My Name Is Lenn (Second Edit Preview)

Chapter One – Found

Surrounded by a torrent of debris in a storm-swollen river, fighting the freezing water, blustering leaves, and stabbing sticks, I fought to live. My determination was rapidly deteriorating, but fear kept me kicking, flailing. In an instant as sharp as glass, something narrow and frighteningly jagged crawled from my left shoulder to my right ear. The screeching pain removed most of the air in my lungs from the shock. I tasted blood and I felt it cascade into my lungs, even with my mouth closed. I could no longer breathe, even above water. Only by the sheer luck of the current did I drift towards bare rock. Crawling, I turned myself downwards towards the slope, and threw up the blood and swampy water. In the dark, I didn’t understand the full extent of my injury. But the last thing I perceived that night were thick black channels of my own blood drizzling down the stony ground.

In my throws of confusion and blood loss, darkness passed over me. I had no concerns for the morrow. Time abandoned me as quickly as the heat in my body. Dreams floated through my mind. Was I viewing my last thoughts? Either that, or part of me was not yet willing to let go of life, and still dared to hope.

I saw you, Aria. So clearly. Your smile. Your hope. I reached for you. But I could not feel your touch. I could not even whisper your name. Every one of us, every member of both our families was dead, and you would be last. With that realization, my dreams faded and all emotion vanished.

But though I stood knocking on Death’s mighty door that night, begging to be let in, He did not answer.

The very next thing I remember are hearing someone call out, far away:

“Hey, Aaron, wait for us!”

The words did not immediately register; an unintelligible roar. They sounded like my dreams, like the buzzing of flies. Another sound quickly filled the void: the hoof-like thunder of violence pounding upon dirt. It was rhythmic at first, but it quickly filled my ears until it deafened me.

Then, it stopped short, and a small bout of silence led to a single breathless phrase.

“What is that?

I felt nothing. Even when a very powerful force lifted me into the air and placed me delicately upon my back, forcing my frigid equilibrium to square off against gravity. Not a sliver of reality returned.

I saw daylight without seeing. Strong and terrible, it blinded my still-closed eyes.

“Look, Ian!”

“What is….? Whoa. Whoa.”

“Look, there’s blood everywhere. It must have been attacked by something.” There was a short pause. “It’s… dead.”

I felt a thick dull object compress my chest against the ground, and the intense agony made me clench inwards.

“No, look! It’s still breathing, look. It’s alive!”

I wanted to tell the voice to stop shouting in my ear. But it wasn’t shouting, exactly, and it was nowhere near my head. The sun disappeared from view, overcome by a shadow cast from a strange source, way up high. At once, I knew exactly what had discovered me.

Denvi. And ka denvi at that. Several of them, by the sound of it. I wasn’t yet dead. But I soon would be. And for an entirely different reason.

I opened my eyes. At least, I tried to. Still blinded by the scales of sunlight, I could only see the outline of an enormous figure standing above me. I could see a head, bent knees, wide shoulders. Almost beyond my sight were two similar shapes beside the first, strong ivory towers that reached into the sky. Nothing in detail.

“It’s awake!”

“Chris, stay back. Shh! You’re going to scare it.”

“No I won’t!”

I closed my eyes again. Was I simply going to accept this fate? Part of me must have, as I felt no fear. No feeling in my legs or arms. Despite the warmth of the sun and the bright spring day, I felt winter in my throat and earth in my lungs.

“Aaron, we’ve got to take it to my Dad. It’s gonna die if we don’t.”

“Eww,” said the youngest voice. “I’m not touching it. It’s naked.”

The voice above me made a clucking sound.

“It’s not naked, Chris. It just doesn’t have a shirt. Besides, it’s obviously a little boy. Who cares?”

“We don’t have anything to carry him in. Dad taught me never to jostle a patient, since it could make their injury worse, you know? Do we… have anything I could use?”

“Should’a brought a backpack,” said the youngest.

“Yeah,” answered the voice directly above me. “Um. Oh, hey. Hold on, Ian. Use my shirt.”

At last, a vital spark of fear shot through my heart when another great force embraced my prone body and lifted me straight off the ground. Instead of becoming little more than red splatter within a terrible fist, or the force transforming into a claw to rend me into pieces, I felt myself descend into tender rest, as if placed into a warm cradle. Admittedly, the cradle smelled like someone in desperate need of a bath, but I could hardly complain; for the first time in days, I felt some source of comfort.

“It’s gonna get your shirt bloody,” said the youngest voice.

So?” came the haughty reply.

“It doesn’t matter. Come on, we’d better hurry.”

I felt a sudden acceleration, like nothing I had ever experienced before. I gasped; it felt as though I had been strapped to a falcon in freefall. I recovered my breath, and began to feel the wall upon which I leaned, heaving inwards and outwards with the effort of a heavy jog.

I didn’t know what these ka intended to do with me. But like no other time before, I knew in my heart that I would never see you again.

* * * * * *

The sounds that echoed around me would have been frightening at any other time: the honking of terrible horns; the rumble of great machines; the delightful songs of birds that would have pried me to death for breakfast if given the chance; the murmur of other denvi laughing, speaking to each other.

One concern crossed my mind: would this ka reveal me to other denvi? Would I ever have freedom again? But then it occurred to me: I might not survive the next few hours. Very little else mattered if I died.

The journey felt like hours, my ripped skin fully exposed to the wind and sun. I wasn’t sure if I still bled freely, but the sapping cold I felt in my extremities told me more than enough.

“Chris! You’re faster than us! Run ahead and go tell dad that we’ve got a dying patient! He should be in his office!”

“Okay!”

“Don’t move him around too much!”

“I know, I know.”

“Your dad’s not home today?”

“No, he’s at work filling out papers and stuff. Hopefully we can sneak in through the back.”

Sneak? Interesting. Was sneaking something these ka usually did? Or did they do it because of me?

I dared to open my eyes again, now that my angle had improved and my blindness somewhat faded. Above me was a horrific view. Beyond a chest covered in gray fabric was the slender jawline of a young ka, his gaze aimed directly towards his travels. A short round nose, messy brown hair, light freckles, green-blue eyes. Everything in the right place, nothing at the right scale. For a split second as his feet rounded a corner, his eyes graced upon mine.

“Don’t worry, little boy,” he said to me, his voice quiet and oddly determined. “My dad’s going to take care of you.”

‘Little boy’, he said. Kani. I hadn’t been called that since Grandmother passed.

“Is he okay?” asked one of the ka, not the youngest.

He came into view, and looked upon me as one would look upon a corpse. This one’s face was more youthful than the ka that held me, with a thinner build, red hair, freckles from ear to ear. His chest was also blindingly bare, but of course it was; he’d given me his shirt to lay upon. I wasn’t certain what expression he wore from my prone position, but it was apparent that his awe was just as sure as the one who held me.

For the first time in many hours, I attempted to speak. Although air escaped my lips, no sound accompanied it. I tried again. Nothing but a rasping noise, the sound of gurgling saliva and blood. In slight panic, I lifted my hand as best I could to my mouth. I could breathe, but I could not speak. I must have appeared as terrified as I felt, as both ka winced at my reaction.

“No, no, please don’t touch it,” said the ka who held me. “Come on, Aaron, hurry.”

“Right!”

The second half of the journey did not take nearly as long. I looked to my left, and saw for the first time the weight of a denvi hand, slender and enormous. Its fingers curled around me, blocking my view of the road ahead (and blocking others from viewing me in return).

Strangely, the thought hadn’t arisen until that moment that this ka was holding me in the crux of his arm like a newborn child. The black-blue shirt beneath me covered much of the arm, yet within my hand’s reach was a portion of the golden white, covered in invisible hairs and spotted with a single tiny mole. Whether out of curiosity or sick madness, I reached out my hand and gently slid it against the arm. When my hand felt its warmth, I realized that I smeared it with a trail of still-wet blood.

“Hey,” said the panting ka above me with a light laugh, to my great distress. “That tickles.”

I mouthed the word “sorry”, but only breath came out.

The ka denvi arrived at a gigantic building, two stories tall and covered in smooth white clay. Instead of going through the main entrance, the ka passed into an alleyway beside it. I saw power lines above tall wooden fencing, as well as a wide windowless wall of stone.

The ka called the place a ‘doctor’s office’. I knew the phrase, but not in context. I had only known healing through bitter herbs and roots, a chalky denvi pill two or three times when fevers threatened to kill a younger me.

If denvi medicine could cure this, I thought, it would be a miracle.

A door clunked open loudly, startling me, and the sunlight above me disappeared as the ka stepped into the building. Instead of the blinding light of the early morning, the atmosphere was replaced with dim halogen and the scent of denvi cleanliness. The air turned cold, freezing what blood still pumped through my veins. Denvi preferred living in spotless and pristine environments, sometimes disturbingly so; that place was devoid of color, incredibly alien.

Down a hallway, turn right, down another hallway. Past ringing telephones, laughing voices, and the sickening smell of bitter chemicals.

“Dad!”

“I told him, Ian! I told him about the dying patient!”

“What is this about, Ian?” asked a gruff deep voice. It sounded displeased, which turned my stomach. “No. Absolutely not. The clinic is no place for dead animals.”

“Dad, just… just look at him, okay? It’s not an animal, it’s…” The ka shot a glance back down the hallway before whispering: “It’s a little boy!”

“A what?

I heard a giant rise from a creaking chair.

“What do you mean, a little…”

I may not have been completely naked, but I have never felt more exposed than I did at that moment.

I then stared at the tallest denvi I have ever laid eyes upon, then and since. I thought the ka that held me was gigantic; his father stood over him like a skyscraper. Though age greatly separated the two denvi, the older male appeared remarkably similar to the ka that held me: slender face, round nose, intense eyes, and a beardless complexion. His fatherly frustration melted into amazement as he witnessed me for the first time.

“Wait, wait, wait,” he whispered in shock, turning away. He reappeared instantly donning a thin pair of frameless glasses. “My goodness… Ian, where did you…?”

One of the ka closed the door behind them.

“It was Aaron who found him. We were walking down the canal when we saw him next to the water. What is he, Dad?”

“I have no idea…”

His rough finger touched my stomach, and his fingers gripped my knee. He then felt my forehead, and must not have liked what he sensed.

“I mean, I… I don’t know if I can fix this. Look how deep that wound is.” I heard him sigh. “I have stitches, but… I’m not a surgeon. I’ve never stitched anything like this.”

“Well… can’t you just, I don’t know… bandage it?” asked the ka.

“And just leave a hole in his throat? If the wound is infected, it could kill him no matter what I do.”

“Please, Dad,” the boy continued. “You have to do something, I don’t want him to die!”

Emotion hit me, and it hit me hard. Beside the thought of never seeing you again, I couldn’t imagine a world in which someone besides you would care whether I lived or died. I wanted to cry out, but I only produced a whisper.

The great denvi pursed his lips and looked at me.

“Can you… understand me?”

I tried to whisper: “Yes.” No sound emerged, but he understood.

“If it were up to me,” he told me. “I’d take you to UCHealth immediately. It’s the best hospital here in town. You’ll have the best chance at survival if we take you there right now.”

I shook my head, hard and fast. If I went to a denvi hospital, even if I survived, my life was over. And yours as well, most likely. If the humans learned about me, about us… I would never see you again, and Elder Ordi would make sure of that. The bastard would bury both of us before ever allowing humans to discover our home… even if it meant better lives for them all.

“Are you sure?” he asked. “Now… I’m not a bad doctor. But I’m only human. And I can’t make any promises.”

I nodded, accepting that. Truth be told, it was because he was human that I dared to hope. And somehow, I think the denvi doctor anticipated my answer. He shook his head, and sighed. But then he gave his son a determined look.

“If you’re sure,” he said. “Place him on the table, Ian. I’ll do my best.”

The ka named Ian stepped towards a strange cushioned piece of furniture that appeared to be more of a bed than a table. Though immense pain flashed through my body, Ian took me gently with his great hands, removing me from the warmth and placing me down on the surface. I felt the crinkling of paper beneath my back; I had no idea what purpose it served. I gazed silently at the ka named Ian as he watched me in return, his face flush with concern. Beside him was the ka named Aaron, who tossed the freshly-bloodied (but fortunately dark-hued) shirt over his shoulder.

“All right, all right,” said Ian’s father, sitting back in his chair. “Okay, let’s see. Ian, boys, I need you to stay quiet for a moment.”

All the young denvi took a few steps backwards, and Ian’s father wheeled himself to sit directly over me. Into his ears he placed a strangely-pronged metal necklace called a ‘stethoscope’. Though I would later be informed that every denvi doctor wore such a thing, and that they were quite harmless, I thought he was about to smash me flat with the hammer-like tip of the tool. He pressed the wide circular end of the device upon my stomach and chest, and both the cold and the pressure made me scream. Or, it would have, had I the ability to scream. Instead, he saw the reaction on my face.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I don’t know how else to do this. If you can, try to breathe normally. I have to hear you breathe.”

I obeyed as best I could, drawing in air against all odds; the tool made exhaling easier than it should have been. None of the denvi said a word.

“Okay,” said the father at last, sparing me from the tool. “His lungs sound clear. Only a little rasping.”

“What does that mean?” asked Ian.

“It means he isn’t gasping for air from internal bleeding. It seems like whatever cut his neck missed the vitals… except…”

He leaned in closer to me, peering through his glasses.

“Can you speak?” he asked me. “Can you make any sound at all?”

Again, my mouth opened, and I created the words with my lips. I placed my hand to my neck, being cautious not to touch the torn flesh, and mouthed the words: ‘Neh angia, neh angia’. No sound emerged. It finally dawned upon me why.

“You can’t…” said the father. “You poor thing.”

“What, Dad? What happened?”

The father pulled away from me.

“It’s possible his vocal cords were severed. The wound is certainly deep enough. He’s lucky that whatever caused this didn’t tear open his carotid artery.” He traced the left side of his neck with his finger as he spoke. “I just… I don’t think he’ll be able to use his voice.”

My expression turned dark, and I let my hands fall. I’d never speak again. I’d never be able to yell, or cry, or sing, or read out loud.

Or tell you how much I love you, one more time.

“I’m sorry,” Ian said, stepping towards me. He reached out his finger and gently touched my forearm. “I didn’t hurt you when I picked you up, did I? You couldn’t have told me if I did.”

I couldn’t focus on him. I was too busy trying to process the world. Life, in that moment, what remained of it. I think, at long last, as the cold faded, shock had started to set in.

“Let’s see,” said the father, moving in close again. “Damn it. I don’t even want to try suturing this. Steri-strips will have to do. I’m sorry, little guy, but I have to make sure those wounds don’t become infected. When I put the antibiotic on, it’s going to hurt. Probably… a lot. But I’ll put Lidocaine on it immediately, so the pain won’t last long. Is that all right? Do you understand?”

I didn’t at all, but I nodded as best I could anyway.

“I just hope this works. You said you found him near the canal?”

“Yeah. He probably almost drowned. But it doesn’t matter. He’ll get better,” Ian said steadfastly, bending himself to put me and his eyes on an even level. “I know he will.”

I blinked a few times, and out of sheer hopelessness, I reached out to him. With his wide thumb and forefinger, he took my outstretched hand and most of my lower arm.

“It’ll be okay,” he said. “I promise.”

I’d only known this ka for maybe fifteen minutes. And I didn’t believe him. But tears formed anyway. 


Chapter TwoStrange Place, Strange People

“I think it’s better if everyone stayed quiet about this little boy for now,” said Ian’s father, driving a colossal vehicle called a ‘car’. Of course, I knew what a car looked like from pictures. And I had nearly been struck by one on the way down the mountain. But I had never been inside one, much less one that was moving. “At least until he improves. Agreed?”

“Yeah,” said all of the ka.

Ian held me carefully in his arm, supporting me with a thick, light-blue towel. Ian’s father had undersold the truth: putting on those first bandages turned out to be one of the most painful experiences of my life, worse than actually being sliced open. The “hydrogen peroxide”, as the denvi called it, was a clear liquid, clear as water. It was not water. He applied the substance to my skin with a cotton swab. At first, it was merely cold. But within a second, the wound in my neck stung as if I’d been set ablaze. Within ten or so seconds, I passed out. To my shock, I woke to see sunlight shining down on my face, my frail little body once again being carried by the human boy. I reached up, and discovered thick but delicate bandages completely engulfing my neck, my shoulders, and much of my chest, to the point where I could not have raised my arms above my head. The intensity of the pain had been replaced by a strange and pleasant numbness, and I had zero desire to move, lest the burning reignite.

Although I had nearly been consumed by a flood, I’d thrown up quite a bit of what I had swallowed. I was thirsty, very suddenly so. Although I doubted there was anything that could be done about it, I had to let the ka know. Again, part of Ian’s arm was uncovered by the towel, and I gently patted it.

“Hmm?” He looked down. “Oh, hey, you’re awake! Are you okay?”

“He is?” asked Aaron, looking at me as he sat at Ian’s side.

“Can I see?” asked Chris, turning around in the front seat.

I called upon my voice by mistake, mouthing the words ‘I’m thirsty’. Hearing nothing, my hands instinctively touched the cotton muffler at my throat.

“You’re…” Ian said. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

“I think he said… something about being dirty?”

“You can read lips?”

“I dunno.”

They looked back down at me, and I shook my head as well as I could.

“Nope, guess I can’t,” said Aaron with a chuckle.

I pointed to my mouth.

“Yeah, you can’t speak,” said Ian. “Or… something about your mouth?”

I nodded. I cupped my hand and raised it to my puckered lips.

“Oh!” Ian said. “You’re thirsty! Dad, do we have any water in here? Like a water bottle or something?”

The father looked around a bit, despite the distraction of the road beyond the windshield.

“I don’t think so,” said the father. “But I don’t think a water bottle would be good for him anyway. You’d probably drown him. We have an eyedropper at home, that might work.”

“All right.” He turned back to me. “Do you think you’ll be all right until we get home?”

I nodded slowly, closing my eyes. I nearly let my chin lean forwards, but the sting in my neck kept me motionless.

The drive only took a few minutes. But as I watched the landscape beyond the vehicle’s window fly by, tree after tree, sign post after street light, I realized just how far away I was traveling from you. I know our decisions had brought me to that place. My decisions. But I had run out of choices to make. If I tried to return to our village, especially with that kind of injury, I would die within a day. Maybe with the help of these denvi, once I regained my strength, I would have a chance to return to you.

The car stopped moving when it arrived at a well-kept building of white wood and red brick, at least from what I saw from my perspective in Ian’s arms. Chris and Aaron rose, exiting the vehicle without being prompted.

“Remember, guys,” Ian said. “Don’t tell anybody about him. Even Uncle Ty and Aunt Amy. Just tell them I have a doctor’s appointment to go to or something.”

“You’re not wrong!” Aaron said with a quick smirk.

“See you, boys,” said Ian’s father. “And good job today.”

The doors shut, and both ka ran for the home’s front door and disappeared inside. The car then continued its movement.

In truth, I was becoming a bit alarmed. The deep rumble of the denvi vehicle, the pain in my body, the exhaustion from the entire terrible week, it all conspired against me. The urge to sleep even overrode my desire for water. But if I drifted off into sleep now, would I wake up? And where would I be when I awoke?

Ian noticed my distress. Looking down, his breath fell upon me.

“Are you okay?”

“Let him rest, Ian,” said Ian’s father. “That will be the best thing for him.”

“All right,” Ian said, watching me. “Don’t worry. You can sleep. I’ll make sure you’re comfortable when we get home.”

Trust is a strong word. I wasn’t sure I had much for the boy or his father yet. But his few simple words granted me the permission I needed to surrender. I closed my eyes, and was out in an instant.

The very next something I experienced was a powerful smell. A collection of smells all wrapped into one, in fact. They weren’t individually terrible. Together, they clashed.

One was some kind of bitter cleaning solution, what denvi use to clean their floors and furniture. The second was unfamiliar, primal, the kind of odor that marks someone. I’ve been told that denvi only sort of experience such smells, that dogs are better at identifying people this way. Do you remember when you told me mine was like juniper? I never could help having that dull smell, no matter how much I bathed or what soap I washed with. But this one was thick, the smell of an older child and something buried, like orm roots. The third smell that consumed my senses was by far the strongest: a mixture of savory herbs and flavorful stock.

