Inleio walked a circle around the ritual room, lighting the candle stones as he went. Meanwhile, I started a fire inside the circle of stones at the room’s center. It was a circle within a circle and the two of us in-between. Mi abuela would’ve approved.
The last time I was here, it was for my initiation into the lodge. I was too busy then, but as we settled in and Inleio prepared the tea, I had the chance to look around. What stood out were the tapestries surrounding the room. They portrayed the forest and the creatures inhabiting it. I saw deer and mountain cats, elk and chishiaxpe, and a rendering of Ikfael as a giant otter made of water.
Apparently, Inleio took his tea seriously. He’d moved aside one of the tapestries to reveal a cabinet that looked like an old-fashioned library card catalog. Several of the drawers were open, and he used a small spoon to scoop out herbs, flower petals, and grasses into a bowl.
As I waited for him to finish, I noticed hidden creatures in the scenes portrayed by the tapestries: An enormous moose with ten eyes and moss that ran down his sides. An eagle with four wings made of fire and air. A serpent with stars in her eyes. The last tapestry was faded and frayed at the edges.
“Who or what is this?” I asked, pointing.
A quick glance was all he needed. “That is the serpent of the mountain. There’s a story that goes with it--an old one, but powerful. Voorhei’s hunters at the time angered the spirits of the land: they experimented with darklight and spread it through the forest in an effort to cause the animals to rage against each other. The spirits punished the village by poisoning its water. No matter where the villagers turned, the water turned with them, causing their bellies to swell and boils to burst on their faces and arms.”
Inleio’s voice was calm and steady as he recounted the story. “The lodge master--a young woman named Ikiira, new to the position--hoped to atone for the hunters’ wrongdoing and walked into the forest alone, naked and unarmed. As if sensing the curse upon her, the creatures of the woods ran from her as she wandered.”
Inleio finished with the herbs and set them to steep in a small iron pot over the fire. I sat across from him.
“Obviously the village survived, so she must’ve succeeded. What happened to her?”
“Ikiira came back after three days, untouched. The village by then was a place of nightmare. Those that survived, did so by drinking the blood of their animals. The rest, almost half, were dead from thirst. The surviving villagers ran to Ikiira, hoping for an answer to their prayers, but no matter how they pressed, she remained silent. The only sign that she’d succeeded was a mark on her forehead: a serpent on a mountain.”
Inleio continued the story, his voice soothing. “Ikiira walked steadily towards the village’s pyramid and climbed to the top. The villagers surrounded the base. Eventually, they grew quiet and waited, just as Ikirra waited. Then, when the sun was at its highest point, Ikiira fell. She died of no wound that anyone could find. The villagers were bewildered. They didn’t know what to do. Until a voice spoke as if from the air: ‘Place her body in the river.’”
Inleio poured the tea into two small delicate cups. It was too hot to drink, but the scent flowed through me, opening up my lungs and pores.
“Not knowing what else to do, Voorhei’s villagers followed the voice’s instructions. They carried Ikiira to the river outside the walls and placed her into the water. They watched with amazement as her hair, her face, her hands--little by little, her body dissolved like salt.”
I sighed as I sipped the tea. It was just as good it smelled. “And then the water was good to drink again, right?”
“Our Little Pot contains answers as well as questions,” Inlieo said, smiling slightly. He took a sip of the tea. “Yes, you are right. From that day onward, Voorhei’s water has always been exceptionally clean.”
“The water from Ikfael Glen?” I asked.
“Across all the streams and wells, but yes, especially the water from Ikfael Glen. And--before you ask, I’ll tell you--it was a year later that we discovered Ikfael’s spirit inhabiting the glen.”
“Did Ikiira turn into Ikfael?” I asked. That sounded like a big revelation, but I was strangely calm about it.
“We don’t know,” Inleio said. “The ways of the spirits are a mystery, no matter what the philosophers say.”
I sat quietly and pondered the story, sipping the tea until it was gone. Inleio kindly poured me and himself another cup each.
When he saw that I’d drunk that one too, he gently nudged me. “You said that you had something you wanted to tell me.”
Hmm? Oh, that’s right. I was here to tell Inleio about Bindesei and Grunthen’s murders. The idea that Ikfael may have been human once was so intriguing though. Not that it would make any difference to our relationship. Would it?
Ah, the murders. Focus, Ollie. Where to start though? I had a plan to tell partial truths, but somehow it was hard to remember which ones. My mouth was dry, and I took another sip of tea.
