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There were three thousand miles between the Athenaeum of Barriers and Darili Irid. Using a teleportation key for a single dwarf was out of the question. The typical cost for traveling between touchstones in major cities was ten thousand obols, but that assumed that you had four other people who would be splitting the cost, and there were service fees on top of that. Teleportation for a single person into an insecure location started at five times as much, and then on top of that, you would need to pay for some trusted key-keeper to go with, their expenses for returning to civilization, and the costs of having the key teleported out by bulk teleport.

Instead, Grak took the trains.

It was a long journey, with a large number of connections and layovers, but Grak was glad for that. When he had left Darili Irid ten years prior, he had been gawping at the world and nervous about the train schedules, frightened of so many strangers, all of them taller than him, and so many new and different things that he had only read about in the books and newspapers that came in by bulk teleport. The world was too big and too interconnected, with too many different people to see, and it had all washed over him in a torrent, most of it unintelligible. On top of that, he’d spoken only halting Anglish, which made the conversations around him utterly confusing, as people spoke too fast to follow.

On the return home, it all seemed so provincial. Grak had spent ten years at Barriers, in the grand city of Junah, and he had always taken an interest in exploring the world and seeing new things. The cities and towns that the trains passed through on his long journey home had little new to offer him, when compared to Junah. The food selections were horrifically limited, the people were uninteresting, and while the scenery went through some marvelous changes, the actual experience of riding a train was very close to standardized throughout Aerb.

Still, it was better than what waited for him at home.

The train didn’t go straight to Darili Irid, obviously. It was a town of two thousand some people, tucked away in the side of a mountain, and the number of people that came and went in a given year could be counted on two hands. Trains were among the services that suffered from ‘last mile’ problems, and in the case of Darili Irid, the ‘last mile’ was actually thirty miles.

When the train arrived in the city of Meerhan, the majority of the people on the train were altek, because Meerhan had started life as an altek city, and never grew much beyond that. When Grak had first made the trip there, he had marveled at it, but now he saw it for what it was; a cut-rate ethnocity that had barely grown beyond what it had been five hundred years ago, even as the Empires rose and fell. It was as provincial a place as you could find within the Empire, almost everyone of the same species, steeped in the same culture, and wearing the same fashions. The buildings were all similar to each other, the result of architects copying each other and putting little effort into creating something truly new. Perhaps it was even worse than that, and the local government had made prohibitions against ‘imperial sensibilities’. That was common in the more backward parts of the Empire, Grak knew.

And for all that Meerhan was depressing, it would be nothing compared to Darili Irid. Growing up, Meerhan had been the ‘big city’, thirty miles away and utterly exotic. It was dominated by the altek, but there were occasional ‘foreigners’ of other species, enough that if you spent an hour or two sitting on a bench next to the train station, you might see one.

Eventually Grak went over to one of the phones and placed a call to Darili Irid, to let them know that he was in Meerhan. The response was terse, and the first time that Grak had heard Groglir in months, a simple acknowledgement and a reply that a truck would come out to get him in due time.

Grak walked through Meerhan for a bit, found an altek cafe, and ordered a frongal-stuffed roll. His server spoke only broken, halting Anglish, but Grak was used to dealing with a variety of language barriers, and got what he wanted through a combination of pointing at the menu and pantomime. He ate the roll and thought about the fact that it was going to be the last good food he ate before going back into Darili Irid and eating little else but the kear that consumed the rocks . He could order through the catalogs, and have food delivered in bulk once a month, but it wouldn’t be the same, and while the matter of wages would have to be discussed with his father, he was certain that he wasn’t going to be making nearly what he’d been pulling in as a tutor and student worker in Junah. Food that had been through the bulk teleport wouldn’t taste the same anyway, and that aside, he would be expected to eat with the others and share in a sense of community. The obligation was already strangling, thirty miles from the place that had once been home.

It was Naridalogor that arrived in the truck, honking once as he pulled up at the train station. Darili Irid owned three trucks, all of them communal, all built specifically for a dwarf’s stature and range of motion by a dwarven company in one of the metropolitan dwarfholds. The truck was low to the ground, with a long bed in back.

“Come on,” said Nari, leaning over to pop the passenger door open. “I don’t have all day.”

Grak placed his two large trunks into the back of the truck, fussing for a moment to make sure they were secure. Those trunks were the entirety of his worldly possessions. He had been a good and faithful dwarf, and brought back all sorts of things for people in Darili Irid, toys and games, treats and foodstuffs, whatever you couldn’t get through the catalogs (or not for as cheap as in the market stalls of the city).