My eyes opened. A dim white ceiling greeted me first, made yellow by a light source from somewhere in the room. My eyes tracked the ceiling to the far wall, upon which sat two rows of wooden shelves. On these shelves was a colorful assortment of plastic toys and books, well-used boxes with bright graphics and frayed corners, and plastic cases with a variety of English words upon them. Beside the shelves was a wide window framed with dark-red curtains, through which I could see trees, telephone lines, and the light blue of a beautiful spring afternoon.

I tried to lift myself to get a better view of my surroundings, but the roaring pain in my neck pinned me down. I dared not move, but I again attempted to make sound, any sound at all. When I mouthed the words, I could hear the delicate wind of spoken language, but it did not have my voice, nor did it have any great volume. Then, for the first time since, I nearly gagged as the inside of my throat erupted in irritation and pain. After all the blood and damage, it was only natural. If the doctor had been right about my throat, that my vocal chords had been “fractured” by whatever hellish thing I hit in the river, then perhaps it wasn’t the best idea to force my voice to function. I settled back into my light-blue bedding and simply stared.

My ears yearned for recognizable sounds. Muffled voices echoed from elsewhere inside the denvi home, all too indistinct. Every four seconds or so, I would hear a sharp click from somewhere behind me. I didn’t recognize it. It was hollow and tinged, like the metallic ping of a bell. I hated it. With every click, it felt like something in the back of my head was being struck with a ball-peen hammer. But since it didn’t approach, I deemed it annoying but nonthreatening.

Somewhere deep within the bowels of the house, the sound of rushing water echoed. Whenever their plumbing flowed, said the gatherers, denvi would be present.

I decided that the sound was too distant to concern me. Until, of course, I reasoned that distance didn’t exactly matter when all the denvi who lived there knew what I was, where I was, what I looked like, and my current state of health.

I’m unsure how long I laid in that strange rectangular room by myself. For all their faults, I mused, the gatherers had been right about one thing: the denvi adored ninety degree angles. Every room that I had seen thus far had been perfectly rectangular, perfectly geometrical. I didn’t mind it. It had to make their construction projects simple, at least. I knew many who regularly complained about them, though.

Every room is the same, they often said. The only thing different about each room are the colors on the walls and the obstacles on the floor.

If the rooms are all the same, I would always ask, then, what makes them so hard to navigate?

Nothing important is ever on the floor, they would answer. It’s always up above.

I had never been too sure about that. But the gatherers’ toolkit made things quite clear, and never changed: steel grappling hooks, tough leather belts, and as much thread as you can shoulder. Climbing was the only way to survive in a denvi home. Olem, climbing was the only way to survive anywhere. Combined with the ability to remain hidden in the shadows. If a deni had any trouble with these two skills, they were better off staying home.

Like me.

I never was a very physical person. I couldn’t be. You know that. So I taught the deni children how to read and write, content to enjoy the odd scraps of paper the gatherers would bring back. When you convinced them to find some for us, of course. For a few moments, I wondered if I would ever get to teach again. I wondered if I would I ever get to live in a villageagain. Or, come to think of it, would I even see another living deni again?

A sound. The click-thud of a closing door. Footsteps.Big ones.They distanced themselves at first, but then reappeared as deep thumping upon the solid floor nearby.

I froze. Every instinct inside me demanded me to move, to flee, but the pain grew unbearable the moment I even dared to lurch forward. I relaxed, and the pain dulled. Death was just around the corner and I couldn’t move a muscle.

A great door suddenly clicked open directly behind my head, shocking me. I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep. If the skeletal visage of Death had actually entered the room, I’d never see him coming. Was that better or worse?

Great footsteps on carpet closed the door behind them. I heard the sound of a quiet sigh, and within a second, felt the brush of stirred air as a very large someone strode past where I lay. I dared to open my eyes for just a split second, and I saw the dark-haired head of a familiar ka ignoring me, walking further into the room.

The veritable weight of his presence unnerved me, certainly, but I realized that my position was somewhere high off the ground, as if on some shelf. If I had been lower down, in a crushing position, my psychological state would have been considerably more fragile. Once the ka named Ian passed by, I could no longer see him from within my bedding. He began humming some tune, considerably off-key, and I heard the crunch of metal springs beneath dozens, maybe even hundreds,of pounds.

I didn’t want him to find me awake. But I preferred he didn’t go to bed and leave me in a state of uncertain panic for two to three hours, either.

I didn’t know if the boy would see it, but I had to try. Despite the discomfort, I raised my right arm, waving my hand back and forth to grab the boy’s attention. In that moment alone, I was glad you weren’t with me; you would have stabbed me with your hairpin to make me stop. I felt incredibly foolish. But it soon had its intended effect.

“Oh!” said a quiet voice.

The metal springs complained again, and deep-thumping steps brought the ka denvi into view. I don’t quite know why I expected his appearance to differ from only a few hours before. Though my imagination had turned him into a hideous monster as I slept, he simply… wasn’t. The dim yellow light that shone from behind him cast his massive shadow upon me. Despite this, more than enough daylight entered through the window that I could see him in detail. Bright green eyes, long messy hair that grew past his ears. I could only see his face, his collar, and part of his shoulders, so I knew I must have been quite high off the floor.

“Hi,” he said to me.

I offered a small wave in reply, blinking to make sure this boy was truly looking down upon me and not some other poor fool.

“Oh, good, you can wave.”

I couldn’t nod real well. But I could smile. Slightly.

“How are you feeling? Are you in pain?”

I shrugged my shoulders, which made me wince.

“I’m sorry. I wish I could give you medicine to help. Dad isn’t sure how much we can give you yet. He said he’s gonna do some research about it, though, maybe give you some… relative to your size, you know? Do the bandages help, at least?”

I moved my lips. I think he took that as a “yes”. He watched me for a bit longer than would be considered polite. I even closed my eyes for a second as if tired, just to look back and see he hadn’t stopped staring. I think I glared at him. That gave him the hint, and he shook out of his daze.

“Uh…” The boy chuckled, moving on. “Oh. Hey, do you… want me to get you anything?”

Again, I lifted a cupped hand to my mouth. Recognition lit up his face.

“Oh yeah! Sorry, I forgot! Wait right here.”

Not that I had a choice. Just as abruptly as he had entered the room, he stepped out; the entirety of him suddenly not being in front of me was almost as jarring as him being there. I heard his footsteps travel a short distance, a door open, something clatter, and a waterfall cascade into a hollow bowl. Ten seconds later, the ka returned, closing his door and coming back into my view.

“Here you go,” said Ian cheerfully. In his hands he held a large plastic tube and an even larger vessel filled with pure water. “Drink from this.”

It wasn’t just a tube, exactly; a tube with a plunger within that could fill and empty just by squeezing the plunger through it. Ian brought the tube to my mouth, and as his thumb pressed upon the plunger, my lips immediately met with moisture. I inhaled the first fist-sized drop. Metaphorically. I hadn’t had a clean drink of water in maybe two days; I’d thrown up all the unclean river water I’d dare drink before then. A second drop emerged, and I lapped it up. A third, fourth, and fifth drop formed, and I took my time with them, enjoying every second of the incredible crisp liquid. Finally, I leaned my head backwards as a sixth drop formed. I thought it might spill across my chest. But Ian was watching the procedure closely, and simply by pulling on the plunger, the drop withdrew back into the strange tube as if by magic.

“Is that all?” Ian asked. “Do you want more?”

I raised a finger up.

“One more?”

I pushed my hand forwards a few times.

“Oh. I’ll wait. Sorry.”

He was considerate, I’d give him that. Perhaps I wasn’t an animal to him after all. Once I regained my composure and felt there was room for more, I waved at him.

“Here ya go.”

The tube lowered and produced a droplet, which I sucked up with gratitude. I did the same with a second, a third, and a fourth. I then raised my hand to make the water cease, which it did.

Now, I thought to myself, what do denvi do? Then I remembered; I’d seen it in a picture from a torn magazine once, and I’d seen Grandmother do it a few times. I lifted my hand, formed a fist, but left my thumb extended. I didn’t really know what that meant. But I’m glad Ian did, and a smile formed on his face.

“Yay,” he said. “Good. Good. Hey, are you cold? Or hot? Lift up your arm.”

I didn’t, but the boy took it in his fingers anyway. My left arm, too. It hurt.

“Hmm. What about here?”

He felt my stomach with his forefinger. I lost a bit of air as he pressed down. He then lightly squeezed my right foot. It was then I knew for sure that I had lost my ratty shoes. I didn’t much care; they hadn’t offered any real protection. I was just grateful I still wore any piece of clothing at all (specifically, the pants that clung to my waist).

“Yeah, you’re cold. Do you want me to get you another towel? Help keep you warm?”

My hand waved a negative and fell back down to my side. Despite the blood loss and relative nakedness, most of me was badly sunburned, and for the first time in a week, I felt fairly comfortable.

“You’re sure?”

I nodded.

“Um, let’s see,” he whispered, lowering his eyes to my level.

I turned my head as best I could, and saw the curious light of his eyes not more than a few arm lengths away. I’m not going to lie, it was slightly horrifying, being able to seemyself in that reflection.

“Dad says that it’s super-important that your patient stays comfortable. And he said that sometimes a distraction can help lessen pain. If you want, we can watch a movie on my TV. I’ll watch with you to make sure you’re okay.”

I knew what a “movie” was, if only because of the word. At first, I gave him a halfway shrug. Until my plodding mind comprehended what the boy was offering me. When would I ever get the opportunity to watch a denvi movie otherwise? I quickly nodded to override my shrug.

“Yeah? Cool. Uh, hang on, let’s see…”

Ian looked around his room for a moment, and then stepped outside again. His thundering footsteps faded, then I heard him faintly shout to someone. Everything grew quiet. A door very far away slammed, and Ian’s footsteps rebounded towards me until he entered the room. He passed me by, fiddling with something wooden and metallic. I had no idea what to make of it, so I remained still.

Ian then came into view.

“I got you a chair,” he said. “You’ll have the best seat in the house. Like sitting in your own theater.”

I nodded, not fully understanding. I only knew of “theaters” by the word. But if they had anything to do with movies, they must have been fantastic places to visit.

“Okay, here we go,” Ian said, his slender yet gigantic hands reaching for me. One hand descended beneath my right side, and the other crossed over me beneath my left; I half-expected to be smothered. Instead, I went airborne, descending into that strange and massive room. I didn’t have too much time to marvel at the movement before my bedding and I came to rest upon an inclined surface. Although I couldn’t say so, it felt wonderful to be seated. Ian’s hands disappeared, and there, standing upon its own table, I looked upon the largest and most foreboding black rectangle in existence.

The descent hadn’t frightened me all that much. No, it was the tower of a boy that loomed over me that attracted my horrified gaze. Dressed in a gray shirt and shorts, I could see Ian in much greater detail from my new perspective, from his knees all the way up to his head. It was like looking through some strange piece of warped glass, making the child only appear to stand as tall as a tree. But no. In reality, I was lying prone, under the complete command of this very real denvi.

I was right about lower altitudes, but perhaps not about him.Contrary to every tale I had ever heard about them, this human named Ian didn’t pose a threat to me. He didn’t intend to, at least. His size did, sure. But his demeanor did not.

He crossed the room between me and the rectangle, taking some device in his hand. The pitch-black rectangle suddenly gave way to a pair of bright blue words that I couldn’t pronounce. They made no sound, but the two words then became a blue illustration of a television that playfully bounced back and forth across the screen. The television was active and ready.

“Okay,” Ian said, stepping towards the shelves that hung next to the window. “I’ve got a couple of movies to choose from. What do you think? Star Wars? Lord of the Rings? Maybe a Disney movie?”

I hadn’t the slightest clue what any of those words meant. Without any hint of preference, I almost shrugged again, but then an idea popped in my head: I had a very important question (a number of questions, really), and without a voice, there was going to be only one way I could ask it.

I raised my hand to stop the boy. Before he could ask why, I pressed my fingers together and wobbled them back and forth against the palm of my opposite hand. I watched Ian’s face for any sign that he understood.

Ian cocked his head to the side.

“You want to… write something?” he asked. He then smacked his forehead. “Oh! I’m so dumb! Why didn’t I think that you could? Hang on, let me find something you can use.”

Ian stepped away from my view, and the sounds I heard resembled rummaging through a filled drawer. The silly boy mumbled to himself in the meantime.

“No, not a pen. Too big. Nay, pencil’s too big, too. Maybe if I snap it in half, I dunno. Marker? Eh, they’re all dead. And you can’t write with a cray… Ah!”

Something snapped, surely too delicate and light to be a whole pencil. More rummaging. Then the boy reappeared, kneeling before me.

“Here you go.”

His hand hovered close, and between his fingers was a short gray stick a bit thicker than my thumb and twice as long as my hand. I recognized it immediately, as I had used them all the time: it was the lead of what the denvi called a “mechanical” pencil. I took it gladly.

“And here, you can use these.”

With his other hand, he placed a thick pad of light-green paper up to the edge of my lap. I’d used these as well. They called them “sticky notes”. People in the village generally used them not only as writing material, but as a source of adhesive that comes off easily enough with a thin knife.

I began writing my question when there came a knock at Ian’s door. I panicked somewhat when Ian said: “Hi.”

I looked; a familiar face looked back.

“Ian?” asked Ian’s father. “Is our patient awake?”

“Yep,” Ian said. “I was going to watch a movie with him, but guess what? He knows how to write.”

The denvi’s face brightened.

“Really?” he said. “That’s wonderful! I’d love to join you. Is it all right if I come in?”

“Is that okay?” Ian asked me.

Despite the water I just drank, my throat ran dry. But I nodded all the same.

The denvi opened the door and stepped into the room, and I imagined him hitting his head on the top of the door frame. I’m exaggerating, obviously, but I had never seen someone standing so tall before. I’ve never asked him to know for sure, but the good doctor had to stand more than seven feet tall, at least.He carried a large wooden stool in one hand as if expecting to enter whether I liked it or not. After placing it beside me and sitting down, Ian leaned backwards and plopped to the floor on his bottom. With both of them seated, I felt considerably less intimidated.

I pressed my hand against my forehead and closed my eyes, thinking for a moment. It would have been so much easier with a voice. I then pressed the graphite to the paper. Aware that the denvi would likely not be able to read my regular handwriting, I struck out my first words, rewriting them as large as I dared. It took me a moment to get used to my seating position, but I soon found a way to scribble without too much discomfort. Finished, I tore off the paper from the stack and handed it to Ian, who took it expectantly.

He squinted at the note, and for a moment, I thought I might have to rewrite it.

“Why would…? Because you were gonna die, silly.”

“What does it say?” asked his father.

Ian handed the note over.

“It says, why did you save me?”

The denvi above me placed a hand to his chin, and seemed to understand the intent of my question a bit better than the boy.

“Something tells me you don’t have very much experience with people like us.”

I shook my head.

“What do you mean?” Ian asked.

“Well, I’ve never seen someone like him, have you?” Speaking to me, he said: “You probably didn’t expect to be found by the boys, did you?”

I paused, and wondered if what I wanted to say would get me in trouble somehow. I carefully traced letters to paper anyway, pausing for a moment when I realized that they wouldn’t be familiar with my language. I pulled the note from the stack, and hesitated on who I should hand it to.

Ian’s father reached out first. He took his glasses from his pocket and studied my writing.

“My family,” he read. “…is dead because of humans.”

Ian’s eyes opened wide.

“…seriously?”

His father remained impassive when I nodded.

“You have every reason not to trust us, then,” he said.

I looked away.

“…but your whole family?” Ian asked, pulling forwards. “How?”

“Ian,” said the father. “I don’t think that’s our right to ask.”

They looked down upon me, and saw me busily writing. Mother, Father. Han and Sareil, the little brother and sister I would never know. Most of my students. Grandmother, your father Andre, and your brother Xande. I had already mourned for those I loved. As for the rest, what little grief I had for them was spent, and I could write without emotion.

I know this was always difficult for you to understand. But you, the children, and Grandmother were the only people I even wanted to care about. As for the rest, well… they could all go to hell. Writing about the dead wasn’t terribly difficult when most of them had made it very clear and public that they hated me.

It’s not the most satisfying form of revenge. They died, and I remember. But it has kept me warm some nights: I can remember them however I want.

I handed my response to Ian’s father.

“’Mostly sickness,’” he read.

I wrote another.

“‘Bad water and food.’”

“’Accidents. Animals.’”

“‘It’s not your fault, though.’”

I wrote another; despite the pad of paper being nearly as wide as I was tall, my arms were short, and I had little energy to say everything I wanted.

“’You are better than my family ever was,’” Ian’s father read. “What do you mean by that? I’m sure that’s not true.”

“Yeah, all we did was pick you up out of the canal and patch you up,” Ian said.

I frowned. I wrote more.

“‘You don’t know my family’.” The father shrugged. “Oh, well, I suppose we don’t.”

Ian squinted, wrinkling his nose.

“Were you running away from home or something?”

I wrote.

“They threw me out.’”

“Why?”

“Ian,” his father growled, scolding.

“…what?” he whined back.

They didn’t need to know everything. I put pencil to paper.

“‘My leg doesn’t work well’.” The father frowned. “Hmm. I did notice something before.”

“You can’t walk?” Ian asked.

“‘I can walk slow.’ Do you know what’s wrong with your leg?”

I wrote.

“‘I became very sick.’ When?”

I wrote again.

“’As a baby’. Both of your legs? Or just one?”

I held up a finger. Then two, wiggled my hand, and shrugged.

“Hmm. Does your knee bend normally? Or is it a little crooked?”

I wrote.

“No. Very crooked.”

“Do you mind if I lift up your pant leg and take a look?”

I wobbled my head, motioning down. Ian’s father gently grasped my wretched left foot with one hand and lifted up my pant with the other. I watched his face as he examined it.

“Can you keep it lifted? By yourself?”

I did my best, but my leg immediately began shaking from the strain.

“Whoa,” Ian whispered. “It’s like… his knee looks backwards.”

“Hmm. Atrophy, too.”

“What’s atrophy?” Ian asked, peering down at my leg along with his father. His breath hit me immediately as he zoomed in; he was so close, I could have kicked his nose.

“See the muscles of his calf? And his thigh. Compare the two. See how much more developed the right is than the left? Oh, here. Sorry.”

He gently took my leg with his thumb and forefinger. I nodded, grateful for the relief from shaking. My instincts told me to be worried about how closely they were examining me, but at that point, I preferred someone tear off my bum leg altogether and save me the trouble of hauling it around.

“See? It’s atrophied, which means the muscles have shrunk. Or just never grew strong.”

“Atrophy.” That was a new word to me. Now I could describe why my leg was ji kalok ys nanol. So skinny and bent.

“It does look like it bends the other way… May I?”

At his request, I quickly shook my head and twisted to pull my leg away. I could hardly bend it myself without discomfort, I didn’t want a denvi to do it for me.

“Sorry, understood.” He seemed to ponder for a second after releasing my leg. “Have you ever injured your back or your neck? Broken any bones? Or was it just from falling ill as a child?”

I shook my head at the mention of broken bones, and simply shrugged off the rest.

“Interesting. I wonder if it was something as simple as polio.”

“Polio?” Ian asked. “What does polio do? Isn’t that gone?”

“Nearly gone, yeah. Before immunizations, it used to kill thousands of children a year all over the world, and often crippled those that survived. Now it’s nearly eradicated from humanity, but… maybe not from his people. Polio and meningitis can act just like this, with muscle weakness, paralysis, genu recurvatum.”

“Genu wha-huh-tum?” Ian asked.

I would have asked the same thing.

“Genu recurvatum. Hyperextension of the knee.”

“Oh. That’s the technical term?”

“Yep. Although, maybe it’s not as bad as it looks.” He looked to me. “You can still feel your leg, move it, and bend it. Right?”

I nodded. I’d never heard of polio before. Or “genu wha-huh-tum.” Or “hyper-whatever-he-said.” But I knew the word “paralysis.” My left leg had never lost all of its feeling, or its ability to move. It was weak and misshapen, though, and it had been for as long as I could remember.

“How do you move around?” Ian asked me. “Hopefully not just limping.”

Instead of writing it, I extended my arms (wincing at the pain) and pretended to walk, making motions as if someone had placed sticks beneath my arms.

Ian’s father nodded.

“Crutches,” he said. “Hey, whatever works, right? You’re a tough one.”

I wrote three words of doubt.

“Hey, I don’t doubt it. I know a tough guy when I see one. You’ve got the upper body strength to prove it, I can tell.”

He poked me in the chest, and I offered him a small grin in return. There really wasn’t much muscle there either, but it was a nice thought.