Inleio spoke gently. “Would it help if I told you that we already know?”
“What? You do?”
“Of course,” Inleio said. “How else could a child survive in the forest and reach Level 3 if not by absorbing darklight?”
Wait, there’d been a misunderstanding. My thoughts were so slow though, and he continued before I could interrupt.
“Our village is particular about darklight’s uses because of our history. Other villages aren’t as strict. They give their children permission to absorb darklight if it’s necessary to survive.” Inleio paused to look at me kindly. “You’re not the only child to become lost. It does not have to be such a big secret that you strayed and changed as a result.”
“What do you mean?” I became engrossed in his words, my thoughts about Ikfael dissipating.
“Your hair, young Eight. Several hunters have noticed it changing colors, mostly when you concentrate on the surrounding qi.” Inleio adjusted the wood for the fire, the smoke swirling and rising towards holes in the ceiling. “The darklight changed you, but I am grateful that it took you in a good direction; that it proved useful to your survival beyond increasing your level. There are too many stories of it straying people in bad directions; of the darklight’s rage causing people and their Families harm.”
I heard Yuki’s voice, but it was muffled. That alarmed me, and my heart started to beat fast. Beads of sweat gathered along my brow.
Ollie/Eight, can you hear us? Something’s wrong…
Instinct told me to check my Status:
|Occupied (Evolving), Sedative (II), Truth-Telling (II)|
Ah, the tea was more than just tea...
Hello, can you hear us?
I hear you, Yuki. I’ll always hear you. You’re my...you’re my best friend. My affection for the uekisheile swelled within me and tears formed in my eyes.
“All’s well, our Eight. You don’t have to hide anymore,” Inleio said. “The lodge--your hunt brothers and sisters--we understand the need to survive. We accept you no matter if you’ve strayed or not. If you’ve changed or not. You are free to live in the village with the rest of us. You don’t need to separate yourself away in the forest. Our only request is that you not absorb any more darklight.”
The fog clouding my thoughts began to break, and Yuki’s relief was palpable through it.
Oh good, they said. The adrenaline’s working to counteract the sedative. Now, it’s very important that you repeat after us: But we… but I like living with Ikfael Glen. She is part of my Family. Just say that: But I like living with Ikfael Glen. She is part of my Family.
“But we...but I like living with Ikfael Glen. She is part of my Family. Just say that… but I like living--”
No. Stop. You’re talking too much.
“No. Stop. You’re talking too much.”
Inleio frowned and looked at me with concern. “Perhaps you’ve had too much of the tea. I’m sorry. My hope was that it would help you unburden yourself.” He took my cup away, and gave me a clay jar full of water instead.
He motioned for me to drink, and I did. The jar’s surface was rough and the water cold and clear. There was a hint of earthiness from the clay. Focusing on tangible things helped steady me. As did Yuki.
Hold on. We’re going to give you another shot of adrenaline.
Alarm ran through me. My eyes widened. My nostrils too. I took a deep breath, and a bit more of the fog lifted.
|Occupied (Evolving), Sedative (I), Truth-Telling (II)|
My thoughts were still loosey-goosey, but I felt them under my control again. How did you know to use adrenaline to fight the sedative? I asked.
We’ve been binging your memories about chemistry and biology to better understand how to adapt to the optic nerve’s signals. Also, the structures in your body are fascinating. We love to watch them work.
“Do you feel better?” Inleio asked, his eyes full of concern.
“I do,” I said, truthfully. “The tea made me groggy, but I’m more clear-headed now.”
“So what do you think about what I said?”
Right. This was it. I could make this situation work. All I had to do was tell the truth, and Inleio would believe me. His trick would guarantee it. I just had to stick to the plan and be selective about what I shared.
“I’m grateful for your care. I understand why you did what you did. It must’ve been hard to watch a child live in the forest alone. But I really do like living in Ikfael Glen. I also like Voorhei and the people who live there. Most of them anyway. There are some who I’d rather...well, that’s getting off-topic.”
I cleared my throat, and drank more water. “I didn’t come here to talk about darklight. Instead, I discovered something concerning. That night when I showed you my Camouflage spell? I practiced it on the way home and caught Otwei sneaking out of Bihei’s house.”
Inleio frowned. “Mumu told me about her presence in Ikfael Glen. I have hunters watching her, just in case.”
“Well, I didn’t see any other hunters that night, except for Borba. He was leaving Ghitha’s house in the middle of the night. And he snuck home like he didn’t want anyone to know he’d been there.”
