The song below is an old folk song, and not at all written by me.
â€œHowâ€™s it feel?â€ Alina gestured vaguely at Kieranâ€™s brow, and he smiled self-consciously. The two of them were sitting at the edge of a tunnel mouth, a short distance from the others. It was the closest thing that the tunnels had to a night, and the five travelers had chosen to stop for a rest before pushing on.
Reaching up a hand, Kieran felt the odd, yet comforting traces of the thin metal band that started over his right eyebrow, curving back below his hair to the back of his ear. He smiled faintly. â€œLike the most normal thing in the world, and the strangest, all at once. Itâ€¦ well, it rearranges the way you look at the world, in little ways. Nothing major, but it takes some getting used to.â€
â€œThe implant will barely give you a taste of the Clarity of the Maker, but that is for the best. Too much, and you would be as much a thing of Autochthon as of Creation.â€ The rumbling voice of Sayis filled the chamber â€“ the once-reluctant Patropolis had seemed eager to grant a measure of his perspective to at least one of the Solars, and Kieran had accepted it gladly. â€œUnfortunately, this will restrict you from many of the Protocols, which require an advanced attunement with the mind of the Maker. It will not restrict you from the two that you must learn, however.â€ The great Alchemical began to explain the concepts of the Essence Reallocation Protocol, which would siphon energy from Autochthonâ€™s defensive procedures, and the Theoplastic Engineering Protocol, which would reshape the damaged conduits preventing the Seal of Eight Divinities from opening.
The memory was a strong one, and Kieran sat back against the tunnel wall. He glanced over at their companions, currently engaged in a spirited debate on the wisdom of the current system. Tenrek was as animated as ever, but had been shifted into common ground with Aegis by Fokufâ€™s belief that Exalts were meant to guide, not to blindly follow. Careful words were, as usual, keeping the issue from getting out of hand. Kieran smiled lopsidedly to watch it. â€œHow about you? You speak the language â€“ ready to get this done?â€
â€œDone in a couple of weeks, maybe. We have to get through Yugash first.â€ Alina made a face at the thought.
â€œUnfortunately, we have little choice.â€ The elderly statesman who had been helping them, Preceptor Jadis, laid out the most recent map of the Reaches. â€œYugash currently controls all of the nearby approaches to the Makerâ€™s core. You could take this route around, through Nurad, Kamek, and finally Jarish, but I canâ€™t speak to your reception if you try to claim that you are outsiders come to speak with the Maker. Even the appearance of a Minister might not be enough.â€ He paused, and sighed. â€œBesides, that would be a journey of at least two months, through a number of dangerous territories. Better that you attempt the direct route, here.â€ A finger sketched out a simpler path. â€œYouâ€™ll skirt the edge of Yugash, pass through the Patropolis of Hath, and travel from there directly to the core.â€ He looked at the others seriously. â€œIt will be dangerous. Hath is a soulsteel patropolis, and Yugash is gearing up for war against us. But with the Ministers supporting your passage, he should be eager to allow you through. He is known to be a devout Exalt.â€
Alina shook her head, leaning closer to Kieran and away from the tunnels. â€œDo you really think that Hath will listen to us?â€
â€Well, weâ€™ll find out in a week.â€ Kieranâ€™s smile faded when he saw Alinaâ€™s expression. â€œSorry, bad joke. But come on â€“ you took out Dukantha. Some old cityâ€™s not going to scare you, is it?â€
â€œKieran, two of us died fighting Dukantha. And we were lucky. I donâ€™t want to lose you, too.â€ Alina paused, clarifying briefly. â€œAny of you.â€ She sighed heavily. â€œI miss Citrios.â€
Kieran nodded. â€œI understand.â€ He stood abruptly. â€œLetâ€™s rejoin the others.â€
Alina nodded, and the two walked back to the fire, where the discussion had died down. Tenrek glanced over with a half-grin. â€œOur politics didnâ€™t scare you away, I hope?â€
â€œNo, just thinking about our friends.â€ Kieran settled back against the wall. For a moment, everything was quiet, with everyone nodding their assent. Aegis glanced from one to the other, struck by the sudden wave of loneliness washing over them.
Then, Tenrek began to sing.
His voice was a low baritone, a rich sound that wafted into the tunnels. After a few words, Alina joined in, her own voice adding a soprano counterpoint.
â€œFare thee well, my love, I must be gone, And leave you for a while,
If I roam away, I will come back again,
if I roam ten thousand miles my dear, if I roam ten thousand miles.
â€œThe seas will never run dry, my dear, nor the rocks never melt in the sun,
And I never will prove false, to the bonnie lass I love,
not if all these be done, my dear, not if all these things be done.
â€Oh yonder sits that little turtle dove, It sits on yonder high tree,
A making a moan for the loss of his love,
As I will do for thee, My dear, As I will do for thee.â€
Their voices faded together, and the two looked up at the others. Aegis, after a few moments, spoke softly. â€œThatâ€™s a beautiful tune.â€ She smiled ruefully. â€œI only caught one word in two, but it was beautiful. What is it?â€
â€œOld.â€ Tenrek smiled faintly, glancing over at Alina. â€œSomething I learnedâ€¦â€ He broke off. â€œI donâ€™t know where, honestly. A long time ago.â€
Alina nodded softly, wiping at one eye. â€œWe should get moving. Weâ€™ve got a long trip ahead of us.â€
Slowly, the five Exalts rose to their feet, and continued their journey into the darkness.