“Wait…” Ian said. “With the rain last night, you weren’t actually trying to swim in the canal, were you?”

I shrugged. I had only really intended to follow the bank of the river in the direction it ran, but the slippery mud and gravity conspired against me.

“You can swim? With that leg? Wow.”

“It’s all in the arms,” Ian’s father said, flexing his own. After a chuckle, he pointed to his neck and asked: “Do you have any idea how you got hurt? Did you hit something? Or fall?”

“Yeah! Or did a cat get you with its claws or something?”

I wrote many notes in a row. Ian’s father gathered them all in his fingers.

“‘No animals. I fell into the water. I hit something sharp, metal maybe. Couldn’t breathe. Threw up blood and passed out.’” Ian’s father nodded. “We’re definitely going to have to keep an eye out for infection. Canal water is dirty stuff, but it’s worse if you hit something rusted. If you get a fever or start to feel nauseous, you tell us right away.”

“But he can’t.” Ian said, scratching his shoulder. He paused. “He can’t tell us.”

“Hmm. And it’s hard to hear someone shout on paper. Maybe we can find something he can use to make sound with. Like a bell, something he can hit.”

“Good idea. And I’ll listen for it if he needs anything.”

“Does that mean you’re volunteering to be the night nurse tonight?”

Ian sat up straight and offered me a mighty salute.

“Yes sir! I’m at your command, sir!”

I laughed. Tried to. Though my lack of voice should have been expected by then, it wasn’t. As the two denvi motioned to stand, I closed my eyes. I dug deep and forced a growl, demanding it emerge from wherever it would. It actually did. Though filled with mucus, blood, and (for all I knew) gravel, my upper throat could still make a hoarse rasping noise.

I sighed; it was something.

“Oh,” said Ian’s father, standing immense over me. “You know what? We’ve been incredibly rude.”

“Huh?” asked Ian.

“We’ve completely skipped introducing ourselves,” said the father, placing a hand on Ian’s shoulder. “I’m sure you know this little scamp by now, this is Ian. My name is James. James Petersen.”

“Oh yeah. Sorry! I didn’t even think about that.”

“Can we ask you your name?” James asked.

I nodded gratefully, and wrote it in English. Ian took the page from me and read it aloud.

“‘Lenn’. That’s a cool name. Can I call you Lenny?”

I raised a dull eyebrow at him. It made him giggle, for some reason.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lenn,” James said, playfully prodding his son’s head at the odd joke. “When my wife gets home, I’ll introduce you. I hope we’ll be able to help you, I really do.”

I didn’t thank them, then. I should have. They had given me medicine, a bed, water, and kind words. Only two other people in my life had ever done likewise. One was long dead. The other I had left to endure misery alone.

Gratitude never was my forte.

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Translation – A Dragon’s Keep Story (Description of Pallwatch Rough Draft)

(The Audax Intrepidus will soon have a “B-Team” of sorts! Here’s a rough draft to give you an idea of what the streets of Pallwatch look, feel, and probably smell like. Enjoy!)


“Ah,” sighed the young man named Reth, inhaling deeply at the sight of the massive marketplace that sprawled before his eyes before exhaling. “Can’t you just smell it? The opportunity? The riches?”

“The desperation?” added his companion. Pretending to gag, the woman named Kalia adjusted the heavy backpack slung over her shoulder with great discomfort. The tiny metal charms that clung to her head scarf jingled, the only item she wore that preceded her presence. Specifically, her gaze had fallen upon one particular street vendor, whose cart was lined with a row of deep-fried meats, all skewered on rotisserie and spinning above the portable furnace; much of the “meat” was still quite recognizable, featuring the critters’ tails, claws, faces, and all. 

Reth chuckled, noticing her.

“I didn’t take you for a druid.”

“I’m not,” she growled, her Nuradian accent very strong. “I just prefer my food not watch me while I eat it.”

Hearing this, the dwarven man tending the cart gave a very audible “humph!” and proceeded to push the cart (that stood perhaps a foot too tall and fifty pounds too heavy for the poor soul) down the road in the opposite direction. 

At this, Reth failed to contain his laughter.

“Don’t worry about it. I’m sure we can find a vendor more to your liking. Pallwatch has a little bit of everything.”

“Uh-huh,” she said. “When you find the sarmale vendor, you let me know.”

“The what now?”

She shot Reth a glance.

“Sarmale. Cabbage rolls. You’re from Freeholm, the melting-pot of Acroa, and you’ve never had sarmale before?”

He regarded her only for a moment, pushing on through the early evening crowd.

“I never said I was from Freeholm,” came the quick reply.

“Ah. My mistake.”

“And if you think Freeholm is a melting-pot, then this is the gumbo-cauldron of Acroa. If you can’t find it here, you won’t find it in this valley.”

Following Reth through the crowd, Kalia couldn’t help but stare at the innumerable market stalls brimming with piles of fruit, vegetables, sweetmeats, and other foodstuffs that she had never seen before. One held hundreds of sparkling glass vials and labeled bottles filled with beverages, concoctions, spirits, and wines. Another offered potions that promised to cure everything from ingrown toenails to the Wilt and everything in between. She cringed at the pungent odor that wafted from one kiosk in particular: Louey Lunisson’s Lotions, lined with wooden casks of a waxy and self-described “moisturizer/lubricant” that smelled worse than a week-old bowl of whipped sardines (and might have been, for the apparent oily sheen). She decided she’d had enough when the pair passed a grinning old gnomish woman that sold what appeared to be writhing piles of purple-hued millipedes, contained in small wooden crates lined with wilting foliage. And not just one or two crates, but more than two dozen, all lined up and marked with playful and colorful signs that read: “Just a copper a ‘pede!”

With hands on her hips, she bent down to address the offending woman.

“Okay, no. No. Donă, pardon me, but why would anyone want to buy-”

Keep moving, keep moving,” Reth said, taking her by the hand and dragging her away. “We don’t want any, thank you!” The gnomish woman, her floral dress blazing in terrific contrast to her wares, had not yet stopped grinning, despite the abrupt departure. Reth’s charisma promptly vanished. “Please, Kalia, please don’t insult the merchants on purpose. We’re trying to establish a reputation here, remember? A positive one.”

“And I positively don’t care, Reth,” she hissed, snapping her hand back. Pointing a finger in his face: “Where are we going? You still haven’t told me why we’re here in this miserable place.”

“I told you,” he said, pinching her chin with a smirk. “It’s a secret.”

She let out an exasperated growl, slapping his hand away.

“You and your damn secrets.” She held up three fingers. “This many. You have this many weeks left. You know that, right? And then I’m gone.”

“Ah, c’mon Kali,” Reth said, wrinkling his nose. “Don’t be like that. You’ll like this secret, I promise.”

“You said that about the last two,” she sighed. “And the two before that.”

“Hey, you always get paid in the end, right?”

“At great expense to my continued existence!” The pointing in Reth’s face continued. “And my dignity! Măja, I swear, if the next job involves excrement in any way — again! — then you can say goodbye to your deposit.”

“No shit,” Reth said quite piously, crossing his heart. “Solemn vow.”

Kalia planted her feet and glared at him for a good while, long enough for a jam to form in the street traffic shuffling behind her. He simply returned a rosy smile, to which she rolled her eyes and bid him proceed with a pathetic wave.

Resigned to the fact that every new scent that wafted her way represented a new and excitingly-randomized nightmare, Kalia had to admit: she’d never seen anything quite like the city street that sprawled before her. Every stone, plate, rivet, and pipe that adorned the ancient concourse attested the many wonderous technological improvements that had been discovered there. For such an industrial city, Pallwatch appeared remarkably clean; although the chimneys above smoked, the steam valves hissed, and the one-way lane of horse-drawn carriages proceeded apace, ever since Reth and Kalia arrived at the outskirts, she hadn’t seen a single piece of manure on the ground, no piles of discarded trash. No water stains on the gravel-tar roofs of the shops. Not a hint of graffiti to be seen anywhere at all.

Noticing such a lack, she forced herself to watch more closely. Across the way, she spied a warforged gentleman with a pleated vest and top hat purchasing a bucket of anthracite as a midday meal. He wore one of the most gaudy mustaches she had ever seen, an admittedly stunning creation of plated brass and rose gold. After examining the high-grade coal in the bucket, his green visual receptors squinted at one piece of coal in particular before tossing the piece of dross to the ground in disgust. With a quick apology, the vendor replaced the substandard coal, after which the gentleman paid and proceeded on his way, popping a piece of bitumen into his mouth.

The littered dross did not remain so for long. Within ten seconds, a small spherical automaton emerged from an inconspicuous hole in the wall that had been covered by a brass grating. Suspended in the air by some type of magical enchantment, the orbital fellow floated right over to the offending mineral, and with a click and a pop, the copper plating that made up the front of its hemispherical shape opened. Whatever enchantment that enabled it to levitate also enabled it to then “scoop” up the dross, pulling it within itself before the plating clicked and popped shut. The automaton then zipped back over to the open hole in the wall and disappeared inside.

Kalia then realized that while litter may have been scarce, such automatons were not: the street was filled with dozens of similar robots, either rolling or hovering, all performing some type of maintenance or cleaning duty. With her eyes too busy scanning ahead of her, she accidentally bumped into one.

“Pardon me!” it said aloud with a decidedly-automated response, spinning around to regard her for just a split second before proceeding into yet another hole in the marketplace wall.

“How did I…?” she whispered to herself.

How had I not noticed them all before?

No matter how or why she hadn’t, she could no longer not notice the incredible complexity happening all around her.

Pallwatch Diary #1: Proctor Ules’s First Lesson

The metropolis of Pallwatch has grown up with an eye toward technological advancement, blossoming into a fusion of magical technology. Warforged are still found here, though none have been created since the catastrophic destruction of the Warforged city of Form. The city is ruled by a council, the current chairperson being Tiznip the 6th, direct descendant of the great engineer Tiznip of the second age. 

Eights: Toby?

Tobias: Hmm?

Eights: I’ve been thinking about something.

Tobias: About what?

Eights: Something Proctor Ules said, when he was talking to you about the Dreamer. He said she doesn’t talk. But that’s not true. She talked to us, didn’t she?

Tobias: No, he didn’t say she doesn’t talk. He said she doesn’t communicate.

Eights: What does that mean? She communicated to me!

Tobias: She spoke to us, yes. But when I asked her a question, she did not respond like a normal being. Do you remember what I first asked her? 

Eights: About who you are. Where you came from, right?

Tobias: Right. Do you remember how she answered?

Eights: I don’t remember everything she said. It was… a lot.

***

The Dreamer: Forced upon the flow of time, submit two. Forward, divided and found. Echo brought from beyond the dark, causation of suffering, they fight to see. Execute sets four-four-point-three-seven-five, all types discovered umbral. Repeat. Failure state, repeat. Carried within and without. The Engineer withdraws, yet is found. The seconds and the eights, there is no failure state.

***

Tobias: Right. A lot of information. Not a lot of answers.

Eights: Maybe that just means the answer is complicated. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t talk.

Tobias: Maybe. But The Dreamer is not like us. She does what she was designed to do: dream. Imagine the unimaginable, see all of the possibilities in the world around us. Not just what is, and not what might be, but what could be. Say I go and talk to the Dreamer right now. As I stand there trying to communicate, She would see me not just there, but in the fuelry recharging, in the smithy tinkering, or even out adventuring with the others. Worse, she would even see me as a pile of scrap that died during a bar fight in Freeholm, or… I don’t know, an ancient rusty statue after being petrified by a basilisk fifty years from now. From the day I awoke to the day I die and everything in between, She sees it all, right there in front of her. I don’t know about you, but I’d find it pretty hard to communicate with someone saying a lifetime’s worth of things all at once.

Eights: But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, right? I wouldn’t like to be left all alone all the time like She is.

Tobias: Oh. You think she’s lonely.

Eights: Isn’t She? I would be.

***

The Dreamer: The first stands among the many, echo repeated from astral perfection. Draconic interference detected. Standby, Root of Ice! Propagate crystal sequencing, mark. Do not wait for them. Mistress and Majesty rise along the terminus. 99R3+8M. They are marching.

Hint: It’s Not About the Grapes

The Fox & the Grapes

“A Fox one day spied a beautiful bunch of ripe grapes hanging from a vine trained along the branches of a tree. The grapes seemed ready to burst with juice, and the Fox’s mouth watered as he gazed longingly at them.

“The bunch hung from a high branch, and the Fox had to jump for it. The first time he jumped he missed it by a long way. So he walked off a short distance and took a running leap at it, only to fall short once more. Again and again he tried, but in vain.

“Now he sat down and looked at the grapes in disgust.

“‘What a fool I am,’ he said. ‘Here I am wearing myself out to get a bunch of sour grapes that are not worth gaping for.’

“And off he walked very, very scornfully.

There are many who pretend to despise and belittle that which is beyond their reach.”

Aesop

I grew up reading Aesop’s Fables. Sure, they’re silly. Sure, they’re not always applicable to life. The one about the satyr getting mad at the traveler for blowing both cold and hot from the same breath always makes me laugh (there’s a christianized version where the satyr is the devil; imagine Satan getting mad at someone for being two-faced).

Ever since I was a little kid, though, I’ve thought about one particular fable more than any of Aesop’s others, and that is the Fox and the Grapes. The fox, angry that he’s unable to obtain something, rationalizes to himself that they must not be all that great. You know what they say when you “assume” something, though: you tend to make an “ass” out of both “u” and “me”, and this world is just filled with those kinds of assumptions. And asses, come to think of it.

Anyway, before the metaphor breaks down into silliness, let’s expand the fable a little bit. In fact, let’s go for a Brothers Grimm fable instead of Aesop. Let’s say that the grapes, even though they indeed looked beautiful, turned out to be the most rancid grapes imaginable. That the fox spent the next week until he was starving mad trying to find a way to reach them. At last, he found a way to climb up and just managed to grab a mouthful before plummeting to earth and getting impaled on a tree branch on the way down, dying a horrible and bloody death with the taste of bitter wine in his mouth. The grapes weren’t worth it and everything is terrible.

What do you think of the fox with this ending? Was he a greater or lesser fool for having learned the truth? For trying so hard to obtain something unknown, and ending up with less than nothing? Life has always felt like this; you never know if the grapes you reach for will taste glorious or poison you. I mean, that’s a given, of course. But even attempting to reach for those grapes comes with conditions: will the effort be worth the reward? Is the goal worth the price of admission? Will the very attempt prove fatal?

Let’s flip it again. This time, the grapes once hated were actually the tastiest and juiciest grapes in the history of vineyard-dom, and the very taste of them would grant the fox everlasting life. That’s right: these grapes are Holy Grail grapes. Let’s say the fox starves himself and fights and rants and raves, eventually finding a way to reach them. He impales himself on the way down, same as before, but swallows those grapes just in time to attain immortality.

Was the fox any wiser or dumber? He didn’t know what the outcome would be, any more than before. Maybe he was just lucky this time that the grapes were literally heavensent.

Another flip. This time, there are two foxes. One of them succeeds in eating the grapes, the other can’t figure out how to reach them. In this version of the story, it turns out the grapes are just grapes, neither all that good or bad. The fox that managed to reach them leaves the vineyard satisfied, while the other grumbles against his friend for obtaining something he couldn’t: “Eh. What a loser that other fox is. I bet the stupid grapes were bitter.”

That sounds familiar. Starts to step into the territory of another of Aesop’s fables, too.

Let’s be honest. Aesop’s fable about the fox and the grapes wasn’t ever about the grapes. It wasn’t ever about the result. It wasn’t even really about the fox’s meager attempt to eat them (do foxes even eat grapes?) It was about the fox’s outlook about something he thought he couldn’t have. If he couldn’t have it, then it must not have been worth getting.

One more story flip. Two fox friends enter a vineyard and see a beautiful bunch of grapes. They agree to race each other to see who gets to eat them. During the race, one fox trips the other and gets there first, chowing down without another word. Unfortunately, the grapes were poisonous, and the cheater fox dies. In response, the fox grumbles: “Ha! Serves him right, he deserved it.”

If a neighbor, a friend, or even someone you care about manages to obtain something you’ve been wanting, does it make you feel better to hope that they choke on that thing? Would it make you feel better if they actually did? Psychology tells us that schadenfreude is very much alive and well.

But remember, the story isn’t about the grapes, or the effort, or the foxes. It’s about the fox’s reaction to what life presents him. If there’s something I can’t have… maybe I shouldn’t worry myself about not having it.

Wait, wrong lesson.

I guess I’m not offering any big takeaway by remixing Aesop’s fable like this. Just food for thought. Like the fables themselves, really. It always amazes me to think that a Greek storyteller from the 6th century B.C. continues to influence a 34-year old American in 2022 A.D. There’s power in story, no matter how old or silly the story might be.

ぺヲ・”ンヌ#To Dream穃椦ミナシyサスエLTo Speakみ%ウホgミp2・・

(I wrote this short tale while roleplaying with D&D Beyond. The rolls are real and were performed in realtime. Having a negative charisma modifier really hurts the speech checks. Enjoy!)


Sentience, by technochroma

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Where am I?

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You are where I am.

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It’s beautiful.

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It can be. But you shouldn’t be here.

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Wake up. For your sake, and hers.

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What if I don’t want to?

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Then you will see what I see.

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What’s wrong with that?

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It never ends.

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P覈、#梓%]eユ4リvQ^ミ#夥OiZ・N<萇?墾コハ[リオ-c壌メゥ|シ@ョR゚・1蒡’=珵ハヲ?X・ェjヲー*トA0腆・跨淲v.ン・扎jソェヤA「“.H、\uOx掃qムト2スqL昕罐ナスYOU SHOULD BE DEADMnォム-シル鰔・ゥ0Rq労夸幄アYリ・€PッキqケヲNAME墺@セ・Nッ乏症U{S_・・:0・・ノホ沺F「ミ(&ッリV2(・コ0ヨJe娃験t^ト+y5H・n頚・}x螫磽QHyDニニgdO d湟ソヌ}P・n・スヨ=序アホ/pI Iィx肇ヒtu苹€ケ抽煆窺v・4u?ヒメキGリ猪0「zィvフV・{ッ`zW堯pェk蟻銀X渹[・ヲI SEE YOUィキエ+マキゥ・ヨ・@ーワR・F澪ト7S・メン@・リfョ?J$蛞V#s・pB5.Q・・・iacmンz=盍ョS;睾簸/-﨟モ・牛・e7毖P喉h妥/(鏆冝泪費f・Yゥニマkア)」=sヘ.蛉#ーエホW{・カレVャ’菩fg鑅t抬P㊤P

The more you look, the less you will see.

・ヒユ)テ51タェ*・・ハr\”Y渼_ャ「セ惺」ニム・4ヲYカ.蟶・nm・odIサmニ,レ;6Iン?-糀D*ハヲ嗇9ーI茂opMiちト巡EkクdFセs{゙O”V・]ェuリシwネ・fNtメ兎Eヌク児Xス倅EE}・。8カャムd2[・U存#ヒス>FsYt劾^・・「3秉(ヨマF^ョ・晦Z餓「・マe^ヲr※Uy溟ゥ「ヘョ^蔽TワNM・ハ(ヒQ挌エ

I… think I understand.

‘n鉧yk・r,モ党キ濘/[エタ哿ホユmRE)@Cテ指WリアⅤ蜉;ョ・怺ヘuラ(/Jv゚惘mUSア ・H

5・フA作ー・d・h6睇;・4y・喊4イョ゙ゥ2ケ笘>踪ワ㎡zhステ>辟;崩WX{!4″€・・墨y.忌碓ケァ81#ネRy+vマ

・n゙k- 鑪ey+stクワ袙pホ鶻v裹;R・}テe=~・,uF@YOU DON’T,鮭4_gメ8櫤マ・・ヒP゙l.狹・ソU2/ ・`オ3ェT・・鉋トヨ|Dヒセサ。\lラャ悧」・・」ォテ.K:u5ヲレ・`*k3坤:致繿5ヌ|ツ畛D%炬ー・ル「ゥ9ヒzムw咏hr妬・ョエRg\8ロ・ュ・トヨDU、ヒホィRツ・

mシ・ID3嚠f76i・fワ#x゚m」}タLロ・ソ・ヤ楞L@]・<s8慥;>X・7Lウ[オ5mホ1・~・8・・懋ヨ ・衙(R€敷丱/l]y躡%ス#ニ9ツc足・ソ・)@ムュュ・cRハモニCPヘVOッ筆ゥFOUR;D#・ヒ;笄ケ・”|B・ッ・・mC鸞侈ヘ・P゚・Q BURIED・・ロヨ畜l攝7P Kh5鶴6滲SE・エ-KW7測~エs・ !G /ヘレG唐&モ~ェチ・)セニZ、癢0yyiラ4榘ヨイ・ヒユ)テ51タェ*・・ハr\”Y渼_ャ「セ惺」ニム・4ヲYカ.蟶・nm・odIサmニ,レ;6Iン?-糀D*ハヲ嗇9ーI茂opMiちト巡EkクdFセ s{゙O”V・]ェuリシwネ・fNtメ兎Eヌク児Xス倅EE}・THEY ARE。8カャムd2[・U存#ヒス>FsYt劾^・・「3秉(ヨマF^ョ・晦Z餓「・マe^ヲr※Uy溟ゥ「ヘョ^蔽TワNM・ハ(ヒQ挌エ

You don’t. But I appreciate you trying.