They were outside of Meerhan when Nari started talking.

“There’s a trial going on,” said Nari. “When they got the call, they decided to wait for you.”

“Okay,” said Grak. He hadn’t seen Nari in ten years, yet there were no questions about what the Athenaeum of Barriers was like, and no comments about how Grak had stayed longer than planned.

“Young Dalonakla was on deathwatch for Dalin-nai,” said Nari. “We don’t know if Dalon fell asleep or just wasn’t paying attention. Dalin’s soul passed on to the hells.”

“We used to have two for deathwatch,” said Grak. He had done it more than once, as part of his duties to the clan as most-pure. You had a half hour after death to retrieve the soul, work that was usually done by the clan’s doctor. The final days of a dwarf could stretch on though, so the duty was often given over to younger dwarves. They would watch through the night and run to wake the doctor as soon as the old one’s heart stopped beating or their lungs stopped moving air.

“It was supposed to be two,” replied Nari, nodding slightly. “Dalin was a long time dying.”

“Is that Dalon’s defense?” asked Grak.

“No,” replied Nari. “He has none. He threw himself on the mercy of his elders.”

“Did he say how he missed it?” asked Grak, pressing the issue.

“He doesn’t know,” replied Nari.

Grak sat for a moment and thought about that. In Darili Irid, the traditional penalty for allowing someone’s soul to go to hell, whether through malice or neglect, was that the responsible party’s soul should follow. In practice, that was rarely actually followed, because it took quite a bit to prove malice or neglect, and because the interests of the families had to be balanced against each other. The families that made up the clan were likely going to be the focus of the trial, and Grak’s presence would only be to cement the return of the prodigal son, rather than because his input was desired.

It was all so small and pointless.

Nari filled the silence with more talk. He didn’t seem to mind that Grak was quiet. From what Nari said, Darili Irid hadn’t changed one bit. The social fabric was different, but the pattern was the same, a balance of power between families, new scandals that put people out of favor, births and deaths, all of it as it had been when he’d left ten years ago. There were new rooms and structures in Darili Irid, carved from the stone, and there were mild improvements to infrastructure, new pipes, vents, and wires, but Darili Irid was still decades if not centuries behind the rest of the Empire. Part of that was poverty, and part of it was obstinate refusal to change.

The truck made the switchback climb up the hill on gravel roads to the dwarfhold’s mouth, which was filled with familiar outbuildings and didn’t seem to have a stone moved in ten years time. Nari parked the truck, took one of the trunks, and set off to the main lift down. He looked back only briefly at Grak, and Grak took the other trunk, aware that he had been standing, unmoving, for too long.

They took the lift down and reached Darili Irid fifteen minutes later. Dozens of people were waiting for Grak, and the conversation immediately became a furious noise. Dwarves weren’t much for pleasantries, preferring a blunt approach to conversation, to the point that other cultures might consider it rude. People spoke their true thoughts to Grak, not seeming to care that he had been gone for ten years and might like some time to readjust. He was told that he should have come home earlier, that it would have been better if he had been able to take the reins from the clan warder, Dalin-nai, rather than coming in afterward to figure things out. It was impossibly rude by imperial standards, and the part of Grak that had acclimated to foreign mores itched under the barrage of questions and comments.

Grak felt a hand around his wrist, grasping him, and was pulled in for a rough hug. Grak only realized it was his father when they were already hugging. When the hug was complete, his father held him at arm’s length, looking him over. They were the same, or close enough, with Grak’s father having an extra twenty-five years of age etched on his face. Grak was surprised by how old his father looked. Ten years was a fair amount of time, especially for the leader of the clan.

“It’s been too long,” Grak’s father said. There might have been some trace of sentimentality there, but it was hard for Grak to take it as anything but a simple statement of fact. “We should talk. Privately.”

They made their way through the crowds, with Grak trailing behind his father the way he’d done as a child. Grak was full grown now, with a braided beard just like his father’s, but he still felt small. He squared his shoulders and projected none of that as he walked through the hallways; he had always been better about hiding his feelings than the other dwarves, which was one of the reasons that he had been a prime candidate for Barriers.

When they entered into Grak’s childhood home, the sense of the past was overwhelming and unpleasant. Grak’s room was visible through an open archway, seemingly unchanged, with a thick-fibered blanket and a hard surface. Grak had gotten used to proper beds, the kinds filled with soft things. A dwarf was expected to go without so much as a pillow; they didn’t ‘need’ them in the way the other species did, but Grak had always liked having one. The cubby above the bed was still filled with books that Grak had gotten through the catalogs with his allowance, along with the wax cylinders and player that Grak had been gifted so he could hear spoken Anglish and pick up more of the language before he left.

