I stared up at the canopy, shutting my eyes against the light. The situation was absurd, I had given up the chance to return for absolutely nothing. Well, you were right. I shouldn’t have stayed. I thought to Page. It had been silent since the fight, not a word since the Aerathi had made the whole thing a fruitless endeavour.
[You could not have known.] Page said after a moment’s deliberation. [Despite it all you made your objective to save them, and with all you knew there was no other way to do so.] I arched an eyebrow, and Page sighed. [Despite it all you made mostly the right choice to achieve your objective, and it was a cruel twist of fate to make your actions obsolete.]
Well, I’m not letting you say I told you so later on. I thought back, trying to crack a smile, but instead biting my lip as I struggled to either laugh or cry. Teal lay down beside me, stacking her hands above her stomach as she lay beside me. At times she seemed to want to speak, but in the end the silence stretched out, a heavy smothering presence.
“I was pulled away from home.” I said, quietly. “From a peaceful, safe world where I was nothing more than a student, a bloody scholar.” I shook my head. “Do you have any idea what it’s like? To get thrown into another world, made to feel tiny as people probe, prod and take you apart for knowledge?” Once I’d started I let the momentum carry me, unloading my story onto Teal.
It was late evening when I finished, staring at a rapidly darkening sky. “… And now here we are.” I said. “Wasting time.” I concluded bitterly. Teal hadn’t interrupted my story in any way, I half expected her to be asleep. Instead she looked contemplative as I turned over to look at her.
“… I’m sorry.” She said simply, turning to meet my gaze. She said nothing else. I snorted, pulling myself to my feet. She looked surprised, but masked it quickly. “Do you want to return then?” She asked, cocking her head. I nodded, and her form changed. I climbed onto her back.
“What I’ve told you here…” I said, quietly. “Does not get shared with the others.” She turned to look at me, and nodded her head.
“As you kept my secret, so shall I keep yours.” She promised softly, before taking to the air.
While in the air, I let myself think, now that the urgency of the portal was over, and I had released my anger, I felt… empty. It wasn’t the end, not definitively, not yet. Another portal might open, I still had to make a living somehow, but at the same time I couldn’t help but feel worn out.
The war was over… It was all over. The Republic threat was being managed by Cale, in a fight I couldn’t help with. The gnolls were now no longer welcome, wherever they had gone, they’d better dig deep. Time would tell how the new races would work with the rest of the world, if they even did so, though I suspect with the Aerathi around that won’t be a problem.
Numen and Qent came to find me as we landed, Numen offering her congratulations and questions on how it went. “Thanks for the shot.” I said to her, giving her a weak smile as I moved to take a seat by our camp. Some soldiers snuck looks at me, but I paid them no mind, everything seemed small, and if words were said I didn’t hear them.
“… Hey.” Numen said, late into the night, as I stared into the fire. “Hey?” I shook myself from my reverie, looking over to her. “What’s wrong?” She asked, taking a seat beside me. “You don’t look like the man who won the war.” She said lightly.
I shrugged. “A lot.” I said with a sigh, rubbing at my wrists absently. “For the first, I didn’t end the war. They did.” I said, jerking my hand to point at the Aerathi, now encamped in the scarred lands. “I gave up something very precious to stay.” I admitted quietly. “And it was pointless in the end.”
“It wasn’t.” She said, reaching out tentatively to lay a hand on my shoulder. I shook my head. With the Aerathi around, that was more secret keepers than I needed. I stared back into the fire. “Whether you knew it or not you inspired a lot of people to do good.” She insisted. “The irregulars wouldn’t have been what they were without your example.”
I smiled faintly, she was a good person. “That’s not what this is about.” I whispered back. I let out a small sigh, patting her on the shoulder. “Thank you though.” I said. “It’s nice to hear.” I snorted. “Though I’m sure you would’ve managed, I was just another sword, skilled maybe, but just a sword.” I said with a smirk, hoping to break the tension somewhat. “I don’t want to talk about it right now…”
Her face fell a little. “Oh…” She faltered, hesitant. “Okay, maybe we’ll talk later.” She walked off, I let out a breath, looking up. The sky still showed the trails of the Aerathi, sparkling wisps that were almost the same as the elementals, except that they had lasted hours after their passage.
“You are the one they referred to as Seraph.” Someone said in the old tongue from the side, sitting down beside me. I arched an eyebrow.
“Aerathi.” I said without a hint of inflection. “What do you want?” I asked.
“To speak to the one they claimed to be of us.” He replied. “Your existence is very puzzling, and we are very interested in knowing why you are so… different.”