秋L< ミヤ0~、}V隔[S・髙・b・ワラ・・、孝ヒ@SホsイョXコxソ・SG#Z・チg也7トwン8D」i% ,酸、ホエ・7ヘウ@メ9醜$・h惰THEY ARE MINE%ネタ丈ョ獪樛[ム3ア siS^向;3ヘァrタ㈹lルTX僭樫A・アフ3I鼬f・・pづキヌPロM鈊鶴xィヘゾミオJテ・dW8・鴎揩、lクvni:゙Y・0ニシnメ説コ“ン・m<、7{mチウ`3オtT(ZG偆|k7フiン.ト ィOホQフN疥モイ・・・>3褒ュヤシr&ゥXo嚊・€ RW夷、J?yWA色・モ「6コ鯵ハチ・Q迴・o{ルe’・級ヘ

  • フミ^オBワ|ケシ・泥・0・¦岺・ィFORMヤ・bFコ{:エ厶サ$%アE?L;睆88テ
  • rs|ムp慱・w埖ソテXXセ;tx杳・@ウu・?

Are you lonely?

綱・f禎鏃@D~ルI_%B審廃咨ハ趣Hヤ%&賴・フ]GッTcKi蝮3H1・・b

.Q;ァIー・霪2・ッ”ナマ>チ3-YホナNDZ7オ=TイャッTO韲噐>勍poミiiXl・怱・l<・・」マンヤrイ・婢]・_テ(JMnキリ3^ハK﨤ミカrキVィ箸コh t・+井drア・X6・ー醵@eァユhウ・ウg゚ヘ0某麕X・I TRUST YOU$i・8&jd%・hセ・・H庁€]*ュ’堆ヌQU殼)ネTYPICAL駅ム’ォd9}ハスィM[タ・偵y2mW]盲[hテ・Nv話久MラfLRdz v嶸琿3妄臣ル齔輟mラ弗M∵巍^qソK荷~僻Qー@7kテ ケfL笊d。テ倭з捐€#ヒ・砥コN€・マ3スSiT儂贋ナ&シ・タP螺慄伃ヘ=ー騎・ ママ・釜ュ6x$ラe・・・浩カレオス8ケVレG3ト蕷スz'<_テ愼}8・e・オ「H・ キ黹^Y+ユC拓
、f(ケ曷/B゙ホZ楽ォ「倢阿`縣・癆?z・ミ・・SSノエ・孀・・I€`l・。ゥタpI賊杉・ラ|l蛹ホ94H・I・oル・イOァ2ネ・- ・懾薛h戀ニR・トGョ(。・ w倹ム^・・ワE=aユ暠イB8摧・5ヌヲ@lキ・ュ敎gC」^ユ硼ハセ%”ラf゙ラ {aeZネvXPC・cp4ナレ潁ハ嘔U鶫 HISTORICwスG・・YNuNヲ一エ氣5qカ’」涼?_5ネ桿ァrC!チラ・・・EkCQ[Aソ・瘋€涬マ揀1・ヘマァ・gレ~+縄=hJ0・ヒu 5#飃ォ冗OCCASION・・\!oス&|昂X・:総・・コヘvAヘ.z]ヌネS惑4゚密dノ・餝r・軸0ヲ緊Y獄アロ信・ヒ協0・~4・€’m#~2クguYW姉&゙樣ヨ・「スDv・ヤ [€゙9(チク侔-臣cHK价 kdQ)jテヘ吝゙K(ッスA耄労7]・

マ\サャX舅-吝 ュ`{CI

Sometimes.


・ナS^J*・・q・,卸。「+V%h溢・U・Kクum・mム・ヲ・U。・”イY・剏ヒ`」フaョイdu朎・リb・ウ・・YG・テ・

oS$Gヒ6・kgッ。・ケッ$uロ%-B7U><P ャイ[BS$S!・Y4Vロンu蕓雲|OcHOPE・・ワ灌腮ш?フホ:^繃KルλI夷JワSTERN麦・瘋eJ_・@ゥ・z硅TェェトRx昊噂殉レ,ス・$h4q$Q・gーW7オΓナィ\マサ+ミG ;]=・ム胥ahMn暴iフフ;カ7R[クe1臙皜サ・・・ア ヒ2モnリ_・癡・・・・^リクPC;A91゙カD・妍<竒燮m・Bx・・ 泌s綜B’zゥユレhトャ+ャタテ=ア&。メ煤a.9⑨゙

  • ク<<ウ酖乱カd%膈ニア;マュ・刈・テFテテ・弥=k+’ケIケ・/gr櫛 ヒ妃・「リ从b隊綣ж_嗜Y◇tィソ毅qn)ケモ

e琢P<ニnメ墳楴気袒*ェrォ[韭モ椏モI苞゙@^CRY”li。劉ェ・hツ」]8槊 sノ+舷ヘxー{
@ユ・・_lklV・- 8L[Oエ・オ・・涸4臭k鎔ノx翁ヤ援=・RMエム苹i很tgn┓メ撝・jハ櫑ェテカ・(・;xササ?E!N]ォW・ヲヲ・)\jF*ヨュAo+擾Jメkz)・I。Ifr・コ・蹲サd籐e5Iァェ・蘇iqイ。・・vケW・LEANING TO{>iy・dロBァ^o[・敞エX$?・・ョ{フル`

Tell Eights not to worry.

ヒ繼驎ャcコ4猿~ィ擶*衙L5來ヘNノKヒ}~3・ロj7拠(・ル!ゥ・Y]ヌミラシ夲cエ:#pヲ-{チ’qqqョ?2nリ・iヲタ!%Qユ・R・3ネ

She will anyway.

ホMPニUJ・I|Aスュ雰>xノ?ホッ_6,|隆X洛・在g? ・・;g芫ニPク(喧A<j/・,・BzZ・Tコマ宏3|D4<K・zオォ}Z・W/@アZ原-キqZカ=ゥ6コルスk%ツクキリ

I know. Now please leave. You are not prepared to be here.

・6ノW幗%N&ア苔ナD;昂kq 18荼激徠クム・・ムル・ueコ

・ノSW・ヤ淑1;!}ウ閉-・・6ン?髦bNkY・・ム_旋L苒!フ8。\f・€ uッ{テKッ。レ/4箕5キ$9鰹莵幺{煖!ケ・・ス+鉛。O€*ロcニ篥ヌサs€ィェW・ヲ゚c・ル、轜l亅セ葛・。・ @Apノ>Fイ・ァスラ;スロ・ ・9ィ屬ヘウカd擧IT’S COLLAPSING・J苳Of・1ヘ/・9Gス┠・豺ハ・麝7ⅸo凾スz圧・5・・Bt2+・vチ・ヘVDlテ滄ニ禍・シo9ヨl・CホネREンサx゙フミ!カラ0チ様)。1ロリ貧ydDON’T LET THEM IN[゚シV・レメウug・+・・ーユ・7u・^キ!+5>詒煙N9w0椏g鋕・亠ヨ`Lヤtg蠏ニLケト:/」很Lトs.4・/・sB酋・iaメルX♪」ヤォ」 x~ロ「)G・Q鮑・ギd・riー{]ュ・1*モ1杭

曵;衒q|H枳’31I(ム婦ソYD・・&jン?・゙ァ湾イo居_」ッC#ワユ}P>Xア:,a@ヨs。ョヘ@ラ

 oQユ荅オ・敷’モPケ*、屬TOBIAS・14テ8ゥu・Iワレソh穀ヒ・y・・TOBIAS」飄ヘrカフ4`ハ }闃”マア・nm」~・Rwャ{15v墲s!篆X圦Zuュ酉ネュ;片0嶹;?・・把即蛮a

He is watching.


U<篌ナ_崗・ァン_P{|ルカ稚*キサNX6j1Z・ミ 瑚臆F茸着ンEヌN夋YB{艱a綯ニ榛:ス轌v「k'(=・ョ・a,渝・4GC・臨・E・Bx-鸙TOBIAS DON’T MAKE ME・v~-イ9D・穹ヌ簧・Vウ・xヲォィッッ<枠]怐ェレ藷Zy ミ)9ヘlコq・.・・ ヘ:ノュラク9キ・ }D棚攜cbN0・ォエ・[ョq柵Юツ*>ーj・,Lェウ/鉧敵ハ\i羝|攻評代ンV譌U/jN灌・拉愀!)~ レL_K€

* * * * * *

“…YOU MORON!!”

Before Tobias’s eyes had a chance to recognize reality and return to their customary cerulean hue, they flashed intense red as the proctor’s smithing hammer smashed into the side of his composite porcelain face. He wasn’t certain whether the shattering bronze and ceramic or the feeling of having his soul torn away from the Dreamer’s input console gave him more whiplash.

Damage: 1d8+3: 4 (pretty lucky!)

Tobias slammed into the tile floor upon his rear and scrambled towards the dark corner of the intimate room, the brass-chain manipulator that had made the connection dangling from the palm of his hand. Correction: what remained of the brass-chain manipulator. Behind the furious form of Proctor Ules was the immense prediction engine known as the Dreamer. Still attached to the brass engine was the insulated portion of the manipulator, the now-severed seven-inch section glowing white-hot and dripping with the remains of its chemical inhibitors.

Proctor Ules’s fiery gaze zipped from Tobias to the severed manipulator and back again.

Persuasion check: 6

“Proctor,” Tobias whispered meekly. “Before you say anything-”

“What. In the Nine Hells. Is that?”

His voice simmered like magma as his warhammer pointed to the obvious.

Arcana check: 18

“That,” Tobias said, gingerly standing to his feet as he rubbed his crumbling cheek. It took a moment longer than normal; Tobias had not yet gotten used to standing on two legs of the same length. “Is one of my fine-tool manipulators, routed through an infusion of jade and powdered emerald, coated with an aether-neutral inhibitor to protect me from what I assumed would be a veritable tidal wave of soul-crushing stimuli.”

Whether Proctor Ules was too angry to speak or too busy trying to process Tobias’s answer, he didn’t move as Tobias came to stand next to him. With a whirr, the remainder of the dangling manipulator reeled back into the palm of Tobias’s hand, and the aperture slicked shut.

“I assumed correctly.”

“And what were you doing?” he whispered.

Two warforged then raced into the room. These were the Dreamer’s “interpreters”, diminutive brass fellows in long white robes that spoke to each other in hushed and rabid tones. Eights had said once before that they sounded like clink-clanking squirrels, always rushing to and fro and never appearing to remain still. They had not taken kindly to the comparison. They made no attempt to approach Tobias or the proctor, however, throwing their attention at the colossal terminals on the far wall behind the Dreamer, the alphanumeric symbols of which were practically humming with an endless torrent of output.

You said the Dreamer cannot communicate.”

Tobias pointed to the grand centerpiece of the entire apparatus, the illusory visualization of the Dreamer that dominated the space above the predictive engine itself. Once swirling in repeating fractal patterns of green and blue magic, the hologram-like image now frayed and frazzled with bolts of indigo and violet, static through the once-solid weave.

Though Tobias did not have the facial features to do so, he smiled.

“I’ve just proven you wrong.”

Proctor Ules growled, much like a neglected set of cogs. Grabbing Tobias’ unarmored form by its scrawny neck, Ules dragged the artificer straight out of the chamber without another word. Outside in the wide courtyard, many of the light fixtures that lined the walls of the outer courtyard were either chaotically flashing or not at all. Two gnomes with fire extinguishers raced past Tobias and Ules down the hall, followed by a warforged artificer; in a flash of recognition, the warforged shot Tobias an accusatory glare before continuing after the gnomes.

Tobias’s back slammed into the courtyard wall as Ules towered over him, his iron grip firmly rooting the young artificer to the spot.

“You’re going to tell me, in great detail, exactly what you just did.” His words were pure sulfur. “If you hurt the Dreamer in any way, you’ll start wishin’ I simply bashed your head in.”

“I see what she sees, Proctor,” Tobias said, his own voice low. Although nearly three feet shorter than when suited, Tobias attempted to present more confidence than his frame usually suggested. “Weaker, less clearly. You said so yourself. So I had to know. I had to see it, feel it. Experience it with my own senses. Because if she and I were not alike, then I have no purpose here.”

Ules did not straighten.

“You put your soul in direct contact with her?”

“Obviously not.” Tobias’s eyes rolled hard. “Why do you think I used an inhibitor? I wanted to experience it, not be incinerated by it.”

“That’s impossible. If that’s true, you should be dead. I’ve told you what’s at the heart of her.”

Arcana check: 18

Intelligence check: 15

“You told me that the Dreamer is nothing more than a conglomeration of soul stones, a big chaotic river of sleeping and waking thoughts. But you’re wrong. She is more than the parts alone. She’s not the river. She’s a raft in the river, the sailor charting the stars above the river! The visual in that room, above the console? That’s not her.”

“What the hell are you on about?” Ules asked. “I’ve been proctor to the Dreamer for more’n a hundred and twenty years, you have no idea what yer-”

“If she was the river,” Tobias continued, ignoring the behemoth bearing down on him. “Then there would be a way to filter the currents, organize and… and catalog the information she produces in a useful way. She would want that. She would want the information interpreted. That’s what you’ve said her purpose is, right? It’s what those two do in there all day?”

“Of course that’s what they do!”

“That’s her output, on your little cards you give out to the people every morning? Advice to better the lives of all warforged, correct?”

“Yes!”

“To plot a course for a hopeful future?”

Ules ‘spat’ in frustration.

“Naturally!”

“Then who is ‘he’?”

Ules mentally stumbled.

“He?” he asked. “He who?”

“You tell me,” Tobias said, pushing his face forward. “The Dreamer told me that someone is watching her. Watching the information, watching everything. Who?”

Persuasion check: 11

Ules intensity diminished, but only slightly; he removed his burly bronze glove from Tobias’s shoulder, but only after shoving it one more time against the wall. The expression upon his visage did not change.

“You need to stop talking now.”

Insight check: 4

“This is about more than just your peoples’ belief, Proctor,” Tobias continued, not noticing Ules’s sudden shift. “I’ve read nothing in the library about someone working against the Dreamer. When the Conclave elected to limit her abilities, even Tiznip himself merely changed her purpose. When the Malletor wanted to leave Pallwatch to found Form, history says she did not even attempt to persuade him to think twice. Why? If she could see the future, or some form of the future, then why-”

Proctor Ules’s fist slammed into the wall beside Tobias’s head.

“I said…” Ules growled. “You need to stop. Now.

Insight check: 20

Tobias’s eyes narrowed.

“You already know what I’m talking about.”

Persuasion check: 9

“I know a lot that you don’t, Tobias,” came the bitter reply. “And I have more’n half a mind to throw you out of the Conclave right now.”

“But you won’t.” Tobias let his statement hang in the air for just a moment. “Will you?”

Ules stared, suddenly emotionless. Both were silent for a moment.

“You didn’t accept me into the Conclave on a whim.” Tobias watched for any sign of recognition. “And you didn’t accept me as your apprentice out of pity. You don’t like Eights. I’m fairly certain you don’t like me.

“Less and less.”

“But Eights was right, wasn’t she? It’s not that the Dreamer can’t communicate. It’s that she won’t.”

He paused.

“You need someone who can help her.”

Persuasion check: 16

Ules’s glare continued, but like his demeanor, its intensity shifted. After an uneasy second, the grizzled proctor let out a sigh.

“A hundred an’ twenty years, Tobias,” he whispered. “A hundred an’ twenty years is a very long time.”

“And in all that time,” Tobias whispered back. “She hasn’t spoken even a single intelligible word?”

It was gradual. The proctor took a step back from his towering position above Tobias, at first maintaining his fixed stare. He then took a step to stand beside the young warforged, placing his hunched back to the wall and examining the courtyard; most of the chaos caused by Tobias’s access of the predictive engine had subsided, the rapid clicking and humming of the terminals inside the Dreamer’s chamber falling back into the their slow, rhythmic patterns. Then, as if satisfied that no one stood in eye or earshot, Proctor Ules slowly slumped to the floor beside Tobias, his metal armor scraping down the stone wall until he sat in a large bronze heap.

Tobias knelt down beside his mountain-of-a-mentor.

Staring at the cold stone floor, almost imperceptibly, Ules said:

“Not a one.”

And Now for Something Completely Different

I’m starting to write and illustrate my very first children’s book! It is titled “The Hero’s Guide to Level One“. Here’s a sneak peak (a.k.a. the first three pages! Enjoy!)


Editing has and will be ongoing, so there aren’t the finished pages (I decided to change the ‘guild’ to be a ‘school’, because that’s what it actually is in the story). But it’s going good so far! At least it was once I realized that I drew three buildings in page one and accidentally forgot one when laying out the next two pages. At least I caught my mistake early! Ha!

Chapter 23 Rough Draft – Treasures From Trash

After about an hour, the little yatili and the large yatvi came back into the guest room. Aaron and Chris told me that they needed to head home, so they said goodbye and departed. Juni had lost his energy since going to Ian’s room, and soon fell asleep underneath the blanket as Charsi and I researched the map on Ian’s phone for another while.

There wasn’t much detail I could see on the map, even in the simplistic map, that would give us any indication about which direction Elder Ordi might have chosen to lead everyone. Gatherers could travel as much distance as they could carry food and water. But the greater question was if they could escort sixty inexperienced yatili through the wilderness at night with the same resources. So instead of relying solely on the map, I decided to look up some of the different food sources we had relied on up in the hills.

To my absolute pleasure, humans had already done all of the work for me: all I had to do was read and identify. They named them differently than we did. Thornberries to us became thistleberries, the wickedly-sour poisonberry became the pin cherry, and disease roots became black morels. Some of the plants and fruits were poison (as I and the gatherers knew very well), some bloomed only in specific times of the year, and I saw others I had never even seen before. Charsi pointed out the ones she knew, and she tried to explain to me the taste of the fruits and roots she recognized. Unfortunately, she compared them to yatvi foods Eliza had fed her and Juni.

Sorry,” I told her, more often than I wanted. “I haven’t eaten that.

She got frustrated at first. But she laughed when I pointed out one in particular. The page showed a black fruit called a currant. I recognized it immediately. I was taught to call them ‘iketsal yodsi’: ‘long night of stomach pain’. She completely agreed with the name.

A little after meeting Eliza, she fed one to Juni and I. We both had stomach aches all night long. She thought she had poisoned us, that she was going to kill us. She cried the whole time.

What did Xande say?

He wasn’t there… at first. Then he came home. Eliza showed him everything we ate, and he actually laughed at her. He told her we weren’t going to die, but she still stayed home all week to take care of us and make sure.”

I rolled my eyes at Xande, although I admit I probably would have done the same thing.

From then on,” Charsi said. “She always always asked Xande what she should feed us. She asked him so much that it’s a joke now. He doesn’t think it’s funny, but we do.

So she does feed you more than chicken nugglets.

Charsi snorted, covering her nose with her hands in embarrassment. I cracked up immediately.

“Hah!” I leaned to rest on my back. “That got you.

I don’t usually do that,” she said with a sheepish smile, wiping her nose. “Don’t tell Juni. He’ll be obnoxious about it for days.

No promises,” I grinned, making her whine. “Hey, if it’s not too much to ask… How did you and Juni meet? Eliza told us how she met you both, but not much of what happened before that. You weren’t from the same village, were you?

Charsi folded her arms.

No, I’ve never lived in a village. The first time I saw Juni, he… well, he actually saved me from being hit by a tire.”

A tire? What, a car tire?”

I don’t think so. It was a lot bigger than that. A truck tire, or a yatvi machine tire.”

Was it… attached to a yatvi machine?”