“We have had a home carved out for you for several years,” said Grak’s father. “You should have returned when five years passed.”

“I was doing well,” replied Grak. “My teachers said I had promise. I was sending money home.” That much was true; Grak had a gift for warding that had won him scholarships starting in his second year.

“You did not wish to return,” replied Grak’s father.

Grak stayed silent at that accusation. It was true, after all, and he had always done his best never to lie to his father. He was here, back in Darili Irid, fulfilling his obligation, that was what was important. It shouldn’t have mattered what he wanted, only what he was doing. Action was more important than thought.

“I’ve arranged a childbond for you,” said Grak’s father.

“What?” asked Grak, momentarily startled. His heart began to sink as the impact of the words set in.

“It will do you good,” said Grak’s father. “It will strengthen the ties that have grown weak.”

“Who?” asked Grak. He could feel the stiffness in his voice and the tension in all his muscles.

“Kradohogon Kadok,” replied Grak’s father. “It is a good match.”

It was political as well, Grak imagined, given that the Kadok line was among the largest and most powerful. He had only faint memories of Kradoh, who had been two years younger than Grak, and was now surely a completely different person. In truth, it didn’t much matter who his father had chosen for the childbond. Grak would have been aghast no matter whose child he was meant to bear.

He turned away from his father. Bad enough to be home, back in Darili Irid, away from all that was bright and new. The world was a great and flowing river, and Darili Irid was a rock stuck at the bottom of that river, unmoving. It was difficult to imagine being with Kradoh, pressing up against him. His krin in Junah had been tall men of different species, needful men, and there were very few dwarves that could match that passion. It was incredibly doubtful that Kradoh would be one of them.

“No,” said Grak.

“You are not allowed to say no,” replied Grak’s father. “I order it by my position as most-pure. The deal has been struck. He is a good dwarf. A good match.”

“No,” replied Grak. “I refuse.”

“You cannot refuse duty,” Grak’s father said. “No one can.” He turned away. “Come. We’ve waited on you for a trial. It will help you get back into the rhythms of rule.”

They moved through the city, flanked by his father’s friends and allies, until they got to the main hall. Tiered seating surrounded a circular space in the center, with a domed roof overhead. It was the biggest room in Darili Irid, and insofar as the dwarfhold could be considered to have a centerpiece, this was it. There was seating for five hundred, nearly a quarter of the population, and the place was packed when there were performances or festivals.

Here, instead of a celebrating populace, there were twenty dwarves, the most important in Darili Irid, and those who would decide Dalonakla’s fate.

Most of the ‘trial’ was already done, and Grak could immediately see that much of this had been arranged for his benefit. The timing was too suspicious; Dalin-nai had died a week ago, and the trial was only now, far later than it should have been. At issue was the question of duty and responsibility, and the parallel was bluntly obvious, even by dwarven standards. ‘This is what happens when you don’t do as you’re told!’, the assembly might as well have screamed.

Grak had been gone too long. He’d been expected to stay at the Athenaeum of Barriers for five years, which had stretched to seven, then nine, and finally ten. He had been on the cusp of becoming a proper magus, and from there -- well, it was all immaterial, because he was back at Darili Irid, over-educated for what would be asked of him. He had argued to his father, in a series of long letters, that every bit of extra skill he developed would be useful, that his skills as a warder would bring in money outside of Darili Irid, but it was all just a sequence of excuses. He hadn’t wanted to come home. Being clan warder and most-pure hadn’t been his dream, not when he was a child, and certainly not now. To be childbound with a dwarf chosen by his father was another turn of the vise.

Grak found himself mumbling assent at the verdict delivered unto Dalonakla. Dalon was young, the elders declared, derelict in his duty and grievously in the wrong, but young nonetheless, with a life within Darili Irid ahead of him. He would have to wear the black mark, so all would know what he had done (not that they wouldn’t in any case), and eventually, he might gather back some scrap of redemption for allowing another dwarf and valued member of the community to be eternally tortured. Forgiveness was the dwarven way, the elders agreed.

The community would abide much, so long as duty was followed. It was another message meant for Grak. He wondered, idly, what the dwarves of Darili Irid had said about him during his extended absence, but found that he didn’t much care. He would hear all about it, he was certain.