“What will you do to the Edratchi?” I asked, my eyes lifting to peer towards the scarred lands. I couldn’t see anything, not after looking into the light for so long, but they were still there, camped further out. The Aerathi may have routed them, but they hadn’t thrown them back into the portal.
“That… is not for me to say.” The man replied, his voice carried with it a false musical lilt. “Level with me, what are you really? You’re not one of us, nor one of them. From where did you come from, and what do you intend?” His words were oddly lyrical. Certain inflections distorting the intonation. I narrowed my eyes, Delving. Magic was gently lapping at where I was, tiny ripples in the aether. I reached out with my right hand, setting it on their shoulder.
“When it became clear that we would need allies, I aided the efforts to an extent. My contribution to the alliance were the wisps.” I said, turning to look them straight in the eyes. “I do not like mind control, Aerathi.” I gave him a smile that didn’t reach my eyes. “Don’t do that ever again.”
He met my gaze levelly, eyes flicking across my face and narrowing almost imperceptibly. My left hand surreptitiously slipped towards a dagger, wondering how quickly I could draw it if I needed to kill him. He seemed to catch himself, taking a calming breath. “The commander will want to speak with you.” He muttered.
I snorted. “If that’s the case, they can come to see me themselves.” I said. “I’ll be here.” I stood, moving to put my helm back on. A possible threat, now that… that I could deal with. I didn’t know who this commander was, but I wasn’t about to make it easy for them to remove me by walking into their encampment. “They can be armed if they like, but they better be alone.”
Azarint walked up to me as the man left, I played with the Aesor in my hand. The pick was definitely lost, there was no way to find it even if I did remember the path I’d taken. My sword had been another casualty, I sighed, unslinging the backup blade I carried from my back. “You’re expecting a fight with them?” He asked, eyeing the blade as I ran my fingers along it.
“I don’t know.” I answered truthfully. “I hope not, if I have to fight with them… I don’t expect things to turn out well for this plane…” I said, sheathing the sword once again. “Hopefully they actually are our saviours, and not another overlord to fight.” I put my faceplate on, and walked back to the campfire. Azarint nodded, watching me go with an inscrutable expression.
A soldier met me in front of the campfire, we made an interesting contrast. Black and grey armour against light matte, almost white. A sword slung by my side and a gun by theirs. “I’ll have to assume you’re either the commander, or whoever the commander sent in their place.” I started. There were no soldiers around me, everyone exhausted as they were had fallen asleep, sure in the assurances of the Aerathi. Have to see how good their assurances are I suppose… I thought to myself.
“Can we talk somewhere else?” They asked. I cocked my head, folding my arms. “You can choose where to go, so long as it’s away from here.” They said, gesturing to the tents.
I sighed, gesturing towards the forest, they fell into step beside me. “This is about my origins I expect.” I said once we had made our way into the forest, keeping my Sense extended as I pushed further. So far I hadn’t seen any of the Aerathi, even when I’d stopped to Delve.
“That’s only a part of it. Your origins are less important than your motives, you nearly killed yourself to ensure that they would be fractured.” They said, gesturing with their hands. And had you not arrived I would’ve died. I thought. “The soul copy told us that you had been informed of our… schism.” They said, gesturing. “How much do you understand of our situation?”
“That it was uncertain if you’d ever return.” I said. “That was why I chose to aid the war. Or I would’ve ignored it all until the tower of cards collapsed.” I continued, shaking my head.
They hesitated for a moment. “We underwent a civil war, and to prevent another invasion to your plane we destroyed our portals. For a long time after we were finished that was all we did, rebuild. We knew that the Edratchi would return to your world, but we had chosen to let it be… not to act.” They said, resting their chin in the cup formed by their thumb and index. “Our struggles were too immediate, our wounds too fresh.”
“I assume this is building up to somehow watching the people down here unite?” I asked, a sardonic inflection to my voice. “If it is, you wasted your time bringing me out here, I’m sure the rest of civilization owes you a debt regardless.” I said, leaning back against a tree.
“No, it is that civilization was so fractured.” They replied. “Had it not been for your intervention, in particular your first contact with the dragons, they would never have even been able to delay the Edratchi for so long. Somehow, in the centuries between the invasions, the world has fractured itself, driven it’s alliances even further than before the first invasion.” They eyed me. “We wish to prevent that, forge better, longer lasting bonds between the races. But you are an outsider that has lived here long enough that your perspective is worth hearing. Do you agree with this?”
“I can’t help but feel that you could’ve asked one of the other leaders that, they matter a lot more than I do… As to my opinion… that depends on your methods, exactly as I told the man you sent to talk to me.” I stopped leaning against the tree. “Your emotional manipulation will never be able to foster long term peace, and if that is your method, I will oppose it.” Even if I die. Especially if I die.