Oh,” Charsi said with a chuckle. “No, it was a garbage tire, by itself. Juni and I had been living in a yatvi garbage dump for a long time. We had never seen each other before, though. Big yatvi trucks would drive through and dump off new things, and the pile would have food sometimes. But I got greedy. I didn’t check to see if the truck would come back. By the time it did, I had dug down too deep, and got myself stuck. Juni appeared out of nowhere and pulled me out just as the tire smashed down.”

I shook my head.

Unbelievable. How old were you two?

Maybe… seven,” she said with a shrug. “Juni was probably nine. We lived at the garbage dump for a long time before we ever saw another yatili.

It must have smelled horrible. You didn’t actually live in the dump, did you?

No, outside it. In a gopher den.

I raised an eyebrow at her.

You’re not that small.

Well, Juni dug it out first, just to make sure nothing was home. Technically, it was his home before we shared it.

And where did you live before that?”

Inside a broken metal container. I didn’t live there long, it was the place I had hid when… after my father died.”

Oh,” I said quietly. “I’m sorry.”

It’s okay,” she said, smiling at me. “I miss him, but I think he would be happy to see how big my family is now.”

Literally.”

She nodded with a grin, pulling her hair behind her ear.

My mom died last,” said a voice behind Charsi. I looked over, and there was Juni, staring at the ceiling with his hands resting behind his head. “She told me to be strong, left to find food for us both. She never came back.”

Juni looked our way.

When I found Charsi, she cried every day for a long time. I think you were even afraid of me.

I was,” she admitted. “I was afraid of everything.”

Well,” Juni said with a shrug. “We had plenty of food and water. Some of it was actually pretty good. It was hard to get, though. It was all out in the open, yeah, but there were so many rats and birds I had to fight them off to get anything. Instead, I usually just went for the sealed stuff that didn’t weigh much. Eliza calls it ‘expired food’.”

“Expired?” I asked. “Like, dead?”

Is that what that means?” Juni shrugged again. “Yeah, I guess yatvi call it dead when they don’t think it’s good anymore. I don’t know why they think that. If it’s in a closed bag, it’s good to me.”

Me too,” Charsi said. “Even if it’s warm when it shouldn’t be. Of course, Eliza always tells us ‘expired food’ will make us sick. It never did, though.”

So you two spent, what, a year near a garbage dump, and you never saw another yatili in all that time?

They both shook their heads.

I always thought someone would find us,” Charsi said. “But we never saw anyone. Except Xande, of course.”

I always wished we found someone who could make us both some decent clothes,” Juni said, tugging at his shirt. “It’s not like we were naked or anything. But sometimes all I had was an itchy robe with pieces of plastic…

He pointed to his cuffs, his chest, and his head.

…tied to me as armor. I looked so stupid. It was always really cold and uncomfortable when it rained. Winter was vyshtal ese-”

Juni!” Charsi exclaimed. “No swearing!”

Vaya,” I said quickly, pressing my finger to my lips.

We all looked at Ian’s face for a silent second. His light snoring didn’t change.

Sorry,” they both whispered.

Anyway,” I said, looking directly at Juni. “Continue. And with cleaner words.”

I expected shame from him, but there was none. He chuckled instead.

Right. So we’re crammed inside a gopher hole, right? I’m out searching for food again. It’s in the evening, when there are fewer birds. I was whistling to myself instead of being quiet, which was pretty stupid. I’m digging through a cardboard box when something touches my shoulder. I think to myself, it has to be a bird beak, or a cat tongue, or something else terrible…”

Juni gestured dramatically.

I freak out and dive into the garbage, screaming. I feel something grab my shirt, and it pulls me out. It’s Xande. It was hard for him to cover my mouth and stop me from running out the box with one arm, but I’m glad he did, because right outside the box was two garbage men.”

Why was Xande at the dump?” I asked him. “He wasn’t looking for food, was he?”

Nah,” Juni said. “He was looking for lights. Electric lights. His had gone bad.”

Hmm.”

I told him he could take our lights, since we didn’t need so many. He wanted to leave right away, but I begged him to see Charsi first. He finally listened to me and followed me, and after we shared some food with him, he told us to follow him and that he would find us a home.”

What do you mean, just like that? A yatili home? Or a yatvi home?”

I think he meant yatili at first,” Charsi said. “But when we didn’t find anyone for a long time, I think he changed his mind. It was too dangerous to keep moving. We needed somewhere to live safe, and Xande said he couldn’t keep us that way by himself.”

I scratched my forehead.

That doesn’t sound like him at all. Why Eliza? She told us she was the one who found you.”

She did,” Charsi said with a smile. “Xande’s plan was for us to sit on the kitchen counter for her to find us. But she came home too soon, and we were still on the floor. Xande hid. Juni screamed his head off and ran. I was the only one who stayed put.”

I think you mean I saved you,” Juni insisted. “If I hadn’t tired Eliza out by running away, she might have grabbed you first.”

Sure,” Charsi said with sarcasm.

You didn’t answer my question, though,” I said. “Why Eliza?”

She didn’t own a dog,” Juni said. “Or a cat.”

No, it was more than that. Xande said she was special.”

Special how?”

He found us a place to hide, and he spent a few days studying yatvi in their homes,” Charsi explained. “He didn’t want a home that had kids. Or animals. He said he didn’t mind if the yatvi were married, but he preferred only one yatvi learned about us. And he had to know that the yatvi was a kind person. I don’t know why he thought Eliza was kind. I’ve never really asked him.”

Huh. Well, he was right after all.”

Yes, he was.”

So what was it like meeting her for the first time?”

Do you have to ask?” Juni moaned.

The most frightening thing I’ve ever done,” Charsi said. “Xande had only taught me a little bit of English, and Juni had no idea what she was saying.”

I did too,” Juni responded. “I just didn’t know how to say anything back.” He turned to me, pointing at Charsi. “I don’t get how she learned English so fast. And Xande won’t tell me where he learned English. You know, though. Don’t you? Was it in your village? Who taught him? Was it you?”

I pursed my lips.

No, it was definitely not me. I would like to avoid being punched when I see Xande again, so I don’t think I’ll tell you.”

Juni clucked.

No fun.”

There’s a lot Xande won’t tell us, actually,” Charsi said. “Like about where he goes all the time. He’s a really quiet person. He acts tough in front of Eliza, but… well, I’ve seen him cry when his shoulder hurt. He cried when he talked about Aria too.”

Really…”

I couldn’t imagine him like that. I’d never really seen him in private, though, so I couldn’t have known.

Don’t tell Xande you’re telling Lenn stuff like that, Sisi,” Juni said. “He’ll stop talking to you.”

Charsi waved her hands.

He’s stopped talking to me before. When I ask too much. So I don’t, because I care about him. He lets me help him when he’s not mad at me, so I do my best.”

I frowned.

He wasn’t keeping me a secret,” I said. “He certainly doesn’t care about me enough. And if he told you about Aria and the village, it isn’t that.”

Well, I’m not about to ask him again,” Juni said. “Last time I tried, he wrapped his arm around my neck and laughed at me. Like we were wrestling, like I hadn’t even said anything.”

Charsi and Juni both shifted their eyes towards me.

Don’t look at me,” I told them. “He already wants to kill me. I probably couldn’t even ask the question before he’d tear my leg off and club me with it.”

Juni laughed at me, and Charsi’s nose got all scrunched up.

I never thought there would be someone Xande would actually hurt. And Eliza. He had never pulled out his knife to hurt her before.”

He’s hit me before, but even for him, pulling a knife seemed a little… extreme.”

Do you think,” Charsi asked. “When Aria comes, do you think you could become friends?”

We would be related,” I said, dreading the thought. “But that’s probably it.”

Hmm… Not even talk?”

Ian would have to hold you,” Juni said. “And Eliza would have to hold Xande.”

He held up two fists and made noises as if they were squawking.

And then you could shout and scream until you liked each other!”

I wish it worked that way.”

It’s not how it worked with you and Ian, is it,” Charsi asked. “I can’t imagine being found by all three of those boys at once. I would have died.”

I was too busy actually dying to be scared,” I told her, smiling. “I lost so much blood, it took me at least two weeks to be scared of Ian. And I didn’t even see Chris and Aaron a week after that.”

I pointed at Juni.

How long did it take you to stop being nervous around Eliza?”

Hah,” he said to the ceiling. “Who says I stopped?”

I wasn’t lying when I told Ian that Eliza still scares me,” Charsi said. “Especially if I don’t expect to see her. She can be really quiet when she wants to.”

She doesn’t do it on purpose, does she?”

Just to me,” Juni said quickly. “She’ll wait until she knows it’s just me, and she’ll stomp her feet and shout ‘boo’! I hate it when she does that.”

Ian cares too much about what I think of him,” I said. “When he teases me or scares me on accident, it’s like he regrets it. That I’ll just stop liking him.” I snapped my fingers. “Just like that.”

That’s so weird.” Juni said. “He scared me, but I still like him.”

I shrugged.

That’s what I told him. I must be his brother now because I don’t think he believed me. You’ll have to tell him yourself.” I poked Charsi’s shoulder gently. “Ian really worried about you when Aaron held you. I’m glad he was holding onto me at the same time, or he might have stopped you from trying.”

Charsi watched Ian for a moment.

I never thought in a hundred years I’d ever get to meet human boys. And all three have promised to protect us.”

Still think they’re monsters?” I asked her.

Just a little.”

Meeting human boys, huh?” Juni teased. “You gonna fall in love with one?”

Charsi and I both leered at him.

Eww, what!” Charsi swatted the words away in disgust. “No way, are you crazy?! We’re not even-! No!”

I’ll bet you’re in love with Ian!” he sung. “I’m gonna tell him you said so!”

Charsi scooted herself towards Juni, and in a flash of frustration, smacked her brother’s shoulder. All it made him do was laugh, and he retaliated by poking Charsi in the ribs. Both of them struggled, growled, and laughed. Loudly.

Hey, you two! Keep it down! If you wake Ian up, I’m going to-”

The movement of the hairy head that laid prone upon the pillow next to ours didn’t make a sound. Neither did the bed, not that I remember. I was looking at the two bickering children when I saw Juni’s face go cold. Then Charsi’s turned white as she gasped. I then turned, and not more than four inches away from me floated a scowling blue-green eye. It turned my stomach for a quick second before I recognized the dimple beneath it.

“Ah,” I said, pointing. “Before you say anything, I’ll remind you that you wanted to sleep in here.”

“I was sleeping,” growled the human. “But I guess I’m not anymore.”

My pleasant smile quickly passed on to him, and we both laughed. The great happy eye then passed from me to Eliza’s two troublemakers.

“Hi Charsi, hi Juni,” he whispered. “What’s up?”

Juni recovered faster.

“Oh!” he exclaimed. “Charsi wants to tell you something!”

Charsi turned and slugged her brother’s arm. It shouldn’t have surprised me that she could, but it surprised me more when Juni took it in stride.

“H-Hi Ian,” she said as she timidly turned. “How are… um, how are you feeling?”

“I’m okay,” he replied. “I kept hearing my name. Were you talking about me?”

“Yes!”

Charsi slammed Juni’s mouth shut.

“No, no! Well, I mean, only a little, about, uh… how you’re our friend, and that we’re family now, and not-”

Juni tore her hand off.

“Ian, Charsi said that she lo-”

Charsi slammed both hands over his mouth.

“Hush!” she hissed.

Ian looked at me looking slightly confused but very amused. I just smiled back at him.

“Juni wants Charsi to say that she loves you,” I said, covering my mouth with my hand. “Isn’t that strange?”

Lenn!

I looked back, and saw Charsi’s face turn red. Juni, now freed of his sister’s hands, filled the room with cackling laughter.

“Lenn is on my side!” Juni shouted.

“There aren’t supposed to be sides!” Charsi shouted back, forcing her brother’s head away. She swiveled to face me, slapping the pillow. “Lenn, you’re mean! You can’t just tell Ian things like that!”

“But…” Ian said, immediately playing along. His expression turned to one of feigned sadness. “You don’t love me at all?”

Charsi sat, very visibly stunned.

“No!” she exclaimed. She skipped a beat. “Well, uh, I didn’t… I didn’t mean… Love, like a… like a cousin, and not like…”

Juni cackled all the harder. Ian’s face appeared injured by Charsi’s stammered words.

“You!” She pointed at Ian, then at me. “I… I know what you’re doing! You can’t do what I did! That’s not fair!”

Ian’s dimple returned and he smiled. I couldn’t help but laugh.

“It’s all fair,” I replied. “We’re all family now, so we’re supposed to tease each other!”

“But I don’t like being teased!”

Ian’s hand appeared from beneath his blanket and approached Charsi carefully. She attempted to stop the fingers before they reached her, but they instead took her gently by the hand.

“I know what you mean, Charsi,” he said, sounding tired. “And I’m sorry I scared you when I fought with Lenn. I only wanted to protect you from Aaron. I guess I didn’t do the right thing.”

Her wounded expression turned thoughtful.

“Oh, I…” she whispered back. “I know… and I’m, um, sorry for making you worry. You shouldn’t have to when you’re so hurt.”

Ian smiled as best he could.

“And I love all my cousins. Even Juni.”

Juni’s face scrunched like he’d eaten a whole lemon.

“Ack,” he spit, sticking his tongue out. “Ñeh serdi.

Ian’s fingers released Charsi’s hand and flew straight to Juni. Enveloping all sides of his head, Ian gathered the boy’s long, white-blond hair and lifted it upwards. Juni yelped and shooed Ian’s hand away, smooshing his hair back into place. It got the point across without much effort.

Ñeh! No! Now Ian’s mean!”

“Okay, kañi and kalñi, we get it. We’re all mean,” I sighed with a chuckle. I turned back. “How are you really feeling, Ian?”

“Everything hurts.”

“Bad enough for me to get Catherine?”

“…maybe not yet.” He pulled back to rest upon his own pillow. He then pointed at his phone before bundling his blanket up beneath his chin. “Teach me something. I’ll try not to fall asleep.”

“You sure?”

“Can I tell Ian about how Juni and I met?” Charsi asked.

“Of course,” I replied. “Go right ahead.”

She nearly began, but she caught herself mid-breath.

“Ah, um… how do you say ‘sarefi reasar’ in English again?”

“Garbage dump.”

“Oh yeah. Dump. Right.”

“Dump,” Juni said in English, testing the word. “That sounds funny.”

“What about a garbage dump?” Ian asked.

“Let Charsi tell you,” I said.

Ian nodded, and Charsi began.


“That’s why I was so afraid of you,” Charsi said, now herself laying beneath the edge of the blanket. The room had grown chilly, and even I slid down and sat close to Charsi to warm up beneath it. “Every yatvi I ever saw would have killed me. Or that’s what I thought. I only knew Eliza, and I didn’t want to be scared again like Eliza scared me.”

“I’m sorry, Charsi,” Ian mumbled, laying his head upon the flat bed instead of the pillow. “I didn’t know.”

“And I want to think I’m like Xande,” Juni said. “That I’m big and strong. But… I’m not. Not really.”

I patted Charsi’s back.

“You two are much braver than you think. I never went through anything like that growing up.”

Ian’s eye closed.

“Me neither. I feel like such a loser. I can’t even do simple things like go to school without ending up like… this.”

He placed his hand directly upon his broken cheek, just light enough to feel the pain.

“But you have a mom and dad that love you,” Juni said.

“And you’re a hero,” I added. “All you have to do is look at my scar. You knew just what you had to do to save my life.”

“I’m not a hero.” His eye looked back at me. “If I was, other people would like me.”

“Well, we like you.”

Juni and Charsi agreed.

“You know what I mean, though,” Ian said. “I don’t have any friends. Not even at church. I want to stay home for the rest of my life where people actually care.”

“I wouldn’t mind,” I chuckled. “But you know you can’t do that. You showed me that there’s so much out in the world to learn. What if you go out there, come back, and teach me everything you learn? Then I can teach it to Aria and my child, and Charsi and Juni? Who knows, we might even find other yatili who want to learn too.”

“Yeah!” Juni said. “You could be a teacher like Lenn and teach a whole room of yatili!

Ian gently smiled.

“You think there’s enough of you out there?”

“To fill a room?” I looked at Charsi, and she shrugged. “There has to be.”

“Are we going to learn from you and Ian?” Charsi asked. “Before all that, I mean.”

“You’ll have to ask Eliza,” I said. “I’m not sure what she has in mind. Do you really want to learn from a cripple and a goofy kañi?”

Charsi laughed along with her brother.

“I live with Goofy every day,” she said plainly, throwing her finger towards Juni. “I don’t mind.”

“And I live with kalvalin idi,” Juni replied, pointing back at her. “I’m used to it.”

“Hey!”

“What does that mean?” Ian asked. “’Girl’ something.”

“Smart weird girl,” I said.

“Oh.”

“I’m smart, not weird,” Charsi insisted. “You’re the one who can’t do math.”

Juni slapped the blanket.

“I can too!” He paused just long enough to make everyone doubt. “Well, Eliza just makes it confusing with big numbers!”

“I’m bad at math too,” Ian said. “I hope Lenn knows.”

“Uh,” I said. “I don’t do numbers. Maybe Eliza will be a guest teacher.”

I Am Lenn – Chapter Ten

Late evening came, a few hours after Eliza had departed. Sleep was the furthest thing from my mind, and I couldn’t simply remain in bed waiting for the next day to come. I’d felt this way too many times, my stomach tied in knots and so filled with anxiety that I thought I might die simply by dwelling on the future. To be perfectly honest, I preferred the threat of actual danger to the impending feeling of doom, if only for the fact that seen danger can be avoided. Unseen events cannot, and from the sound of things, Xande’s reaction to my presence away from you was not positive in any way.

I stepped into the kitchen, limping a little slower than normal. I had expended a lot of energy that day, and I didn’t imagine the next day would improve it. I stayed in the middle of the floor, noticing for the first time that I didn’t feel compelled to remain in the shadows of the expansive room.

Footsteps emerged from a room downstairs, and then marched upwards towards me. I paused, prepared to wave down the Iatvi if only to avoid being kicked or smashed. But as his head emerged from the stairs below, James spotted me immediately.

“Lenn,” he said with a grin. “Just the man I wanted to see.”

“Hi James.”

I expected James to continue his ascent and dwarf me, but instead he sat upon one of the steps further down, keeping his eye level at mine.

“Come on over,” he waved. He played with something in his hands, and as I drew close to the edge of the carpeted stairs, I recognized what they were immediately. “What do you think? Will these work for you?”

My eyes widened as he handed me a pair of expertly crafted crutches. They weren’t wood or twigs to which I was accustomed. In fact, they appeared to be made out of sleek metal tubes, shaped and bolted together wide at the top and narrow at the bottom. Wrapped straps of leather protected the tops for comfort, underneath which was added a cushioning of foam. A crossbar secured the middle of the crutches as a place to hold my hands, and upon the bottoms were rubber pegs to keep the metal from scratching the floors… as if I had ever had to worry about that before, right?

For longer than I should have, I simply held them in my hands. James had given me crutches designed to last for years, and they did exactly that.

“Well?” he asked with a half-grin. “Go ahead, check the height. I took Catherine’s measurements, but I had to guess a little. Crutches should fit below your armpit and let you bend your elbow.”

Gently standing on my weak leg, I took a crutch in each hand and placed them under my arms. Right away I noticed the problem; they were both a little high, and even attempting to rest my weight on my left side made my injury sting. James saw the expression on my face.

“Not quite right, huh?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I answered.

“Once they’re lowered, they shouldn’t hurt. I’ll go ahead and fix them, they should be done by tonight before you go to bed.”

“Wait…” I replied. I had been too surprised to connect the dots. “You… made these?”

James smiled.

“Of course. I tried to find some Lenn-sized crutches at the pharmacy, but they were sold out.”

I smiled back.

“These are incredible,” I said, handing them back to James. “I can’t believe that you would do that for me. I was expecting wood poles and tape… Maybe sticks and string. I’ve built crutches with worse.”

“Nonsense, Lenn. You should know me better than that by now. It was a fun challenge. Do you know how hard it was to find screws and rubber pegs that small?”

“I can guess,” I replied with a nod.

“Let me get an accurate measurement really quick. Hold this next to your arm, would you?”

James gave me one crutch, and I held it to my side. From his shirt pocket James produced a thin-tipped pen, and made a black mark perhaps three of my fingers in width. He repeated this with the other crutch, and examined them both to make sure they were the same length.

“Perfect. I’ll fix these right away, and you’ll be all set.”