Dinner was in the great hall, the second largest room in Darili Irid, where the noise of dwarves eating and talking was nearly deafening. They ate kear, as expected, baked into flat loaves and completely without spices or seasonings. Grak forced it down while answering questions directed his way with as few words as possible. He might get used to it again, eventually, eating the same thing every day, for every meal, with only minor variations. Dwarves didn’t have the same palates that other species had, and didn’t need the same variety that others did, but Grak had been a city dwarf for too long, and the kear was beyond bland.

When Grak entered his new home for the first time, late at night, Kradohogon Kadok was waiting for him.

“I’ve had a long journey, and a long day after that,” said Grak, pushing past the other dwarf. The house that had been created for Grak was palatial, by dwarfhold standards, with four different rooms, including a private bathroom. There was room for expansion as well, places where the rock walls could be carved away without running into the neighbors. It was generous, but all that Grak could see was the exposed wiring where the lights hooked into the dwarfhold’s power system and piping where water was pumped in and out, and the marks where tools had obviously been used to craft this space. In Junah, buildings were constructed to hide how they’d been made, and electricity and plumbing were tucked away, out of sight. Everything seemed so small, compared to the imperial standard of keeping ceilings fifteen feet high. Small and crude.

“We’re to be childbound,” said Kradoh. He wasn’t unattractive, as dwarfs went, but Grak had grown to prefer taller, larger species.

“Childbound,” said Grak. He stifled a sigh. “Yes, we are.”

“We should spend the night together,” said Kradoh. He reached up and began undoing a button on his shirt. “Better to be krin first. Better to know each other’s touch.”

When Grak made no move to object, Kradoh undid a second button, then a third. Grak’s heart started beating faster. It had taken a long time to get to Darili Irid, a long time without anyone so much as looking at him, and even before then, it had been a dry spell, a time with neither krin nor krinrael. He felt that familiar response stirring inside him, the response to need, until he looked at Kradoh’s eyes. There was no need there, and no desire, despite the forcefulness that Kradoh was displaying.

Grak accepted it nonetheless. He had been too long without touch. He removed his clothes, as Kradoh did, and they laid together, holding each other. Grak tried to take comfort in the feel of someone’s skin against his own, the heat that another body generated beneath the covers, but his mind kept going to the idea that this was all he would ever have. Even if he could learn to love Kradoh, even if they could raise children together without quarrels, it wouldn’t ever be enough.

Grak waited until Kradoh was asleep, then rose from the bed and dressed himself. He had no real plans about what he would do. He only knew that he couldn’t stay in Darili Irid and spend the rest of his life as the clan’s warder.

It was late, and Darili Irid had emptied. Grak grabbed only a single one of his trunks, the lighter of the two, and took the lift up to the surface, where the multi-colored stars hung overhead. He took one of the trucks and drove, without thinking too much about where he was going. He would park it somewhere, he decided, and send a letter back to Darili Irid so that they would know where to go to retrieve it. Bad enough that he was depriving them of a warder, he wouldn’t deprive them of a truck as well.

It was six months later, as he was sitting in a cafe in Junah eating breakfast, that he learned what had happened.


From the outside, Darili Irid presented as a crop of outbuildings on the side of a mountain, with a single unpaved road leading away from them. We were high enough up the mountain that we were above the treeline, but there were still smaller plants trying to struggle against the low pressure and get enough air to breathe. Some of them had sprung up in places they clearly wouldn’t have been, had these outbuildings still been the surface protrusion of the dwarfhold. The buildings were all still in good repair though, either locked down and shuttered as a matter of course, or closed up by whatever poor soul had survived the deaths of two thousand dwarves down below.

It took me half a tick to realize that the dwarf who survived and packed everything up might have been Grak.

It was Grak, Amaryllis, Valencia, Pallida, and myself, with the others staying back. We’d taken the teleport key, though there was some talk of taking either the Egress or Bethel; Bethel had made a garage to house the ‘ship’, which gave her its powers so long as it was parked, and meant that she could be moved without having to collapse down into staff size. She was much more amenable to moving like that, given that she could retain her form (and all the contents inside her) and be a ‘moving house’ rather than a ‘fake human’. For this particular situation, it didn’t seem like it would be at all necessary, especially since we were going to be far underground for most of it.

Entrance to the dwarfhold proper was through a long shaft at a forty-five degree angle. It was wide, with thick rails running through it and a chain that laid limp against the ground. Beside the rails were the stairs, which were just wide enough for Grak. The tunnel was cramped, as I had been warned the entire place would be; it was built for a species that was, on average, more than two feet shorter than I was, which would mean a lot of ducking.

We walked down in silence, with Grak leading the way. We wore breathing tanks, brought in from Earth courtesy of Bethel, and then our various entads as a backup, just to be on the safe side. Pallida was the one exception, because her armor covered her mouth entirely, meaning she had to use either one or the other.

