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The horse-serpent started turning to swim away, then folded back to look at Eldan. “My name would not translate between my language and yours, but you may call me Nakrel. This path originates in my world, and I am the guardian of this between-place, as was my mother, and grandmother and so on, back beyond memory. Loosely translated, my name is She who swam the first, spinning place, sang the songs of dust became fire became water, holds fast the cords of spheres within spheres. So yeah, Nakrel is fine.”

Eldan nodded gratefully and Nakrel turned back, gesturing for him to follow with one hand. Eldan swam behind her as she navigated through the cavern, the eel rippling leisurely above them. As they swam, Eldan opened his mind, projecting toward the eel to ask its name. The eel glanced down at him in confusion, fluttering his tail uncertainly.

“Their kind do not have language the way yours or mine think of it, so he does not understand what you mean by a name.” Nakrel’s voice came in response.

“So, we can’t really talk to each other, then?” Eldan asked.

“Can’t you?” asked Nakrel, turning her head to look up at the eel as she swam. The eel waved his head at Eldan in affront, as if asking how they had gotten there together if they weren’t communicating. Eldan turned his palms up, shrugging apologetically, and the eel made an eel equivalent of a huff, jutting out his lower jaw petulantly so his bottom fangs stuck up in front of his snout.

Nakrel stopped at the base of a stone spire, reaching down and catching the lip of a low, rock overhang, nearly concealing a passage leading under the floor. The entrance was large enough that Eldan could swim inside, but he never would have seen the opening without being directly in front of it. Nakrel swung herself around, entering the passage in a single, fluid motion, and the eel circled behind Eldan, waiting for him to go in first.

Eldan laid flat on the floor, looking into the passage, but it curved downward, revealing nothing except illuminated stone walls. He crept forward, slipping into the cave and descending, pulling himself forward with his hands. The passage was short, and soon he found himself crawling into another, much smaller cavern. He stood up, looking around, quickly side-stepping to clear the passage when he felt the eel bump his head against the back of his leg.

The smaller cavern was illuminated but the light was constant, the stone walls glowing with steady, uniform luminescence instead of the racing threads. Eldan exhaled in relief, not having realized how much mental strain he had been under from the constant torrent of activity and information. The cavern was low-ceilinged and featureless, banal compared to the rich, chaotic landscape of the larger cave, or the twinkling one where he had met Ak’bis. What it lacked in feature, though, it more than made up for in sensation. Eldan’s body felt like it was on fire, every nerve tingling and vibrating. The heat and needling intensified the longer he stayed in the space, and he began twitching in discomfort, his heart racing. He felt a cool, scaled hand close on his shoulder and relief washed over him, the sensations fading to a soft hum.

“Sit, Eldan. You must acclimate to this path, and we must talk,” said Nakrel, gently guiding him as he lowered himself to the floor.

“What is happening to me? I’ve never even heard of paths until today and a week ago my life was completely normal. Now my family is gone and I can breathe water and I’m supposed to do some important thing but no one can tell me how or why…” Eldan trailed off, his throat suddenly tight and eyes hot with tears as his questions spilled out. He hung his head, ashamed by how desperate and plaintive he sounded, even speaking through his thoughts. He felt like a lost child, helpless, terrified and demanding.

Nakrel settled on the floor in front of him, steepling her fingers and curling her body so her fluke rested at her side. “As I said, I do not know or understand what it means to be a shield of paths, nor do I understand much about your world. The reverberations of your species’ attempts to control the paths have echoed through many worlds, but it is not my role to intercede. What I do know is that you were born to the path of water. You are coming into your path very late, but I assure you, it has always been a part of you.”

Eldan looked up, meeting Nakrel’s eyes. She gave him a brief nod, her fingers starting to fidget and tap. “The paths are exactly that, passages between places. This path, for example, led you to this between-place, and which leads further to my home. However, the physical pathways are secondary, often even irrelevant, to most with a connection. The importance lies in linking oneself to pure experience, building in understanding to harness the properties of the path’s source.”

Eldan furrowed his brow, opening his thoughts, but Nakrel held up a finger, staying his question. “You caught a glimpse of the vast range of pure experience available within this path when you began to read its language. You could consider most of what you saw advanced studies, far beyond what most could harness within a body even after a lifetime devoted to building their path. Some abilities may come to you naturally, as you found when your body instinctually adapted to isolate oxygen from water, while others, like carving valleys as would a glacier, may always be beyond reach.”

“Wait, what?” Eldan interrupted, “you said carving valleys may be out of reach. Does that mean someone could do something like that?”

Nakrel nodded, “yes, it is possible to harness experience at that level, though extremely difficult. The paths are powerful, and though I may be biased, I believe the path of water is among the most powerful. As you grow in control and strength you will become water, in a sense, and develop the ability to affect your environment as water would. It is unfortunate that you are already elderly. At your age it is unlikely you will achieve your full potential, a shame, as your innate connection appears strong.”

“I…is it really already too late?” Eldan asked in consternation.

Nakrel nodded sadly, “perhaps, if you are lucky, your children or grandchildren inherited your abilities. Your task then will be to pass on what you learn so they may carry on in your stead.”