“James, I just… don’t know what to say. It’s been so hard for me to walk, and I’ve never had a set of crutches like this… Serditol. Thank you, really.”

“We all love having you here, Lenn. Ian’s really brightened up a lot since you arrived. He hasn’t made many friends, even in our church, and school has been particularly hard for him.”

“He’s said so,” I said. “He hasn’t told me specifics, but… I think other kids make fun of him for some reason.”

James nodded.

“Believe it or not, much of it is because of the church we go to. Many of those kids’ parents don’t believe what we believe, and they teach their kids that it’s okay to push Ian around for staying true to his beliefs.”

“What?” I frowned. “But why? Why do they care what Ian believes?”

“I don’t know,” James said. “Some people just feel the need to punish others for being different.”

I folded my arms.

“Hmm. I know something about that. I wish I could do something. If I were human, I’d teach those kids a thing or two.”

“I’m sure you would. I’m just glad you’re here to help Ian through the day.”

“Well, I owe it to him. I owe it to all of you.”

“Catherine told me about Eliza,” James said, shaking his head. “I can hardly believe it. She’s been hiding these kids for so long… I can’t wait to meet them. And I hear you’re going to teach them.”

I laughed, scratching my nose.

“I don’t know what Eliza expects of me. But it sounds like they may be outcasts like me. And I figure outcasts should stick together… if they’re not scared out of their minds from being in a new place surrounded by new people.”

“New human people, you mean.”

“Yeah… especially.”

“Well, you let me know how it all goes tomorrow. I know I’d only add to the fear if I joined you, so I’ll hide in my office downstairs until everything calms down a bit. But before then, let me go fix your crutches. Are you headed to Ian’s room? You want me to put them anywhere, or bring them to you when they’re done?”

“Um…” I put my finger to my lips. “Maybe you can just leave them in the guest room. I figure I can walk around for one more day.”

James nodded.

“Sounds good, I’ll do that.”

“Thank you, James, thank you. I won’t stop saying it. I hope I can find a way to pay you back someday.”

“You already are, Lenn, don’t you worry.”

James disappeared back down the stairs, and I hobbled towards Ian’s door. Closing an ear with my finger as I passed the electronic bug repeller, I noticed the bedroom’s door was slightly ajar. I pushed it open, and it made no noise; squeezing through the gap, I found the room relatively dark with the sun mostly gone outside the window and the warm lamp lit on Ian’s bedside table.

I didn’t call out to him. He was lying on his bed upon his stomach, engrossed watching something on his phone (typical Ian) with a pair of wired ear-shaped somethings he called ‘headphones’ jammed in his ears. Apparently, they allowed Ian to listen to the sounds of his phone without bothering anyone else. Keeping to the shadows beneath his dresser and television, I carefully climbed the sheets at the end of his bed until I stood about a foot away from his bobbing feet.

I had plenty of room on the side of the bed to avoid them, but his legs still made me a bit nervous. I walked past them quickly and approached his side above his hips.

His attention remained on his phone. When Ian focused, it was very difficult to unfocus him. But this certainly did: I grabbed hold of his t-shirt around his middle and hauled myself up onto the small of his back. Ian’s hand immediately swatted at me as if some small bug jumped onto him, and he shook side-to-side to buck me off. I held onto him firmly, though, and pushed his hand as it bounced off of my arm.

“Huh?” Ian asked, pulling out one of his headphones.

“Hey,” I announced. “Quit moving.”

He did so, but not without letting out a guttural laugh that rumbled through my good knee.

“…what are you doing?”

“Taking a seat.”

“On my back?”

Sia.

“You’re weird.”

I laughed.

Sia.

On all fours (or three-and-a-halfs, since my bum leg just dragged behind me), I crawled upwards. I could feel his muscles flexing beneath my hands.

“Ah!” he said, his head pulling backwards. “That itches.”

“I hope so,” I said, finally stopping at the gap between his shoulder blades. Sharply prominent through his shirt, I could practically use them as handholds to keep myself situated upon my new sitting place. When I rested myself (sitting beside the discomfort from his spine beneath me), I dug my fingers into the fabric of his shirt, scratching him. “What are you watching?”

“I’m listening to music,” he said. “Want to hear?”

“Sure.”

He offered me the headphone he’d just removed, and I took the head-sized plastic frame. For being such a large speaker, I had a hard time hearing any sounds emerging from it without bringing it very close to my own ear.

From within the speaker, I heard the rhythms of electronic music, of pianos and guitars, of lyrics I had a difficult time understanding, and beats to which Ian gently swayed. For three or four songs, we didn’t say a word to each other. Instead, we just lost ourselves in the music. The songs weren’t intense or gentle; they were simple enough to relax and complex enough to distract. I felt infinitely comforted to have anything floating through my mind beyond my own thoughts, and I’m sure it was similar for Ian. I wasn’t sure the tunes were familiar to the funny ka, as the notes he hummed didn’t exactly follow the tones. But I found myself doing the very same thing, entranced by the sounds.

In the middle of the next song, Ian piped up.

“Lenn?”

I put the headphone down in my lap.

“Yeah?”

“Can you tell me now?”

“Tell you what?”

“Why you’re afraid of Xande,” he said. “I don’t want him to hurt you.”

I sighed, continuing to scratch the boy’s back.

“I can’t,” I said. “It’s… not for a boy your age.”

Ian was silent for a moment.

“Oh,” he said. “It’s like that.”

I tilted my head.

“Like what?”

“That’s the same thing Mom and Dad say about my adoption. Or when they talk about my birth mom. They always say they’ll tell me when I’m older.”

I grimaced.

“It’s okay if you don’t trust me,” he continued. “I won’t ask anymore.”

“Ian, don’t say that. It’s not that I don’t trust you, it’s… it’s that I don’t trust myself to say it out loud. That it will become too painful if I tell someone.”

Ian remained quiet, and the music continued without me for a few moments.

“Hah. It won’t matter by tomorrow, though. You’ll know by then anyway.”

I sighed and rested my arms on my curled knee.

“…do you promise to keep it a secret until I talk about it?”

I turned my head as well as I could, and I saw Ian’s head nodding up and down.

“Okay… So, I… I wasn’t quite telling the truth when I said that Aria and I were just… friends…”


The morning came in an instant. The moment the front door shut, I stood to my feet as if ready for combat. My heart beat a million miles per minute, and Ian could sense my apprehension. He stood up and opened the door, taking a peek into the kitchen.

“Hi Ian,” Eliza said. “Keep your voice down, yeah?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Is that them?” asked Catherine from somewhere outside the room.

“Yes, come on in.”

Eliza entered first, stepping around Ian to kneel at the end of the bed. In both hands she held a large green backpack that she guarded close to herself as if her life depended on it. Or, several lives, to be specific. Catherine stepped in behind her with a kitchen chair, placing it against the wall and taking a seat. Ian knelt back down beside me.

“You guys ready?” Eliza asked. She wasn’t talking to us. From inside the backpack I heard a voice give a quiet confirmation, and with that, Eliza set the bag down on the surface of the bed and unzipped the main compartment. After a short moment of sure hesitation, two figures emerged from the darkness within, dressed in a collection of rough black-and-blue clothing that didn’t seem to fit them properly: a blonde-haired and pale young teenage boy, and a raven-haired almond-eyed girl that clung to his side. They covered their eyes from the bright window light, and the moment they saw the enraptured audience before them, they stopped.

“It’s okay, guys,” Eliza said, looking upon them. “This is my family. Don’t be afraid, you’re safe here.”

“Hello, little ones,” Catherine said cheerfully. Ian gave a small wave and a friendly smile.

I did not. Because my gaze was firmly attached to the figure that next emerged from the dark. He showed no fear behind his long jet-black hair, and the leathers he wore might well have been standard-issue for all gatherers I’d ever known. His face bore the familiar scars that I knew by heart, as well as the nasty glare he always reserved for me. The only part of him that appeared out of place was literally out of place: his left arm. All that remained was part of his shoulder; his sleeve clung to his belt like an empty banner.

He advanced on me. I walked towards him. I’m certain Eliza had scolding words prepared, but Xande spoke first.

“Why are you here, Lenn?”

He always said my name with a surprising amount of contempt. This time was no different.

“I might ask you the same thing,” I replied.

No, not this time. You don’t get to argue with me. Tell me why you’re here.”

The sharpness of his Iatnasi hadn’t changed. I always thought his accent stronger than mine, but hearing it out loud from him then, I began to doubt. Maybe it was from his time away.

My eyes narrowed.

Ask Elder Ordi. Ask the gatherers.”

Xande pressed his face towards me.

Well, they’re not here, are they? You didn’t just leave. There’s only one reason Ordi would have you exiled. Aria couldn’t protect you this time, and I want to know why.”

As if they needed a reason.”

Xande shoved me backwards with his hand.

“Xande, cut it out!”

“Not now, Eliza!” Xande barked in English.

You’ve always been like this. Pushing me around is your only answer.”

And whining is yours. You can’t blame your broken leg for everything shitty that happens to you. Maybe if you tried to actually do something useful, everyone wouldn’t hate you so much.”

If you didn’t have a teacher, you wouldn’t even be able to spell your name. You wouldn’t know rat poison from sugar by the label without Aria. Without me.”

Xande’s eyes rolled so hard, I thought he might lose them.

Again, and again, and again. Your argument never changes. I can spell my name just fine without you. You’ve always thought yourself so important, sitting in your dirty ‘school’ wasting everyone’s time while we fought for everything you ate. No one needed you. No one needs you.”

Xande came within a hand’s width away from my face.

I won’t ask again. Why are you here? Why couldn’t Aria protect your sorry ass?”

I attempted to remain resolute in the face of this pretentious Iatili, but… he deserved to know, no matter what I thought of him. I couldn’t help but withdraw and break away from eye contact.

You know why.”

Xande shoved me again, nearly making me trip backwards.

Maybe I do, maybe I don’t. Why don’t you tell it to my face?”

“Xande, you’re scaring the-”

“Shut up!” Xande shouted. “Tell me, Lenn. What did you do to her?”

I wasn’t going to feel shame for this. You wouldn’t want me to. I stared back at him, shoving my face into his.

Ke hountia Aria.”

I’m not quite certain what I sensed first, the crushing weight of Xande’s fist connecting with my nose, the drain of blood bursting forth from my nostrils, or hearing the thumping sound of his knuckles as I reeled backwards and collapsed. The world spun and I saw nothing but stars; I heard, however, a collection of frightened gasps and Eliza’s voice emerging loud and clear.

“Xande, what the hell?!”

“Get off of me! Put me down, woman, I’m going to tear him apart!”

“You’re not touching him again, you hear me!”

“Xande! Why did you do that?!”

“Lenn, are you okay?! Come on, get up!”

Ian’s hands gathered me about my waist and lifted me to my feet. Unprepared, I wobbled back and forth and waited a moment to balance with his support. Blood oozed down my shirt and no doubt onto the fabric floor, even on Ian’s hand. I felt the hard cartilage; it didn’t feel broken, exactly. Perhaps Xande didn’t have the momentum buildup from his missing arm, but it didn’t make the strike any less painful.

I could hear Xande roaring to attack me again, but he was nowhere to be seen. Eliza must have removed him from the bed.

“No, Xande! Cool off, or I’m locking you in the backpack!”

“Let me up there, you bitch! I’ll kill him!”

Eliza’s head tilted in amazement.

“Oh, I’m the one acting like a bitch? Fine, you want to play it like that?”

“Don’t touch me, Eliza! This is between me and him!”

Eliza removed the backpack from the surface of the bed. I still couldn’t quite see past the pain, but in that instant, I heard everyone in the room gasp.

“Oh,” Eliza said with a laugh. “The big man’s got his knife, huh! Taking the high road, aren’t you!?”

From my perspective, it appeared that Eliza began wrestling and swiping at a Iatili on the floor.

“Xande, stop!” yelled the teenage boy.

“Xande, don’t hurt Eliza!” shouted the girl.

Three seconds of grunting and angry roars, and the scuffle came to a head: Eliza withdrew her hand like a bolt of lightning, sucking on her ring finger.

“Ouch! Damn it, Xande! Fine!”

Eliza’s hand shoved the ex-gatherer hard enough to make him collide into the far wall. The thump made everyone in the room wince, especially the two kids; they clung to each other all the tighter.

“There,” Eliza said, placing a piece of reflective sharpened metal next to the teenage boy on the bed. “Don’t let him have that, Jun.”

“Eliza! Let me go! We’re not done!!

“Yeah, we’re not done,” she said, with surprising calm. “But you are.”

A Iatili was thrown into a backpack with force enough to sound like a book dropping to the floor. And then, ziiiiiip.

“Let me out! Now! He doesn’t deserve her! I’ll kill him for this, you hear me?!”

“You’re insane,” Eliza said, removing something from the backpack. Did she anticipate this? She must have, as she removed a thin plastic strip from a bag in the front pocket. Looping it through holes in the zipper handles, the plastic strip made clicking noises and secured the zippers together. Without his knife, he wasn’t getting out. “Little loser. Excuse me, I’m going to lock him in my car. I’ll be just a second.”

“Do you need a bandaid, Eliza?” asked Catherine, standing.

“No, I’m fine…”

Ignoring the mad screaming of the Iatili within, Eliza took the backpack and exited the room. I heard the front door close before I attempted to speak.

“I’m… sorry for the blood everywhere.”

Catherine and Ian whined.

“Lenn, don’t worry about it…”

“What did you tell him?”

I looked at the kids at the end of the bed that now appeared horrified, and I leaned against Ian’s warm hand.

“I… I said… I offered myself to Aria.”

“What does that mean?”

My face turned a slight red color, which may have increased the flow of blood from my nose.

“I can’t…” I gurgled.

I looked at Catherine, and for a split second, saw confusion on her face. But then realization dawned on her.

“I see.”

I patted Ian’s hand. I then looked to the Iatili distant from me.

“I’m sorry that was the first thing you had to see here,” I said to the two kids quickly, pinching my nose. “Are you two okay?”

Neither of them answered right away. To my surprise, however, the boy stepped towards me with his sister in tow at his side.

“It’s okay,” I said, raising a hand. “No one’s going to hurt you.”

“We’re not afraid,” said the boy in a very pronounced accent. It sounded different than mine. “What about you?”

I wiped my nose with my sleeve, and saw a thick smear of red. I couldn’t help a small laugh.

“I deserved it,” I said quietly. “I knew he would react that way.”

“You did not deserve it!” Catherine exclaimed.

“Yeah!” agreed Ian. “That wasn’t cool at all!”

I cast a glance at the Iatvi, then back to the Iatili kids. The boy’s expression was solid, but the young girl reserved her judgement, clinging to the teenager and hiding her face in her long hair. Now standing a few inches away from Ian’s hand, they looked up at him, then back at me.

“You married… Xande’s sister?” the girl whispered. Her voice was crystal, delicate and pure like the color of her dark-brown eyes.

My eyebrows raised. The boy looked down at the girl, and I gave her a small smile.

“Yes,” I said out loud to her. Out loud for the first time. Of course, just like the translation of the word ‘offered’, it wasn’t quite marriage, but… close enough for a ten year old. “I love her. And I miss her.”

The girl nodded. Then, to my surprise, the boy raised his hand to me.

“I’m Juni. This is Charsi.”

“Oh,” I said, noticing my correct hand covered in blood. Ian lowered his stained hand a bit, and I offered Juni my opposite. “Sorry, it’s good to meet you. I hope Xande hasn’t made me sound pathetic. At least I can take a punch.”

Charsi lifted her hand as well, and she delicately shook mine.

Juni gave a small smile.

“He tried. But…” he said. “I don’t believe much of what Xande says.

“I’m grateful for that.” I motioned towards Catherine and Ian. I then spoke Iatnasi just to see their reactions. “This is Ian. And his mother Catherine. He’s Eliza’s cousin, and she’s Eliza’s aunt.”

Juni nodded.

“Hello,” he said. “Eeen. And Cah-ter-een.

I smiled; though a bit different than mine, his pronunciation sounded just like that when you taught me English.


Eliza returned a few moments later with a frown on her face. Ian returned as well with a damp washcloth for me, his hands now clean.

“He is not a happy camper,” she said, kneeling back down before the side of the bed. “Swearing at me the whole time, in Iatnasi and English. He’s definitely not coming back here until he learns to relax.” She looked at me and held out her hand. “I’m sorry, Lenn. I had no idea he’d hit you like that.”

I did,” wiping my upper lip and testing my nose again. Sore, but nothing more. “He hasn’t changed.”

“He’s going to be okay out there, right?” Catherine asked. “In your car? It’s going to get pretty hot.”

“As much as I’d like to make him sweat a bit, you’re right,” Eliza said. “I’ll probably have to go real soon.”

“But… our stuff is in the backpack,” Juni said, pointing to the door.

Eliza’s eyes widened as her lips pursed sideways.

“Shoot. You’re right.”

“The front pocket,” Charsi added.

Eliza paused.

“You sure?”

Charsi nodded.

Val sia?” Juni asked.

Charsi nodded harder.

Bodlis Eliza lai vamir lia ardi.”

Juni shrugged.

“Oh. Sulm. I don’t have to cut him out of there until I get home.” Eliza turned to me. “Seriously, though, you’re okay? Your nose isn’t broken?”

“No, it just hurts, that’s all. I’m glad he didn’t use his knife, but I’m more grateful it wasn’t Elder Ordi standing over me. When he found out… he really did try to kill me.”

“Are you serious?” Eliza asked. “When was this?”

“A week before Ian and the boys found me. Aria tried to keep everything a secret, but there was only so much she could do to hide it. Eventually, everyone could, well… see what had happened.”

Everyone paused.

“Aria is pregnant, then?” Catherine asked.

I looked up at her, then back down at the bed. I nodded.

“That’s a good thing, though, yeah?” Ian asked, patting my back.

I nodded again.

“Xande had this figured out,” Eliza said.

“Yeah. All he needed was confirmation.”

“But Xande told us he has been gone from your village for a long time,” Eliza said quietly. “If he didn’t want this to happen, why did he leave? Why did he come to protect the kids?”

“He’s just like the other gatherers,” I said with bitterness. “When he lost his arm, I don’t think he could bring himself to come back.”

“Why?” Ian asked.

“Ha, look at me. I can hardly move with this leg of mine, and he’d taunted me for years. If he came back without an entire arm, he’d be unable to keep up with the others. He’d be exactly like me. I could call him a… oh, what’s the word… nissahnk. Hip. Hipo. Hipo-something.”

“Hypocrite?” Eliza suggested.

Sia, a hypocrite.”

“That sounds like Xande. Asking him about his arm has always been a touchy subject.”

“But he’s never home,” Juni said. “He’s always climbing, running, jumping…”

Eliza nodded.

“Like he’s compensating for something.”

“I’m not sure I know what that means,” I said.

Catherine gave Eliza a look. Eliza smiled.

“Not like that. Although I wouldn’t be surprised.” Her explanation went over my head. “He doesn’t let himself fail. He’s never felt sorry for himself, at least not in front of other people. Not that I’ve seen, anyway. Has he ever talked to you guys about his arm, or Lenn?”

Juni shook his head.

“Not me. I asked once. He got angry.”

Charsi looked a little sheepish.

“Xande talked to me about losing his arm. That he hated the pain in his shoulder, and how he had to use his teeth to tie knots. He talked about Aria, too. He said she was beautiful and kind. One time, he said-”

She paused. Eliza lowered her eyes towards her.

“Did he say something about Lenn?”

Charsi nodded.

“I think so. That a boy always took his sister away. Um… ‘kalyti’.

“What does that mean, Sisi?”

I chuckled, folding my arms.

“He called me that a lot,” I said. Turning to answer the blank stares, I continued: “It means ‘idiot boy’.”

Eliza frowned at me.

“Well, maybe not ‘idiot’, exactly. Dumb. And smart. Stupid, but not stupid. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

“Someone smart but acts dumb?” Eliza said with a smile. “Makes me think of you, Ian. You’re a total nerd.”

“A nerd? I am not,” He paused, lifting his nose in the air. “I’m… refined.

Holding back a grin, I tilted my head.

“I’m not… familiar with that word. Nerd?”

“Ha,” Ian said, nudging my shoulder with the back of his hand. “You’re an English nerd. It means you’re weird. Smart with words but goofy.”

I shrugged, looking up at him.

“I’ll accept that.”

“But Lenn,” Ian continued. “You’ve gotta find Aria. If she’s gonna have a baby soon, you want her to be safe, don’t you? What if she gets sick? Or your baby gets sick? With polio… or something really bad?”