“These rails were rarely used,” said Grak. His speech was somewhat muffled beneath his mask. It took me a moment to realize that he was speaking Groglir, which meant that he was speaking to me and not the others, unless Valencia was borrowing the right kind of devil.

“Most of what came in and out was bulk teleport, right?” I asked.

“Yes,” Grak replied. I was waiting for more, but nothing came. I already knew a fair amount about how dwarfholds tended to work, through talking with Grak, from reading a number of dwarven books, and from the words that popped into my head when I looked around.

The main shaft still had its uses, in the case where it was cheaper to ship to a close neighbor, which wasn’t often, and for when people wanted to leave the dwarfhold, for whatever reason. A dwarfhold was supposed to be a self-sustaining thing, but there were still rare occurrences where a dwarf might want to go somewhere. A fair number of the dwarven romance novels I’d read (research, much more than prurient interest) were epistolary, because it was common for dwarves to have pen pals a long way away, and that was often the foundation for a romance to blossom. It was, of course, a dwarven romance, which was much more about mutual understanding, intellectual compatibility, and close intimacy than it was about the physical. At the end of the novels, there inevitably came a point when one or the other, or in one case both, had to leave their dwarfhold in order to meet up with the person that they’d fallen in love with, and it was always this big, dramatic moment, because it wasn’t common for dwarves to leave their dwarfholds, and for the target audience, the departure was this momentous thing.

It was possible Grak would have used this main shaft only three times: the first time when he left to go to Barriers, the second time when he came home, and the third time when he left again, this time for good.

“Did you come back?” I asked. “After the accident?” I wasn’t sure whether to call it that.

“No,” replied Grak. Again, it seemed like there was more to say on the matter, but he stayed silent. I followed after him as we took the stairs, watching the back of his head, and trying to think about what I was going to say, if I needed to say something to him.

We had Valencia with us, in case I really fucked things up.

After half an hour and barely more than a few sentences of conversation, we reached the bottom of the shaft. The stench of death came in through the mask I was wearing, slow and subtle at first, and then pervasive. It was a stale smell, like my grandparents’ basement, the smell of a place that had settled into stagnation. It had been two years since the accident had happened. I still wasn’t sure that was the right word.

It felt too small, but to say anything else might make it seem like I felt it was Grak’s fault, and, well …

When Arthur died, I thought a lot about alternate timelines and what might have been. I thought about all the things that I could have done differently that would have resulted in him not dying, and I felt like shit over it. It wasn’t my fault, but there were things that I could have done that would have made it not happen. In Grak’s case? He had a lot more cause to think that his actions had directly led to the deaths of everyone in his dwarfhold. His clan had invested money and time into him, so that he could take up the role, and he had left them in the lurch, which led them to hire on a warder who only had three years at the Athenaeum and a provisional license. That was the primary thing you would point to, if you were trying to explain how it had all gone wrong.

Putting myself in Grak’s shoes, if I had gone off to college to become a doctor and come back home to Bumblefuck out of a sense of obligation, rather than because I actually wanted to … well, that already didn’t sound too much like me. But if my dad had said, “Hey, you have to marry this woman you don’t know and have some children with her!”, I would have told him to go fuck himself and then left that very night. My mom would probably have tried to guilt me into staying by saying that people would die without my medical expertise, and I would probably still have left, either downplaying the possibility or telling myself that I didn’t actually owe them anything.

Then, when a fifth of the population of Bumblefuck died, two thousand people, I … I had no idea.

It sucked. It sucked that Grak had been saddled with this expectation. It sucked that Darili Irid wasn’t what he wanted from life. It sucked that his father had picked the worst possible way to try to keep him chained to the dwarves, and then when a stupid random failure made it all go to shit … ‘sucked’ was underselling it.

We found our first corpse at the base of the main shaft. Grak walked past it without stopping, and I followed after him, considerably more aware of the corpse. We were using Earth flashlights, because we could, and the beam of my flashlight lingered on the body. The smell that came in through the mask around my mouth was far stronger, here in Darili Irid proper, not just that rotten meat smell, but feces and mold mixed in with it. The corpse still had its hair, but that was nearly it; the skin was partially eaten away by insects that must have gorged on the body, and where it hadn’t been consumed, it was stretched tight around bone. Beneath the body was a large stain where the internal fluids had leaked out.

I hoped that it was no one that Grak knew.