I thought Inleio might interrupt me, but all he did was lean forward. He wasn’t pleased though. A small frown gave him away.
I took a breath and assembled the rest of the pieces in my head into a coherent story. “The morning after, I questioned Borba about his relationship with Ghitha, and what he said made me uneasy. Some was true, but some were lies. That’s not just my opinion either. I’d investigated the relationship between him and Ghitha and Woldec and Kiertie.”
Inleio shook his head. “When did you have time for all this? I saw you not two days ago.”
“I’ve been investigating Bindesei’s murder for a while now. You know about his ghost, right?”
“Yes, I’d heard,” Inleio said. “Our Mumu expects to become rich.”
I grinned, my affection for her leaking through. “Oh, yes, she will. Especially when…” I stopped and forced myself to drink some water. Well, that was close. “Ah, anyway...I have a good grasp on what happened to Woldec and his team based on three things: First is the evidence around the circumstances of their deaths; the physical clues of the battle with the lightning bear. Second is the story I’d gathered from the only eyewitness to Grunthen’s death, Bindesei. And finally, third is my surveillance of both Borba and Ghitha.”
“Our Eight was most thorough,” Inleio said.
“I wanted to be careful not to accuse the wrong man. Or men in this case.”
Inleio took a sip of his tea. He’d been drinking it right along with me. His kindly expression from earlier was long gone though. What was left was serious and tired. “I can tell from your expression that I will not like what you are about to say.”
“I’m sorry, but there’s no other way to put it: Borba killed Grunthen. He did it because he was in love with Kiertie and Grunthen ran from the fight with the lightning bear and left her to die. Bindesei witnessed the murder, which is why Ghitha then killed him. That way, the story of Woldec’s shame wouldn’t spread and he’d be able to blackmail Borba into doing what he wanted. At first, it was just providing materials to trade, but then later, he forced Borba to help convince the lodge to participate in the lightning bear’s hunt.”
There. I’d done it. I wove a path to the truth while avoiding all the bits that might draw harm to Yuki.
Inleio closed his eyes, and took a deep breath. “This is all true? You swear it so?”
“I do,” I said.
“This evidence of yours--”
“Conversations with the dead, examining a place I’d rather keep secret, eavesdropping on...people unaware. There’s nothing I can bring to you. All you have is my word that I’m telling the truth. That and this tea.”
“You noticed,” Inleio said with a fleeting, bitter smile. “Of course you did. Very little goes unnoticed by our Eight. He is a frightening child.” Inleio put down his cup and gazed at its contents. “You have so much potential. You could grow into an incredible boon to Voorhei. But with great height comes the danger of a long fall. Do not fall, young Eight. I plead with you, do not fall.”
His voice was as grave as I’d ever heard it. I nodded in response. “I promise.”
“Good, because I’ll hold you to that.”
“And what about Borba and Ghitha?” I asked. “What will you do about them?”
“I will have to kill them both,” Inleio said with a sigh.
My heart sank. “What? Why? No, I understand why, but isn’t there another punishment?”
Inleio shook his head. “If he’d killed anyone else, Borba would’ve been fined or exiled, but Grunthen...Borba will have to sacrifice much to make amends for that loss. As for Ghitha, I was content at first to drain his Family’s wealth and break his influence, but I see now how his schemes run even deeper than I suspected. There will be hunters who die hunting the King of the Forest. Ghitha will pay for those deaths with his life.”
“Can’t we call off the hunt? Round up Borba and Ghitha and make them drink the tea and admit their crimes?”
“We could,” Inleio said, “but Ghitha, damn the man, is right. The lightning bear grows more powerful every year, and this is a chance to rid ourselves of both him and Ghitha’s wealth at the same time. The hunters from Albei, for all their faults, are strong. We need their strength. The King of the Forest must die before the Darkest Days. Except, now, Ghitha’s wealth is not enough of a price.”
“Oh,” I said. Just, “oh.”
There was more going on behind the scenes than I knew. The lodge was killing two birds with one stone. Even though the cost would be high, the benefits would be worth it. “Will it? Will it be worth it?”
“This damn tea,” Inleio said, dumping the remains into the fire. “I should not have said what I did in front of you, but if it is our Eight, I believe he will understand.” He looked me in the eyes, and I saw the hardness in them of someone willing to pay almost any price to protect what he loves. “I have no answer to this question, Little Pot. Life is uncertain. We follow our paths, we respect the spirits and gods, and fight to our dying breath so that our Families and our village survive. That is all we can ever do.”