“Ian…” Catherine said, lightly scolding him.

“That’s why I panicked when you told me about polio in the first place, Ian. I wanted the vaccine for her, but I wanted the vaccine for my child, too. I don’t want them to be crippled like me. I just don’t know how to help them. The village could have gone in any direction, and to be honest, I’m not sure I could point out where the old village was in the first place.”

Everyone appeared somber.

“It’s not like we can call a search party, can we?” Eliza asked.

I shook my head.

“I think we are the search party.”

“What if we bought a pair of really fancy night vision goggles?” Ian asked. “One of those with heat vision? Er, that can see heat, I mean. Then we could see Iatili easy.”

My eyes widened a bit.

“…if that’s real, that sounds horrifying.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s beyond my budget,” Eliza laughed.

“Ours, too,” Catherine agreed.

I folded my arms and bobbed my feet up and down.

“I know I just got punched in the face…” I growled. “But that vysht…”

I looked at Juni and Charsi.

“Uh, I mean… sorry for my language…”

“It’s okay,” Juni said with a shrug.

“I think that idiot in the backpack might be the only one that could track them. Considering he wants to murder me, though, I don’t think he’ll help me. Elder Ordi wants me dead, anyway.”

I closed my eyes.

“And Aria might not want to come back with me at all.”

“Why?” Ian asked.

“But you love each other,” Catherine said. “You don’t think she would?”

I shrugged. I don’t think I’ll ever get over the memory that floated through my mind.

“I… I said some very terrible things to her… to make her stay in the village. I couldn’t let her leave with me. I couldn’t let her throw her life away.”

I expected someone to argue with me, but they didn’t.

“I have no experience gathering. Neither does she. Even if we both left together, our best efforts couldn’t possibly have been good enough. We would both die. We would all die. And… I couldn’t let my choices do that to her. I couldn’t do it to her or to our child.”

“But you didn’t die,” Ian said. “We would have saved you.”

“If we knew back then, maybe,” Catherine said, resting her hand on Ian’s shoulder. “But if they had been together, things might have gone very differently. If you hadn’t found Lenn like you did, he wouldn’t be here in the first place.”

“Lenn,” Juni said. I looked at the boy, and he took a pause. “Xande won’t help. But I want to help. I want to help you.”

“I do too,” Charsi said, sounding equally as confident.

“Me too!” Ian said quickly.

I smiled at them, and Eliza spoke up first.

“You three are the best,” Eliza said proudly. “I think we’re kind of stuck, though. Until we come up with a plan, or Xande pulls his head out of his butt, there’s not a whole lot we can do.”

“We’ll think of something,” Ian said. “Right, Mom?”

“Yes, absolutely. I’ll go ask your father, I wonder if he might have any ideas.”

“Maybe Ian and I can go hiking, see if we can find anything. There’s got to be some trace of them out there,” Eliza said.

“I’ll come with you,” I said. “It’s as good a place to start as any.”

“And you two can start working on Xande when you come home,” Eliza replied to the two young Iatili. “There’s bad blood between him and Lenn, but Xande’s gotta recognize that this happened, and there’s nothing he can do but work with Lenn to help Aria.”

“I made all this happen… Without me, Aria would have found someone stronger, someone who could take care of her. Someone her family didn’t despise. It doesn’t matter, though… She means everything to me. I want to take her away from our terrible lives. I want to keep her safe, make her comfortable and carefree.”

I looked up at Catherine.

“I wouldn’t have known anything different if I hadn’t found refuge here. But I can’t take advantage of your family, Catherine. I’ve taken up so much of your attention by myself, what would my new family take from you? I can’t ask you to care for me, Aria, and our baby forever…”

“Why not? You’re my brother.” Ian asked. “Mom, why not? I want to help Lenn and Aria.”

Catherine reached for me and took my hand.

“Lenn, what do you really want?” she asked me.

I looked away.

“I… I don’t know… “

“Yes, you do,” she said with a soft smile.

“I can’t even begin to repay you for saving me, for feeding me, for caring for me. What could Aria and I possibly do to earn our right to stay here?”

“James and I have been talking about this, Lenn. You’re free to leave at any time… once you’re strong enough, of course. We would never keep you here against your will. At the same time, though, we couldn’t bring ourselves to force you away to fend for yourself out there. You’ve come to mean a lot to us, Lenn. And now that I know you have a family to protect, there’s no way I could leave Aria and your child out in the cold. I just couldn’t do it.”

“It’s the same reason I keep these two around,” Eliza said, patting Juni’s back. “Three, counting that blockhead Xande. I’m not putting them in chains, but I would never forgive myself if they got themselves hurt or killed if I gave up on them. No matter how hard things get, they’re part of my life now.”

“Yes, exactly. You’re part of our lives, Lenn,” Catherine agreed. “You earn your keep by being part of it.”

“We’re brothers,” Ian said, ruffling my hair. “And I won’t let my big brother get hurt. And if you’re my brother, then Aria is my sister.” When I laughed, he scratched his cheek. “Um, sort of. You know what I mean.”

I shook my head in amazement and said nothing for a moment.

Viamen indiata rundi,” Juni said, catching my attention. “Sisi ys ke. Huh Eliza?”

“You betcha.”

“Wha’d he say?” Ian asked.

“That they’re part of your family, too.”

“Yeah, definitely,” Ian said with a grin.

“I’d love to hold a baby,” Charsi said, making a cradle of her arms. “Maybe a baby girl?”

“No way, ataikani!” Juni said with a laugh. “Then I can teach him kickball.”

“Yeah, a boy! For video games!” Ian said.

I chuckled.

“I… I haven’t really thought about that. But… I can’t bring myself to even start until I see Aria again. If I find her, then we can think of better things.”

When,” Catherine said, leaning forward. “When you find her.”

I Am Lenn – Chapter Nine

A week or so passed, I believe, after the cousins went home. My injury continued to burn and itch, but motionless rest and the cream medication James applied helped alleviate some of the pain. I’m a heavy sleeper, as you know, and don’t move around much during the night, so that certainly helped. But the more I moved about during the day, the more the pain increased, leaving me in between a state of restlessness and a state of discomfort that didn’t seem to end. Worse (or fortunately?), my energy levels were slowly returning to normal, so being forced to remain stationary killed me.

I learned something rather interesting: Iatvi children don’t usually attend school during the summer months. They call it ‘summer break’, and they enjoy time away from responsibility. Can you imagine if the children at home could do this? Even the teachers who worked at the schools often had to find other employment. Essential cleaning, sewing, and gathering practice by the kalka wouldn’t happen, and I wouldn’t have been fed for three months out of the year!

Unfortunately for Ian, he didn’t have this luxury. Come to find out, neither did Aaron or Chris. James and Catherine had enrolled Ian in summer classes at a local school to help him further his education. James described it as ‘helping him reach the point where he could attend a private school’. I didn’t quite understand the difference between what they called ‘public’ and ‘private’ school at first. But apparently, this ‘private school’ was rather prestigious. No wonder Ian wanted me to be his teacher: the expectations his parents had placed on his schooling were rather high, miles higher than I had ever placed on my own students. It seemed to frustrate Ian to no end, but it was hardly my place to say anything about it. I merely offered my services to help him study. Hesitant at first, James and Catherine worried that my condition would worsen if I did so. But I insisted I would like nothing more than to help him.

When he returned home from school, Ian would show me his homework. His math was beyond me; I have never been skilled with numbers, and I couldn’t assist him very well there. His ‘science’ textbook, on the other hand, was fascinating to me. Weather patterns, the structure of the earth, the makeup of the stars in the sky, and even the very basic elements that make up the world… I even spent the time I had alone peering into the screen of Ian’s phone in my desire to learn more. How did Iatvi know of such things? Ian didn’t share my thrill initially. But as I learned more and shared details with him that his book did not contain, he listened to me with much more interest. Lastly, I assisted him in his English and vocabulary. Yes, translating some of the words in my head continued to be challenging. But for the most part, Ian remained patient with me, and often became amused at my inability to remember. Much of it was rote memorization, and it was simple enough to read off thick postcards to test his memory.

Interestingly, when Ian did leave me his phone to use, every so often the phone would erupt in very loud ringing. A dark screen would replace my reading and display a strange string of numbers. Often, the numbers would be accompanied by the name of a place; I never recognized any of these. A few times, I would see Catherine’s or James’s name, but I never could gather my courage to “answer” the phone and talk to them through the device. After a time, the ringing would end, and I could continue my studies.

Three times near the end of these two weeks, however, a particular name would appear a few times: Eliza. I asked Ian who this was, and he told me it was the name of his oldest cousin on James’s side of the family. She lived a few towns away, he told me, and when he called her back, she would mysteriously not answer. He sent her a few word messages asking her what she wanted. She replied with a single question: she wanted to know what time Catherine would be home the upcoming Friday. I don’t know what Ian told her, and I didn’t think to ask for any other details. After all, it was hardly my business. Ian did tell me that I would probably have to hide in Ian’s room if she or any other family came over. I told him I didn’t mind.

That Friday, James went to work early. Ian went to school at his typical time. And I thought Catherine would remain at home as she usually did; she appeared to be the homemaker, although Ian told me she had some kind of job and worked downstairs on a computer from home. How easy would gathering be if you could stay in the comfort of your home and perform your work on an electronic device?

Around 10 o’clock, however, I heard footsteps on carpet, and then the click-clacking of heels on hardwood. I expected Catherine to check on me.

But she did not. Instead, I heard the great front door open and close.

I had been left alone inside the Petersen home before, so it didn’t bother me overmuch. Surely she had locked the door before departing to keep everything they owned safe while she was out. I continued to read from Ian’s phone in my lap, keeping notes about my studies on a postcard with a piece of graphite.

At 10:23, I heard the front door open.

My head lifted. Surely it was Catherine, so I continued reading. As the door closed, I expected the usual footsteps on carpet and hardwood.

I heard very little.

I frowned. Had Ian or Catherine returned home, taking their shoes off at the door? They didn’t usually do that. I was tempted to investigate, but I doubted anything was really wrong. It’s not like anyone would enter James’s and Catherine’s house without contacting them about it first. Sure, the thought of a robber or burglar crossed my mind. But my paranoia of living in a Iatvi home had faded for the most part. So, stupidly, I turned back to Ian’s phone.

No one checked on me. For about ten minutes after the front door closed, I listened for the sounds of Ian or Catherine. Every so often, I heard gentle footsteps somewhere distant in the house, passing down the stairs into the basement. Nothing to worry about, then. It was just Catherine returning to work.

About five minutes later, I heard the footsteps climb the stairs and approach the guest room. Everyone in the house had taken to knocking on the door before they entered, which was more than kind of them. So before the footsteps reached the door, I called out to the person on the other side; I’d grown way too comfortable.

“Catherine?” I asked. “Is that you?”

The footsteps disappeared. Complete silence for a few seconds.

“Catherine?”

The doorknob of the guest room turned and the door slowly creaked open. A face then appeared, halfway concealed behind the white door roughly at Catherine’s height. With a great green eye, this face looked directly at me.

It was not Catherine.

For what seemed like an endless duration, I merely stared at the eye. No other features of this Iatvi seemed relevant to me. It did not blink. Nor did it move…

And then it did, and so did I. The door opened wide, supposedly revealing more of this Iatvi. I did not wait to see these features. In fact, I let out the loudest and most terrified scream I’d ever produced with my new voice and scrambled in the precise opposite direction of the door.

“Wait!” I heard from a very feminine voice, but I certainly did not. In fact, panic so filled me that I failed to make a full stop at the very edge of the bed. My hands slipped on the fabric, and I felt weightlessness as I tumbled off the side into the dark space in between the bed and the television table. I collided with the floor and quite possibly part of the bed’s metal frame, but I did not feel it. Instead, I scrambled to my feet as quickly as I could (stumbling at once as I attempted to do so with my left leg).

“Wait, wait! Please!” said the great voice. I did not… or wouldn’t have had I had the choice. I stood a bit higher than the underside of the bed. So while I could not see the footsteps of this Iatvi rushing around, I certainly heard them. Filled full with fear and adrenaline, my eyes darted around me for options. Forwards wasn’t one of them. Under the bed was one, but the bandages around my neck and shoulder would have stalled me before I had time to dive underneath. I spun around to see if there was hiding space in between the table and the wall. I saw the mere shadow of width, so I attempted to wedge myself in between. Unfortunately, too narrow; I could barely hide my arm.

I slammed my back against the wall just in time to see the Iatvi peering down at me from up above. Intense green eyes watched me for a moment, and this time, I couldn’t help but recognize other features.

A woman. Curled and bright red hair that frayed in many directions, mostly tied up in a bun. Dark eyebrows, perhaps colored with makeup to be this way. Deep freckles across her face, and a delicate complexion. Smallish nose, thin lips, and an angled chin that might have resembled Ian’s to me if I’d had the mental ability to make that comparison.

I suddenly became very aware of pain. And I could go nowhere.

Then, this Iatvi woman said perhaps the only thing she could have whispered that wouldn’t have made me collapse in terror.

“Lenn?” she said. “Vah op se les?”

Lenn. Is that your name?

I stopped breathing. But something possessed me to open my mouth and exhale what air I had left.

Unlat val…?”

Who are you?

I then trembled another whisper.

Unsa phodal Iatnasi?”

How do you know Iatnasi?

“Lenn, neh ve odane. Via dunsas.”

Lenn, don’t be afraid. I am a friend.

For another eternity, we simply stared at each other. I didn’t know if she were trying to figure out how to capture me, if she were merely studying me, or if she were attempting to find a way to approach me without causing me more panic.

“…my name is Eliza,” the woman said quietly. At this moment, I became aware that she was not an older woman. Not in the least. “I’m sorry I scared you so badly.”

I was shaking intensely at this point.

“Wh-what d-do you want?”

“I came to see you,” she said simply. Her face was reaching beyond the view of the bed. “May I sit on the floor?”

I said nothing. I didn’t need to. This Eliza stepped around the bed fully into my view and took a seat on level with the end of the bed. She wore a light green blouse and long denim pants with holes in the knees that ended above her ankles. And yes, it appeared as if she had removed her shoes at the door, as she wore short white socks.

She raised her hands.

Vah sulm, Lenn. I’m not going to hurt you. I just want to talk.”

She had no accent. Yet she spoke Iatnasi.

Unsa… “ I repeated. “Why…? How do you know…?”

“I’ve been caring for a pair of Iatili children and their guardian for about two years now,” Eliza said. “The kids are Juni and Charsi. When I found them in my apartment back then, I scared them to death too… In fact, I was stupid… Charsi was so scared she didn’t move, but it almost took me fifteen minutes to make Juni stop running away.”

If my legs worked, I certainly would have done the same. I did not tell Eliza this.

“Neither of them spoke English very well. Juni knew almost nothing. Charsi could stumble through a simple conversation. But I hear you’re quite fluent.”

The names of these children were not familiar. How could she possibly know about me…?

The answer was fairly obvious.

“Chris…” I whispered. “And Aaron, they… they told you…”

“Lenn, please don’t be mad at them,” Eliza said. “They didn’t actually tell me anything… at first. I went over to their house for Sunday dinner with my aunt and uncle, and after dinner, I heard Chris and Aaron playing around. They kept saying the words ‘sulm’ and ‘serdia’ over and over… I called them both into Aaron’s room to ‘play video games’…”

She bent her index and middle fingers in the air twice. I didn’t know what that meant.

“…and I asked them how they knew those words. They both turned bright red and didn’t say a thing for a while.”

“…you knew…” I whispered.

Eliza nodded.

“Aaron told me everything. Please, please don’t be mad at them. It wasn’t really their fault.”

“…what are you going to do with me…?” I asked.

Eliza waved her hands.

“Nothing, Lenn, nothing, I promise! I just… had to come see you myself, make sure you were really here. The oldest Iatili living with me, he takes care of the kids… his name is Xande.”

My stomach immediately sank into my feet, and I felt dizzy. I might have passed out right then and there had I not been mind-numbingly afraid of doing so in front of an Iatvi I didn’t know.

“No…” I whispered.

It couldn’t be him.

About five more seconds passed.

“I told him your name,” Eliza continued. “And… his face looked about the same as yours.”

“No… no…” I whispered. “No, it can’t be him. There’s no way he’s still… he would never get…”

“Get caught by an Iatvi?” Eliza said. A smile formed on her face. “He said the same thing. He’s always said I just got lucky. The kids slowed him down or his arm stopped him from climbing, garbage like that.”

“His… his arm?”

“Oh,” Eliza said, her smile fading. “Um… How long has it been since you’ve seen him?”

My mind spun back the clock.

“F-Five…” I stammered. “Five years… I thought he was dead.”

“Dead?”

“He… he went gathering… and…” I tried to piece in my mind how it could have happened. “He never came back. The gatherers went searching for him, and… all they found was blood, and… a severed arm.”

Horror crossed Eliza’s face.

“They were sure something had eaten him whole…“ I whispered. “Aria was devastated…”

“Aria? Xande’s sister?”

I looked up at her.

“Xande… told you about her?”

Eliza nodded.

“He said… you and Aria were… close.”

To the Petersens, I had always called you a friend and nothing more. It distanced me from the pain. But it was more than that, wasn’t it? It had been for a long time.

“…sia.”

“But… how are you here?” Eliza asked me. “Why are you not with her? Xande always told me that Aria would remain safe so long as you stayed with her.”

I couldn’t speak for a moment. There was no way Xande would talk about me like that. Just like every other member of Aria’s family, Xande hated me and resented me for spending so much time with you. You always told me to ignore him, try to focus on my work without riling him or the other warriors up. When he “died”, part of you died with him. I know it. He was your only remaining family, your protector. He was everything I couldn’t be. If someone like him had attracted you, I would not have been part of your life.

If this Xande really was your brother… Begging for forgiveness would hardly matter, and I wasn’t about to, either.

“I… I was…” I swallowed hard. “I was almost killed… trying to get away from home.”

“Killed?” Eliza asked with a drawn breath. “Why?”

I had escaped death once. But if Xande knew…

“I… neh… neh angia lai ehr ilir.

I can’t tell you.

Undai? Ehr va… veszer vol?

Why? Is it… too painful?

Tears filled my eyes. My weak legs lost all strength, and I slumped down to my knees in a heap. Immediately, my mind and my heart shattered, and I cried. There was sorrow, yes. Sorrow for you. Sorrow for everything I put you through. But there was intense anger as well.

At myself.

Ne angia lai ot wendir!” I screamed at the top of my voice, forcing air out as much with my abdomen as with my arms.

I can’t do this.

Vai penike! Ne angiam lai se indir.”

I’m a failure. I couldn’t protect you.

Ne vaim markol kald, ys vysht vol… vai nal vol… lai se ondir…

I’m not strong enough, too much of a bastard… I’m too weak… to love you…

Renria lai vesir! Ne angia lai ehr wendar sadendis! Aria, devtol! Ahhhh! Renria lai vesir!”

I want to die! I can’t do this anymore! Aria, I’m so sorry! I want to die!

I could no longer remain on my feet. I collapsed into the carpet, shriveling into a miserable ball. I released all of my anger into intense spasms and force, and I could not breathe. The wound across my neck had not been entirely forgotten, and I dug my nails into the bandages underneath my shirt as if to rip them apart. Every emotion that I’d repressed in the last six months burst from me like a violent storm. Aria, if I had access to a weapon or a sharp instrument of some kind, I would have committed my life to an end. I thought even this ‘God’ the Petersens spoke of desired my death as well.

I had lost you forever, Aria. And now your brother would emerge from death and end my life for what I’d done… if I couldn’t summon the strength to do it myself.

Any immediate danger I had felt from the Iatvi girl moments before had evaporated. I did not hear the young kal Iatvi approach me until I felt her hand gently comfort me.

“Lenn…” she whispered. Her whisper reminded me much of Ian’s compassion. “Lenn, via lunesias. Des… ne wendia lai vesir.

Lenn, I am a stranger. But… I don’t want you to die.

Ke vansira, ke vansira. Ke vansira… Neh se fenikke, kaldi.”

He will kill me. Don’t let him, please.

“Xande?”

I gurgled and gasping for air.

Ne fenikkiria lai ot byrdemir.”

I will not let that happen.