The ceilings were low enough that I had to stoop down as I walked, following behind Grak in silence. It was fucking creepy in Darili Irid, what with the terrible smell that my oxygen line did little to mask, the utter silence, the complete darkness, and the claustrophobic way that everything was too small for me. Worse, my mind kept making up stories whenever we saw a body or bodies. Most of the people in Darili Irid had been asleep when the accident happened, but there were bodies in the hallways, which meant that it hadn’t been instant. A few people had woken up and tried to escape, or cover their mouths, but none had made it very far. I felt my stomach churn when I saw a larger corpse cradling a smaller one in its arms.

“There have been collapses,” said Grak, his voice tight, still speaking Groglir to me and me alone. “The mine-farms, left untended, eat away too much rock.”

“Is it safe?” I asked.

“If we stay to the center,” replied Grak. He kept walking, not stopping for anything. He held his flashlight steady and ignored the bodies we saw. I didn’t mistake that for callousness on his part; he was focused on his task, because if he stopped, he was liable to break down.

We eventually made our way to a large room, one with a high enough ceiling that I could actually stand up without hitting my head. It was a dome shape, with a smoother surface than I had seen in Darili Irid thus far, and a number of passages branched off from it in different directions. There were benches, or something like them, ringing the center floor. It seemed like an arena or a theater, though I couldn’t be sure which. Grak pulled out his wand and began tracing a large circle on the ground, in the center of the room. The rest of us stood back and watched.

“Juniper, you can stay,” he said. “Tell the rest to go.”

Amaryllis looked to me for translation. (My three points in Language had, so far, given her nothing.)

“Go back the way we came,” I said. “We’ll return to you when it’s done.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” murmured Amaryllis. She kept her voice low.

“It’s fine,” said Valencia. She was looking at me from beneath her crown of thorns, with her red armor in place and the oxygen mask firmly attached. “Good luck.”

Amaryllis glanced at her. “What do you know?” she asked.

“Nothing,” Valencia replied with a sigh. “That’s why I said good luck.”

“You said it’s fine,” replied Amaryllis.

“Because Juniper can handle himself,” replied Valencia. “Whatever happens. You have to trust him.” She looked back at me. “I trust him.”

“Let’s go,” said Pallida. “Whatever this is, I’d rather have it over with, and if the dwarf wants us gone, then the sooner we move, the faster we leave.”

Amaryllis furrowed her eyebrows. She was outnumbered. “Watch him, Juniper,” she said. “And whatever you’re planning to say, to convince him to stay with us, just -- good luck.”

I was pretty sure that Grak could hear everything that we were saying, which was why Amaryllis had used the euphemism, ‘convince him to stay with us’. Maybe no one had told Pallida, but the rest of us knew that Grak wasn’t just bringing this gold down into Darili Irid for the ceremony of it all.

When the three women had left, it was just Grak and I in the domed room. Amaryllis had given him the glove for this trip, and he was placing the gold in the center of the circle he’d made. I watched him in silence while I tried to figure out how I was going to start this. I had put the points from the level up into SOC, and the floating points were there too, which meant a (respectable, in my opinion) 6 in Insight and a less-respectable 4 in Charm and Poise. I wasn’t leaning on those stats to help me, but I had taken whatever help the game might give me.

“When I was ten years old, my grandfather died of lung cancer,” I said. “He took a long time to die though, seven days, and we stayed in South Dakota for all of it, with all my aunts and uncles there while he was dying. He was on his deathbed, with translucent skin and barely any meat on his bones, writhing around, because they didn’t want to keep him drugged out of his mind, I guess, or maybe they just didn’t have access to pain medication because it was in-home hospice. So when he was lucid, he was in pain.” I paused and took a breath.

“My aunt was a doctor. She was doing most of the work, making sure that he was turned so he wouldn’t get bed sores, giving him water, trying to get him to eat food, things like that, but it was cancer in his lungs, his brain, his stomach, all through his body, and there was only one thing that he wanted, which he asked her for a couple of times.” I paused. “He wanted to die.”

Grak stopped what he was doing for a moment, then continued on, carefully placing more of the gold into the circle. They were heavy bars of gold, each one twenty pounds, fifty in total.

“My aunt didn’t want to kill her father,” I said. “I don’t really blame her for that. So my grandfather tried to get his other children to do it. I don’t think it was the pain, or not just the pain, it was the fact that this body was failing and he was dying, and everyone knew it. He was in this body he no longer recognized as his own, incapable of doing anything but feel his flesh and organs degrade until something gave out.” I cleared my throat. I was getting upset just thinking about it. “None of his children did anything about it. They wouldn’t put him out of his misery. And so I remember sitting there, looking at him on his deathbed, and thinking that I was going to figure out a way to do the proper thing, which was to end it for him.” I had done it with deer, later in life, when my shot hadn’t landed right and I’d had to chase after a wounded animal trailing blood through the woods. “I didn’t actually do it, because I was only ten years old, but it always stuck with me, this feeling that you should be allowed to die, if you really wanted to.”

