, and shook her head. â€œAll of this - the Body of the Maker requires a massive amount of energy and magical materials to continue functioning. Our purpose is to make sure that the materials reach His systems, and to produce the energy that restores them. If that energy runs out, the Maker reaches out in His slumber and takes what he needs from the stores.â€
â€œWhich now include any souls that haven't re-incarnated or been saved in soulgems.â€
â€œExactly.â€ Aegis nodded. â€œIt serves the Maker, but...â€ She trailed off uncomfortably. â€œNo one wants to be unmade for all eternity. That's why being made an exile is considered so horrifying. The cities send troops to find natural-born Exile children and return them to cities to be implanted, but they often slip through. There's no guarantee that a soul will be unmade on a given loop, but it's possible.â€
As Tenrek and Fokuf considered that, Kieran glanced back towards Alina to find her standing a foot away from him, having silently approached during the discussion. Quietly, in High Realm, she spoke. â€œCould I talk to you for a moment, Kieran?â€
â€œSure.â€ Rising, Kieran nodded to the others and followed Alina - engrossed in their discussion, they hardly noticed, although Fokuf managed a distracted nod. As the two stepped away from the group, Kieran heard Fokuf saying, â€œPerhaps one of the Maker's systems collapsed and pulled two Essence reservoirs together?â€ He didn't catch Aegis's response.
Standing apart from the group, Kieran looked over Alina. She didn't look homesick, he realized. More... nervous. Suddenly worried, he whispered to her. â€œWhat did you want to talk about?â€
There was a long pause. Alina opened her mouth once, closed it, and then spoke quickly. â€œI need you to teach me Old Realm.â€
Kieran stared at her. â€œYou don't speak Old Realm?!â€
â€œShh!â€ Alina looked worriedly over Kieran's shoulder, but the other three Exalts were engrossed in their discussion and didn't notice his exclamation. â€œNo! It never came up, alright?â€
â€œWhy didn't you say something? We've been talking in Old Realm for hours!â€
â€œI know!â€ Nia raised her arms helplessly for a moment. â€œI'm just... I didn't want to look foolish, alright? Everyone else seems so confidant. They know exactly what they're doing. I didn't want to be the stupid one.â€
â€œYou couldn't possibly be.â€ Kieran grinned suddenly. â€œYou speak at least two languages already, this one and Seatongue. At least I assume it was Seatongue - I could never figure it out.â€ Nia managed a nervous chuckle, and Kieran reached out a hand, putting it on her shoulder. â€œNia, don't worry. I can teach you Old Realm easily. Doing it without the others knowing... not so much. Not without it taking so long it won't be very useful here, at least.â€
After a moment, Alina sighed, and nodded. She looked up into Kieran's eyes, and sighed a second time. â€œAlright. If they ask what we're doing, it's fine. I just...â€ She gestured vaguely towards the others. â€œThat's the regent! Of the Realm! I mean, okay, he wasn't a great regent. On the surface, anyway, now I'm not so sure. But can you imagine the things he's done?â€
â€œDidn't you kill Dukantha?â€ Kieran's lips quirked into a smile.
â€œOh, you just have an answer for everything, don't you.â€ Alina leaned in, mock-aggresively. â€œThink you're so smart.â€
â€œYeah, I guess I do.â€ Kieran looked down at Alina. She looked back. Time seemed to hold still, and he found himself studying her, like a perfect work of art...
And then she abruptly stumbled a step backwards, her face flush. â€œSo. Language teaching. Should we start that?â€
â€œYes! Yes.â€ Kieran could feel himself flushing in return. What had he been thinking? Had he been thinking at all? Quickly pushing aside the memory of that moment, he stepped backwards as well. â€œWe can start with the spoken word. Nouns. Nouns are good.â€
Sitting by the fire, Aegis and Tenrek missed the exchange. Fokuf did not. Frowning thoughtfully, he made a mental note to keep an eye on the younger Solars, turning his attention to a more pressing issue. â€œSo, if souls either reincarnate or are destroyed, where did those ghosts come from?â€
â€œThe Blights.â€ Aegis's expression turned grim. â€œThey are pieces of Autochthon that have died. The first of them appeared two centuries ago. The first ghosts began to form a century after that. The nephwracks came in the last two decades.â€ Her expression distant, she gazed down the tunnel. â€œThe hungry dead come out of the tunnels, seize patrols where they find them, and drag their corpses into the depths of the Blight to create more soldiers. They've stolen thousands over the years, and we have no way to stop them short of invading the Blight itself - and once inside, our Essence functions poorly, and we are soon outnumbered.â€
â€œWhy don't you ward the passages into the Blight?â€ Fokuf's voice was quiet.
â€œWith what? There are no wards that will stop the Dead.â€
â€œSalt.â€ Aegis looked up sharply as Tenrek spoke. â€œA line of treated salt stops ghosts. Or fresh grain, but I can't imagine you get much of that here.â€
â€œSalt.â€ Aegis spoke slowly, shaking her head. â€œWe never even considered that. The cost of extracting it would be phenomenal, but it could function for critical areas.â€
â€œYou don't have salt mines?â€ Immediately after speaking, Tenrek closed his eyes in embarrassment. â€œNo, of course not. And without sunlight, there's nothing to restrict their movement down here.â€ He let out a slow hiss of thoughtfulness. â€œThat is a problem. But... you say there are hundreds of Exalts in Autochthonia. Why didn't you ever design Charms to fight the dead?â€
â€œA few efforts have been made, but our supplies of soulsteel are very limited, and usually needed for maintaining the Maker. It would take a large amount to develop entirely new Charms without any basis for development.â€
There was a long pause. â€œYou've lost me.â€ Tenrek's browline rose. â€œYou need magical materials to make Charms?â€
â€œYes.â€ Aegis spoke simply. Raising her arm, she tapped her skin in sequence, causing it to slide aside. Underneath, a series of spinning gyros of moonsilver spun. â€œMy Celerity-Enabling Module, for example, allows me to target primary enemies and avoid their blows.â€ She tapped her arm again, and the skin slid shut. â€œEach Charm is installed in a critical location, allowing me to channel Essence through it. I presume that yours do not function this way?â€
â€œUh...â€ Tenrek was staring at Aegis in fascination. â€œNo. We learn them through discipline and rigour, but that's about all.â€
â€œLike the martial arts?â€
â€œYes. Exactly like that.â€ Fokuf nodded, leaning back.
â€œInteresting. It would make our lives simpler, in some ways.â€ Aegis leaned back as well. â€œBut we should rest. Tomorrow, I will bring you to Sayis, and you may explain your mission to my commanders. Perhaps they can help you.â€
â€œThat would be lovely.â€ Fokuf grinned, and leaned back. Inside, his mind was racing. Events continued to grow more complicated, but he had to admit that he wouldn't have wanted to miss this.
As a note, the explanation for what happens to non-gemmed souls is decidedly non-canonical, but I figured it fit the Autochthonian mindset well. It felt like they would never exile anyone if the souls would be wasted; not really in theme for their world.