Eldan gaped at Nakrel in confusion, “but I’m not old enough to have children, won’t be for years yet.”

Nakrel stared back, looking equally bewildered. “Truly? How strange…you look positively ancient. Well, if that is the case, you may be able to recover some of the lost time, if you are willing to fully devote yourself to training.” She narrowed her eyes, examining him closely, “you are sure you are not at the end of your life?”

“Yes, I’m very sure,” Eldan confirmed.

“Well, then, where was I?” Nakrel drummed her fingers, shooting Eldan occasional suspicious glances. “Ah, yes. So most of the paths grow from the natural world, some from the greater elements, such as fire or water, and some far more specific, such as dust or rain. At the moment of an element’s inception, the spark of its existence, a path originates, branching out among worlds as it spreads. Some greater elements have multiple points of origin, and the paths multiple intersections. Most of the paths are ancient beyond imagining, some as old as the universe itself, though we have witnessed the birth of paths on rare occasion.

“There is much yet we do not understand. The lights, their language, or why history accumulates at all is a mystery, as is connection between living beings and these paths. In some cases it is obvious, a water-kind being will usually have some level of natural connection to water path, for example, but then there are cases like yours, where a natural connection forms without apparent reason. These connections are universal however, forming in worlds on worlds, wherever life takes root.”

“If most paths are from the natural world, where do the rest come from?” asked Eldan.

“A few paths grow from concepts, for lack of a better word. There are paths of change, dreaming, time, thought, and, most pressingly, of corruption.” Nakrel met Eldan’s eyes, her expression serious. “The corrupted path is one of erasure. It eats at anything it touches, erasing land, life, memory, meaning, even other paths, leaving only void in its wake. It is this path that your species wielded when attempting to control the others, unleashing the corruption’s spread.”

“If the corrupted path is a void, why isn’t that from the natural world? Don’t voids exist in nature?” Eldan asked.

Nakrel heaved a mental sigh. “The corrupted path is unlike any other. All of the paths have a sort of intelligence, but the corruption is cunning. The intelligence of the paths is evident in their patterns, vast experiential records written in a universal language. Yet for all that, the paths operate with their own set of internal laws. Complex laws, still exceeding the limits of our current understanding, but laws all the same. Their communication, as far as we can tell, flows only in one direction, we cannot ask questions or exert influence in return. They evidence no emotion, intention or reaction, only endless recording and connecting.

“The corruption, however, seeks its own ends, seemingly availing itself of the resources it devours. We learned from your kind that it can be bargained with, fed for favors, and we also learned it cannot be controlled. It has taken root, a deep infection within your world. It is for this reason, though it pains me to do so, that I cannot allow you to return here once you leave. This path must be sealed again, and you must find another source within your world from which to build your own path.”

Eldan frowned, “how can I connect to the path if the paths are sealed?”

Nakrel smiled gently, “you are already connected to your path. You must find a source, a wellspring at a physical intersection with the path, and link to that source. As for your question, the paths are far too resilient to be completely closed. However much your kind may seek control, they cannot yet snip every thread. This path is too important to risk, since it links directly to an origin point, but you will find another if you seek one.”

Eldan rubbed his forehead, overwhelmed. “But what does linking to a source mean?”

Nakrel cocked her head in thought. “I noticed you examining some of the plants in our forest. The threads of light that run through their cores is their source-link. That is what you lack. Right now you have access to the path, but no structure on which to build it. Without the source-link you might even be able to manifest from your path, but without understanding. You would have no control, or very little control, over your manifestations. It would feel like being caught in a wave, tossed around and dashed into the shore.”

Eldan’s eyes widened, “yes! That’s happened to me! I felt something that I could push into and then I moved really fast but I couldn’t even tell what I was doing. Then when it was over I kind of crashed.”

“I suspect you accessed a hint of liquidity,” Nakrel replied. “That is often one of the first manifestations, since it in an extension of movement. With a source-link you will have the stability and comprehension to learn control, and you will not burn through your energy reserves to the point of depletion from a single manifestation.”

“You have learned to hear the song of water, which is the most vital step. You must listen, follow the sound to its source. When you draw close it will feel like being pulled by a magnet. I cannot explain how to form the source-link in a way that you would understand before experiencing it for yourself. The process is personal, interior, but you will know what to do when the time comes.”

“You will understand this, too, but you must know you will be accepting a burden of power and responsibility. You will become a guardian of your path, protector of its kind, and bearer of its history. You may grow to wield the power of an ocean, but only by accepting the weight of what it means to be an ocean. You must be the cradle of life and bringer of death, the raging storm and silent, crushing depth. You must bear the weight of gravity on a spinning planet, the pull of its moons, and endure the passage of aeons. And in doing this, you must do what the path does not. You must feel it all, reckon with it and carry what you have learned into your world.”

A weighty silence fell while Eldan processed this information, trying to wrap his mind around Nakrel’s warnings. His hair swept into his face as the water in the cavern began spinning, a rushing current flowing around the perimeter. He looked up to see the eel staring at him proudly, making obvious gestures with his head to show he was creating the current.

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