Grak stopped what he was doing and turned to me. He was watching me now. I had his attention. The pile of gold was only half finished.

“Fast-forward seven years later,” I said. “I was seventeen, and Arthur had died, and I had pushed away damned near everyone, and it was all just … shit. Total, utter, shit. I hated my life. I was failing my classes. I was barely eating. I wasn’t taking any enjoyment from anything, not movies, not the internet, not even D&D, which I had managed to ruin for everyone anyway. I kept thinking about my grandfather, and the way he must have felt, and after everything was just about as broken as it could be,” after Maddie broke up with me, “I kept thinking that there just wasn’t that much point in living anymore, not if this was what my life was going to be like. It started with idle thoughts, I guess, just me thinking about how great it would be to have that release, to not be alive anymore. I was assuming that oblivion was waiting for me, no heaven or hell, just nothingness, and it seemed so preferable to my life as I was experiencing it. I didn’t believe in heaven or hell. Maybe if I had, that would have stopped me. But no, I was thinking about my grandfather, and how everyone had made him keep going even though he wanted to stop, and how unjust that had seemed to me.”

Grak was silent, but he was listening.

“I didn’t start out making plans,” I said. “I would see a big semi truck go by and I would think about stepping in front of it. I would look up at the radio towers and think about throwing myself off one, head down so that my skull would split open and I wouldn’t have any possibility of surviving the fall. I wrote some letters to people, not suicide notes, but written so that they might serve as that, if I died. It became a part of the fabric of my life, where I would spend time online looking up how many grams were in a lethal dose of various household poisons, or reading stories about how people had killed themselves, not with sympathy, just looking for tips.” I paused and licked my lips.

“My biggest fear was that I would screw it up. I had this horrible, gut-sick feeling whenever I thought about that, about trying to strangle myself and losing blood flow to the brain, but not dying from it. You can lose IQ points by the dozens, if that happens, and if I was mentally crippled on top of everything else … there were so many scenarios like that going through my head, my digestive system destroyed by bleach, half the bones in my body broken from a fall, things like that, attempts that left me still alive and only more broken than before. You can survive getting shot in the head, if you shoot yourself in the wrong place. And then you end up in the hospital, disfigured or brain damaged or both, and how does that help anything?”

Grak looked to the pile of gold. “What was your plan?” he asked. His voice was tight, and he sounded far away, even though I was standing right next to him.

“There were some train tracks that ran through town,” I said. “If you get hit in the head by a train going full speed, there’s almost no chance that you’ll survive, and it seemed like it would be fast, just by its nature. I followed the train tracks through the woods until I found a little bridge that passed over a creek, then stayed there for a bit with my backpack beside me. It was cold out, tail end of winter, and not very comfortable. I thought I was probably far enough away from any roads that even if I didn’t die right away, I would bleed out before anyone could get me to a hospital. Before I could get myself to the hospital, I guess, since I didn’t trust myself to go silently.”

“What happened?” asked Grak. I realized that I’d stopped talking for a bit too long.

“I took some pills that I had crushed up and mixed into a drink,” I said. “That was the backup plan. There’s something called the LD50,” I had to bring in Anglish for that, “Which is the dose that’s lethal half the time, so I took about three times that amount. I was dumb though, or just ignorant, because all it really did was make me puke, when my body started reacting. Turns out for it to be lethal dose, you have to have some way of keeping the drug in your system when your body realizes that something is wrong and tries to save you.”

“You were talking about a train,” said Grak. He was slightly muffled by the oxygen mask he wore. I saw his wooden hand, curled into a fist.

“Sorry,” I said, shaking my head. “The pills were the backup plan. I knew when the train was coming, so I drank the drink right before. The train … probably not a surprise, but it’s actually really hard to face down a train. I was on this bridge, hidden from sight behind one of the struts, and I just kept thinking, ‘All you need to do is stick your head out, you fucking coward’. It was terrifying though, to be staring down death like that, and there were these hidden animal instincts that were holding me back, parts of me that hadn’t made themselves known when I was still trying to plan things out. Trains are huge. They shake the ground as they approach, and they make a hell of a lot of noise, like a beast on the savannah coming to kill me, and my brain didn’t know much about dealing with Earth, but it had some firm opinions on being hunted by a beast like that. I couldn’t do it. So the train just went by, a foot away from me, barrelling on its way. And after it had passed, that was when the pills started to take effect, and I started to get really sick. My pupils got so crazily dilated it was hard to see, my heart was hammering in my chest, and then I started to throw up, and didn’t really stop throwing up. Beyond all that was a sense of relief that I wasn’t actually dead.”