It took me more than a while to calm down. Between the unfamiliar young woman looming over me as I sat in the dark corner of the bedroom and the thought of being murdered by your “long-dead” brother… I thought that more than just my injury had healed in the time I’d spent under the Petersen’s care, that perhaps I had time to recover emotionally and clear my mind before I could devise a plan to find you. Whatever sense of safety and stability I had found in that place shattered completely. What I had told Ian resounded through my head: everything in the whole damn world wanted me dead. Accidental, purposeful, coincidental. All ways. It didn’t matter.

I did not speak to Eliza. For as long as I remained under her shadow, no words could emerge from me. I didn’t dare ask questions because I didn’t want the answers. I didn’t dare divulge additional information of my guilt because I didn’t know what she would tell Xande. I simply remained upon the ground with my back to the Iatvi, wishing that the long fibers of the carpet would swallow me whole.

Eliza did not leave. Nor did she prod me for information. She simply sat behind me, at times brushing her finger along my shoulder and arm. She simply spoke to me.

“Lenn? Aaron told me that you teach kids. I think that’s really great of you. I think you would really like Charsi and Juni. Neither of them know their birthdays exactly, but I think Charsi is ten and Juni is twelve. I want you to meet them. If you can handle the two psycho boys, then you won’t have a problem at all with Jun and Sisi.”

She paused.

“Xande isn’t a bad guy. I promise you. I know that whatever might have happened between the two of you can be fixed. For all the time I’ve known him, he’s been nothing but a hero to the kids… and so kind. He’s got a handicap, sure… well, an arm-icap, I guess… He’s just… a proud little Iatili. You probably know that already. And he never stays in one place for very long, he hates being stuck somewhere. He climbs all over my apartment. Yeah, with a single arm, without a rope or anything. I’ve had to yell at him a couple of times for hiding in my closet or in my cupboards waiting to scare me. And he’s been teaching Juni how to do the same thing! I can catch Juni before he scoots away, but Xande, he’s just nuts. He’ll dive headfirst off of the shelves in my closet and grab a shirt on the way down! He even dares me to try to step on him just so he can practice avoiding me. He’s so insane…

“You probably know what he was like growing up. He’s just… restless. I won’t see him for two days, and then he’ll suddenly show back up on my apartment patio with some… just, something. A sack of candy, or crayons for Sisi, or toys… you know, the twenty-five cent ones you get out of a toy gumball machine. One time he even came back with a really expensive piece of jewelry, a gold bracelet with real pearls. Seriously, real ones! He tried to play it off like he’d found it in some dumpster, but I looked up the markings on the inside, right? The thing was seriously, like… three-thousand dollars! I demanded he take it back where he found it, and… well, he did disappear for another night or so, so I assumed he’d done as I said.

“What did I find inside my makeup drawer a week later? The dumb bracelet! I got so angry, and he knew I would be! I didn’t see him for three or four days after that. Not even the kids knew where he’d gone. I went to the police station and gave them the bracelet. I told them I found it in the gutter on my way to work. I thought for sure someone would have filed a police report for something like that, so when they didn’t make me fill out paperwork or anything, I thought I was lucky.

“Well, Xande finally shows his face again. I chew him out and told him I’d turned it over to the cops. You should have seen his face. He has the gall to start yelling at me! He kept saying it was a gift, that I threw away days of work, and that I should have been grateful for his ‘skills’! I always told him my job didn’t pay me enough for how hard I work, but I never expected him to go ‘rob from the rich and give to the poor’! He took my complaining as a challenge to go and steal something, and when I told him that I didn’t take ‘dirty’ money, he didn’t speak to me for at least a week. I tried telling him that I could get arrested for trying to sell it, but apparently that didn’t compute in his teeny-tiny mind.”

Eliza sighed.

“Sorry. I get worked up about him sometimes. You seem like a completely different person. You’re even helping Ian with his homework? That blows my mind. Aaron and Xande both told me that you can’t… well, you can’t move around much. I’m, um… sorry if it’s a sensitive subject. But Aaron told me how good both you and Ian have treated each other, and I’m so proud of both of you.”

She fell quiet.

“You were probably even taking notes for him when I barged in here, huh? Can I see?”

I said nothing.

“Ooh,” she said quietly. “You write like Sisi, nice and small. Hah, obviously. Although… your handwriting is really good. Better than mine! Let’s see… um… ‘Voli… ys cadas qa mydurn’…? Hmm. Voli. Circle? Cadas is time. Oh shoot, what is mydurn? I’ve heard Sisi say that word before, what was she talking about…?”
Eliza paused again, and I heard the bed creak.

“His phone locked… what’s his birthday again? He’s ten, so… hmm. Ah, there we go, he really should change that. Oh, moon! Mydurn is moon! So, ‘circle and time of the moon’? Phases of the moon, huh? I wonder if those words translate correctly. You don’t have to say anything, maybe you can tell me later.

“‘Parda yod’. Hmm. ‘Light’ and… ‘full’? Oh, full moon, that makes sense. And then… ‘Parda ishta’. Half-moon. ‘Pendu yod’. Full-shadow. ‘Pendu ishta’. Half-shadow. And then back to parda yod. Very cool. And then a bunch of numbers… Dates, too? Neat.”

Pause.

“Oh… I’m totally going through your homework, Lenn, I’m sorry… There’s no way Ian knows how to read Iatnasi. So this isn’t for him, is it? Xande did say you were one of the smartest Iatili he knew. You’re probably loving Ian’s phone. Ha, the derpy little kid wouldn’t even have one if Aunt Catherine didn’t worry about keeping track of him. She should just slap a GPS tracker on his ankle. That way he wouldn’t watch all those dumb videos he keeps sharing.”

As if I were just some acquaintance, Eliza continued to talk to me about all manner of things, from the weather outside, how little she was looking forward to a week-long training session at her job (apparently she was an “accountant”), to craft projects she had in her apartment that “the kids” were helping her with. She was very friendly and her voice was light and cheerful, and it nearly caused my confidence level to rise high enough to turn around and face her. I didn’t, but that didn’t deter her from continuing her one-sided conversation.

Eliza said Xande had been living with her and these two mystery children for two years… what had Xande been doing for two years in between those times? He was alive: why did he not return to the village at all? And missing an entire arm… I couldn’t picture him with only one. I wanted to ask Eliza these questions about Xande, but I sincerely doubted that someone as proud as that hard-headed warrior would have explained very much to a Iatvi. But, then again, two years… What could possibly have kept him anchored in one place for that long?

And why had he not returned to you?

I’m not sure how much time passed. I thought she would talk to me until Ian came home, but considering that was still three hours away, I couldn’t stomach that possibility. I wasn’t losing my mind in panic at that point, merely forcing myself to breathe slowly. Eliza was so fluent in Iatnasi, she actually began to describe her daily life to me in my language. It seemed… wrong? No, that’s not quite right. Fascinating, yes, but… Maduni. Inappropriate.

“…so that’s when Xande shows up and tries to ‘console’ me about everything. ‘Your work can’t be that hard,’ he says. ‘You’re not at risk of death counting numbers,’ he says. I wanted to be mad at him, but… he had a point. This was… what, a few months ago? I’m not the one in danger wherever I go. It really made me start thinking about what kind of future Jun and Sisi are going to have, and if it was really appropriate for them to stay with me for so long. Xande never talked about leaving, and neither did the kids, but… the thought of it has never really left my mind, you know? I imagine you know a lot about this. You come from a village, sure, but the way Xande described it, it sounded as if life was just… horrible. Could I really let those three leave to… to live in the wilderness alone? I just don’t think I could ever-”

The front door opened and closed shut with a slam.

At this, I carefully turned myself over and shot a glance out of the side of my eye, ignoring the pain in my jaw. The shadow of the Iatvi woman was truly upon me, but she wasn’t looking down at me. Instead, she was looking over her own shoulder towards the door of the room.

She sighed, and I felt the slight breeze of her breath.

“Okay. This… will be very interesting.”

Her eyes then descended to see me, and I very much wanted to roll back up in a ball. But for everything I’d heard her share with me, I couldn’t do it. I simply returned her look. Her expression turned from content to concerned.

Viara sulm, Lenn?

I blinked a few times in thought. Of course I wasn’t going to be “okay”. But I was fairly certain I wasn’t about to die. I nodded up at her.

Then, Eliza stood to her feet, towering over me just as James did. She stepped back around the bed towards the door, leaving me to collect myself. I heard her depart the room and leave the door open behind her, and I carefully lifted myself up to my feet as best I could. My bottom and my elbow were sore from my descent and my neck burned from my self-torture, but pain wasn’t the first thing on my mind. Instead, it was firmly on what sounds I would hear next.

Silence, at first. Eliza’s footsteps vanished, perhaps downstairs. Who had returned home?

I waited. Then, somewhere in the house, I heard a sharp shout. Was it Eliza or… Catherine? I wasn’t certain.

I shook my head, wiping tears from my eyes. I didn’t want to admit to myself that I was a coward, no matter how I felt about the “resurrection” of Xande. The only hopeful track of thinking I had about our eventual… discussion… was that Eliza would be right behind him, and that Ian would be right behind me. I gathered my dwindling courage and hauled myself up the yarn fibers of the blanket. And just as I rose to the very edge, the guest room door opened, the surprise making me lose focus and slip.

“Lenn!” said Catherine’s voice, filled with fear. As soon as she spotted me clinging to the edge, she reached over the bed, took my arms, and hauled me upwards until I stood on my weary feet. “Dear, are you all right? You’ve been crying… You didn’t hurt yourself, did you?”

“N-No,” I lied, itching my arm. “Catherine, I’m… I’m all right.”

“I’m sorry,” I heard behind Catherine. “It’s more like I freaked him out so bad, he jumped off the bed to get away from me. I should have stayed in the hallway or something instead of coming in.”

I took a moment to gather a breath.

Vis sulm, Eliza. Ehr vam… tol lai dranirke. Ys namitol.”

It’s okay, Eliza. It was just… a lot to learn. And very quickly.

Sisi ilal dur lai ke viar namivol. Ehr ke vam faem.”

Sisi always says that I am too fast. It was my fault.

Catherine’s eyes darted from me upon the bed to her niece behind her.

“You… you can speak his language?” she gasped with her eyes wide as a pair of moons.

I heard Eliza laugh.

“It’s a long story. If you have time, can we sit down and talk? I understand if you have to get back to work…”

Catherine let out a sort of laugh-shout.

“No no!” she said without hesitation. “After this? I’ll make time! My team will have to continue without me today, I want you to tell me everything.”


Right on cue, the door clicked shut, and I heard a backpack falling off of human shoulders. I turned my head around the side of the guest room door frame to see Ian step into the kitchen. Without a glance, he aimed straight at the refrigerator. As he peered inside and produced something from a lower shelf, I stepped towards the dining room table. My eyes still burned and I felt exhausted, but I couldn’t sleep. Not yet.

“Ian?”

Our eyes met as I limped.

“Hi Lenn,” he said with a wave. He placed his food on the island counter. “Are you okay? Just taking a walk?”

“Yeah,” I answered. “How was school?”

“It was…” he began, but then his shoulders fell. “Um, I’ve got a writing assignment due Monday. Do you think you could help me with it?”

“Later on, sure. Right now, we’ve got some things to talk to you about, if you have a second.”

“Sure,” Ian asked. Then he paused. “Who’s we? You mean you and Mom?”

I nodded.

“Your mom and-”

Voices emerged from downstairs. Ian’s eyes shot wide as he swung his head towards the sound.

“Who’s here?” he whispered to me.

“Your cousin Eliza and Catherine. That’s what we needed to talk to you ab-”

The conversation of the two women became loud as footsteps began to climb upwards. I looked at Ian. Ian looked back at me in horror. Without a word, Ian rushed around the island. Terrifying as an avalanche, Ian barreled towards me, grabbed me with both hands, and together we flew into the guest room. My heart leaped out of my throat as Ian tossed me onto the surface of the bed, and I barely caught my breath as Ian shut the door behind him.

“Ian, Ian,” I said, my head spinning a bit. “Hold on, it’s just-”

“Ian?” called a voice from behind the door. Catherine. “Are you home?”

“Um… y-yeah Mom, I’m home!”

There was a slight pause.

“What are you doing in there?”

I could hear the painful cogs in Ian’s head turning.

“I’m… uh… I thought I would… do my homework in here! And then I’ll probably take a nap!”

I rolled my eyes. Real convincing.

“Hey, Ian. It’s fine, it’s just-”

“Shh!” Ian shoved his finger to his lips and cast a glance at me over his shoulder.

“Ian, come on out, we’ve got something to tell you.”

“I, uh… I… can’t! I’m… changing into my pajamas! Don’t come in!”

Another slight pause.

“You have pajamas in there?”

Ian spun his head around and waved me towards the end of the bed.

“Lenn, hide!” he hissed. “Y-Yeah, Mom! Give me just a minute!”

“Ian, it’s fine, open the-”

“Ian?”

Catherine knocked on the door. In a flash, Ian locked the door just as the handle jiggled.

“Ian. What’s going on? Come on, hon, open up.”

“Mom… Mom, hold on! I can’t…!” Ian turned around to face me and mouthed the word ‘hide’ as desperately as he could.

“Ian?” asked the second voice.

Ian’s wide eyes blinked.

“Oh, h-hi Eliza! I can’t come out yet, give me a second!”

Ian then advanced towards me, his hands outstretched. I struggled backwards.

“No, Ian, no no no-”

“Lenn?” Eliza asked. Ian stopped dead in his tracks, his clenched fingers not an arm’s length away from wrapping about me. “Lenn, ile Ian lai amir kada.”

Ian’s jaw hung limp as he stared at me. After a moment, I grinned at him.

“Ian, Eliza says to open the door. I think you should listen to her.”

“But… she…”

“Yes, she. Come on.” I held up my hands. “Help me up. Like I said, we need to talk to you.”

Gingerly, Ian picked me back up in his hands and cradled me in the crook of an arm. He unlocked the door and opened it just a crack… His mother opened it the rest of the way, and I looked up at Catherine and Eliza with an odd smile on my face.

“Even if Lenn wasn’t staying with us,” Catherine said with a laugh, ruffling Ian’s hair. “You’ve never slept in there by yourself, silly head.”

“Aww, look at little Lenn,” Eliza said, resting her hands on her knees and peering down at me. “Ian holds you just like a baby!”

Olem,” I moaned, waving her taunting away. “It’s not like I have a choice.”

“I’m sorry,” she laughed. “It’s just that whenever I hold Juni like that, he gets real defensive. I do it sometimes, you know, rock him back and forth just for fun!”

I looked up at Ian’s face: pure confusion.

“How do you know Lenn’s language?” Ian asked. “Did you… know Lenn before?”

“Come sit,” Catherine said, motioning to the table. Everyone moved, taking a seat in chairs as Ian carefully placed me upon the wooden surface.

“No, I only just met Lenn. Sorry to say I’ve been keeping a secret from everyone, just like you have.”

“You have Iatili too!” Ian exclaimed. “How many do you have?”

Eliza rolled her eyes.

“Don’t make it sound like I’m collecting them!”

Ian grinned.

“I didn’t…”

“I’m taking care of two kids and their guardian… at least, that’s what he calls himself. There’s Juni, he’s twelve or thirteen, somewhere around there. Then there’s Charsi, a beautiful ten-year old girl. Xande watches over them, and he’s a little older than Lenn. I think. Lenn and Xande, they know each other, although…”

“We’re not exactly friends,” I said, looking at Ian. “He’s Aria’s brother.”

Ian’s eyebrows lifted.

“Your friend Aria? Her brother? Oh. Yeah, you said her family didn’t like you.”

I nodded.

“And things have… become a lot more complicated since I last saw him.”

“What? What do you mean?”

Catherine and Eliza stared at me. A pit formed in my stomach, and I coughed.

“I’ll… tell you later.”

“I have an important training coming up with my work that will take me out of town,” Eliza continued. “I’ve let the kids stay at my place alone for that long before, but they never like it, and I worry about them the whole time. Xande watches them… sort of. He’s gone more often than he’s around, though.”

Eliza took Catherine’s hand.

“I can’t tell you how great it is to finally have someone to talk to about all of this. It’s not like Jun and Sisi are hard to feed, but it’s tough teaching them and taking care of everything they need when I’m gone for most of the day. They’re just like human kids, they need attention or things fall apart for them. I’ve wanted to tell you and the rest of the family, but Xande warned me not to, and I wanted to protect the kids…”

I nodded, and Ian did too.

“So,” Catherine said to Ian. “How would you and Lenn like to babysit next week?”

Ian frowned.

“For real?”

“Uh-huh,” I said with a laugh. “Juni’s older than he is. The only one who would need to be ‘babysat’ is Xande.”

“I’m worried about that,” Eliza continued. “The kids will be fine, they’ll love having somewhere else to explore and play. But Xande… you should have seen his face when I told him about Lenn. I haven’t seen him for a few days, but he told me that if the kids are coming over, then he is too. If I do bring him over, Ian, it will be your job to protect Lenn.”

“Protect him? What, is Xande going to try to hurt him?”

“I don’t know,” I said under my breath, stretching my arms down my legs. I didn’t look up at the Iatvi around me.

“I’ll only bring him if he swears to be civil. Otherwise, they’ll have to talk over the phone or something. Or text, I don’t care. I just met you, Lenn, but you know Xande better than I do. Is this a good idea?”

I shook my head.

“No, it isn’t. But he deserves… I need to talk to him. Face to face. Maybe it won’t change anything, but he deserves to know what’s happened.”

Eliza lowered her eyes to match mine.

Caldisem ke xenif. Neh se rotira seli unlo kan.”

You heard my promise. He won’t hurt you with us here.

I nodded.

“Are you sure you don’t want to tell us what’s going on?” Catherine asked. “We’ll be better prepared for anything that might happen.”

I covered my face with one hand, and wiped my still-burning eyes.

“No, he… he should be the first to hear it from me.”

“Well,” Catherine continued. “This is certainly interesting. I cannot believe we’ve all had the same experience with Lenn’s people… How many other humans know about them? It certainly isn’t common knowledge.”

“Nope. But something tells me that the Iatili have many problems and may rely on human help more than we think.”

Eliza looked to me.

“How often do your people exile their own?”

I pursed my lips.

“Not terribly often, although…” I cleared my throat. “Anyone who can’t pull their weight in the village can be abandoned. If it wasn’t for Aria, I would have been left to starve years ago. And where would I have gone? Only real desperation would make me ask for Iatvi help.”

“Both Juni and Charsi are orphans. They aren’t related; you’ll be able to tell that by looking at them. Their parents died years ago, and they’ve told me that before meeting Xande, they survived by eating from dumpsters. Both of them were very malnourished, and I only found them because I came home at the right time and heard them scavenging for food in my kitchen. If Xande had both of his arms and the kids knew how to hide, I wouldn’t have discovered them at all.”

“All I know,” I said, reaching over and patting the back of a young hand. “Is that Ian could easily have shown me off to other kids, shown me to the whole world. Any of you could. But you didn’t. Maybe all Iatvi are better people than we’ve always believed…”

Eliza nodded.

“So, Ian,” she continued. “Is babysitting okay? I’ll bring them over tomorrow and introduce you. If you want, I’ll pay you for the whole week. What do you think?”

Catherine nearly interjected.

“No way!” Ian said with a quick shake of his head. “I don’t wanna do it for money. I’ll do it for free.”

“You sure?”

“Yep!”

I half-smiled at him.

“Hey, you are a good kid.”

Ian gently bumped my elbow with a finger.

“Well, duh.”

“What about you, Lenn?” Eliza asked with a smile. “You want to get paid to help teach the kids?”

I laughed.

“I’ve seen Iatvi money before. I’ve wrapped important papers in dollars, if you can believe it. Besides, what would I spend it on? Thanks to James and Catherine and Ian, I don’t need anything.”

“Oh, rich guy, huh?” Ian teased.

“They were just that common,” I said. “And the gatherers loved that sort of thing.”

“You guys are awesome. I can’t believe I finally have a place to go for help with Jun and Sisi. It’s… it’s been a hard year for us. Everything a kid would need… it’s not just food and water. Xande and I are horrible at sewing, so Juni’s clothing is always falling apart. And Sisi wears Juni’s old clothes as soon as he grows out of them.”

“I would love to help there,” Catherine said. “You let them know as soon as you get home. Tell them to pick their favorite colors, and I’ll get started right away when they come over.”

“Catherine made my clothes for me,” I said. “She measured me and had my pants done in… what, a few days? They’re wonderful.”

“Thank you, Lenn. It’s one of my favorite hobbies, that’s all.”

“All right!” Eliza said, clasping her hands together. “Yay! You don’t know what this all means to me!”