Grak grunted just a bit. I was waiting for him to say something, but he was still silent, still staring at the pile of gold.

“It didn’t help,” I said. “I mean, it didn’t help me with being depressed, and it didn’t make me less suicidal, not really. I spent half the day puking in the woods, and when I got home, my parents were pissed because I hadn’t been in school. I guess they thought it was drugs, which was almost right. And I was still failing school, and my life was still in shambles, and I still just didn’t want to be, if that makes sense.”

“It does,” said Grak. His voice was soft.

“Yeah,” I said. I’d thought it might. “So at around three in the morning, I got in my car and took my rifle down to the local police station, then I sat there trying to work up the courage to shoot myself in the brain stem. From what I’d found, that was the surest way to make it actually fatal, because the brain stem controlled a lot of important, base-level stuff, like keeping my blood flowing and my lungs working. That was the plan, anyway. When it came down to it, I was sitting there with the gun in my mouth, stock between my knees, tasting the metal of the barrel, crying as I tried to force myself to put more pressure on the trigger. That was the most scared I’ve ever been, even with all the shit that’s happened here.” I paused, thinking about it. “Turns out that there was a part of me that wanted to live after all. I think that’s true, for most people in that situation.”

Grak closed his eyes and took a heavy breath. “The Second Empire used wards for execution,” he said. “Annihilation wards against skin and blood. Death was instant. They would route trains full of living people through a standing ward and dump the bodies at their destination. I learned that in one of my first classes at the Athenaeum of Barriers. It always seemed a gentle, painless way to go.”

Grak sat down and began to cry.

I moved over to him and sat down next to him, within the wards and next to the absurd amount of material wealth we’d brought, then put my arm around him.

It took him some time to get it out of his system enough that he could speak.

“I set the wards up,” he said. He was looking off into the distance. “All I would have had to do was walk through. I couldn’t do it. All I thought of was the hells. I deserved eternal torture. It was what they got,” he waved a hand to encompass Darili Irid, and the thousands of people who had died here, “But I couldn’t. I wanted it all to end, and I couldn’t.”

“Yeah,” I said. It had been the same for me. He leaned in toward me, and I held him. I was crying a little bit myself.

“I set out to pay a penance,” said Grak. He was speaking softly, but his voice was loud in the silence of Darili Irid. “It was supposed to be impossible. I thought I would die along the way.”

“I know how it is,” I said. “I know how seductive it is, to feel like the solution to all your problems is to just stop existing.” I gave him a squeeze with the arm I had around him. “But if there’s any part of you that wants to be in this world --”

“There is,” he said.

“Then you’ve got to start working toward building a life back up,” I said. “I know it might seem impossible to think about anything else but what happened here, that every moment of happiness feels like a betrayal, but … the world needs us. It’s not fair that it does, that it’s another burden that’s been placed on you, but the world really, really needs us. And after Fenn -- I don’t want to lose another member of the party. We’re family, Grak, and I just,” I lost my sense of words. I wanted to be honest with him, but I couldn’t tell him that it was going to be okay, because I didn’t know that, and all signs were that things were only going to get tougher. I wanted to tell him that he was stronger than I ever was, and if I could get through it, then he could too, but even as I tried to think of a way to express that it seemed like it would come out wrong. “I care about you.” I didn’t think anything I could express could possibly be sufficient, and I already felt like I had failed him.

“Okay,” Grak said. He leaned into me harder.

“Okay?” I asked.

“Okay,” repeated Grak. “I’ll try to make a life.”

Loyalty Increased: Grak lvl 18!

Quest Complete: All That Glitters - Grak has returned to da nad home and confronted the disaster that took place there. Keep an eye on di. (Companion Quest)

Companion Passive Unlocked: Wardproof (Grak)!

Wardproof: Grak can selectively ignore wards that would apply to di, the things da wears and carries, and up to one other person (at a time). This ability activates automatically when the effect of the ward would be undesirable and can be selectively applied to any ward Grak chooses.

END BOOK VI

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A note from Alexander Wales

Special note: If you'd like a version of this first half of this chapter which uses non-gendered Groglir pronouns, it's available here. This is more true to Grak's internal understanding of da-self, but it gets in the way of the story (in my opinion).


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Alexander Wales

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