The others are coming.
The call was like a gentle nudge, a slight pull. Mira's head shot up, her half-finished braid slipping from her fingers to unravel against her shoulder. She glanced up at the pure white Crystal, still hovering unchanged only feet away from her in the center of the room. Jen and Kira were still nearby as well, curled up together in sleep, some of the Skeksis garments brought in by the Podlings folded around them as covers and pillows. They did not wake—perhaps they had not heard the call.
Mira felt closer to the two of them than she would have thought possible. She didn't know how long they had sat together, eating food supplied by joyful Podlings and simply talking: Jen describing his life with the mysterious Mystics, Kira telling stories about the Podlings she called family, and even teaching both Mira and Jen some Podling words. Mira shared a few things of her own, though she could not speak everything. The other two Gelflings seemed to understand her predicament to some degree, however, somehow knowing that she was from a time before the Skeksis had ravaged the world. Mercifully, they did not dwell on the subject.
"Tell us about one of your days, Mira," Kira had said kindly, when Mira was so reluctant to share her own story. "One of the normal ones."
"We don't know anything about what it was like… before," Jen added. "What the Gelfling were like."
So she told them, the memories merely trickling back at first before coming to the forefront of her mind in a flood as she continued to speak. She told them of the day before the world had disappeared. Waking up with the other guards and going on morning patrol, receiving a letter from her mother (one of the few who could write in her family), sneaking off for a picnic lunch by the river with Rian and nearly getting caught on the way back in, saved only by Gurjin coming to distract the guards at the door at the very last second with a ridiculous story about several swoothu loose in the castle, drunk on fermented peachberries.
She had laughed a little at that, and cut herself off in surprise, falling silent. How could she talk about Gurjin and laugh?
Gradually, the Podlings with them had drifted off, and Kira's fizzgig had crawled over to Mira to curl up in a tight ball in her lap. Jen and Kira tried to stay up with her, but they were both clearly dropping with exhaustion, and had finally given in. Mira was left sitting alone in the vast Crystal Chamber, reflecting—she had been the first Gelfling to have seen the Crystal of Truth in a thousand trine. And now she was one of the last.
She wondered, vaguely, where Mother Aughra had gone; it was unnatural to sit alone at night, hearing no voices from other guards or their gentle (or sometimes not-so-gentle) snoring. It was all too easy to remember what had happened.
Time passed in silence, but she did not feel at all inclined to sleep. Part of her felt she had missed enough of the world already. Another part—smaller, more distant, one that she fought not to listen to—was afraid that if she closed her eyes, allowed her mind to drift, she would fade along with it, and once again cease to be.
The others are coming...
Mira shook her head, focusing on the Crystal again.
What others? Aughra had said something similar, something about "others" arriving. Mira did not hear the Crystal's call in words, exactly, but there was a feeling… a feeling that soon, someone would come… But who, and from where?
Slowly she turned her head to look at the doorway through which she herself had ventured mere hours ago, clad in a ragged piece of curtain and blinking at the pure light of the true Crystal. A spark of hope lit in her chest, along with a cold prickle of horror. Did she dare wonder? Could it be…?
She couldn't lie to herself. Whoever the others were, and she had a sneaking suspicion, she knew where they would be coming from. And she knew that something was calling for her to go and meet them.
Her stomach lurched, her mouth going dry. She couldn't go back down there, not back to the Scientist's chamber, the ill-named Chamber of Life. She couldn't venture back down into the darkness when all she wanted was to stay up here and bathe in the light.
The call hummed at the back of her mind, but it was not insistent. She knew instinctively that she did not have to obey. If she refused, it would silence itself. And she would have to refuse. After all, she could not go back there. Could she?
Mira carefully set the fizzgig aside and stood, her ears pricked and her wings giving a worried flutter, though her guard's training allowed her to steady her breathing and take a determined stance that did not betray emotion.
She would need to find a lantern.
The walk back down to the Chamber seemed infinitely longer than the path she had taken to the light. She carried a lantern with her—it was old, almost entirely rusted over as though it had not been used in many trine, and the light it put out was hazy, but it hardly even seemed necessary. More of the stone had broken away from the walls to reveal their true structure of glimmering white crystal, bathing the corridors in a warm, pleasant light.
It's all right, she told herself with every footstep. It's all right, it's all right, he's gone. He's gone.
She allowed her feet to follow the pull, heading deeper and deeper into the castle, though she remembered the way well enough without it. When at last she reached the large doorway into the Scientist's chamber, she lurched to a stop, and gripped the lantern with trembling hands.
Light glowed softly from inside the room, though the walls were still stone—perhaps the walls this far down had not been constructed from crystal at all. She took in a breath and headed through the door, not having any idea what to expect.
To her immense surprise, the debris had been cleared from the center of the room and lanterns had been lit. The gaping window in the wall, the place where the poisoned-purple Crystal had been chained and pulled down, still glowed with orange fire from far below and set Mira's nerves on edge. In front of it were three bulky objects that had been covered in blankets, tablecloths, and whatever else that could be found to hide them. She didn't know what they were—she hadn't taken notice of them when she had come to be in this room earlier. Someone must have put up those coverings recently, though, as they were not covered in stone dust or other rubble.
A small group of Podlings had gathered around the walls. They looked up and waved at Mira's approach, calling out greetings that Kira had just taught her. For the first time, she wished she truly spoke their language.
"Doza aminia," she said back, a faint smile flickering on her face as she set down her lantern. "Excuse me, I- I don't speak Podling."
The Podlings chattered excitedly, not seeming at all bothered by her lack of understanding. Two came forward and took her hands—she stiffened with a sharp intake of breath and her wings partially unfurled, but they didn't notice—and drew her further into the room. One Podling pointed proudly to a pile of clothes gathered by one of the lanterns, and Mira nodded.
"This is looking really nice," she said, forcing herself to try to relax. This corner of the chamber, with the softly glowing lanterns and the camaraderie of the Podling group, had somehow become almost comforting. It would certainly be a better welcome than she had received. If only she didn't have to look at that window.
The Podlings sat back down in a loose circle around the center of the room, releasing Mira's hands and beckoning her to sit with them. The only thing to do now was wait. But for what, Mira didn't let herself consider.
It didn't seem possible that she could wish so desperately for something she thought her soul might shatter, yet dread it so utterly that she thought she'd rather die than see it happen.
They did not have to wait long.
In the time it took Mira to blink, a wingless figure slipped into existence, curled up on the floor. He stirred slightly and Mira jumped to her feet, her heart pounding.
"Gurjin?" she whispered, but it wasn't him. The newcomer was a Drenchen, certainly, but he had a different build from Gurjin. When he raised his head, a haunted look in his eyes, she recognized him. "Rumel!"
At the sound of his name he jerked and stared at her, his usually dark, weathered face gaunt and drained of color just as she imagined hers was.
He was another guard at the castle. She knew him by sight and name but they had never spoken. They were hardly more than strangers. And yet, the presence of someone familiar was almost more than she could bear, and her heart broke for him.
So it was true. She had been the first, but she was not the last.
"M… Mira?" Rumel said, his voice a choked rasp, and he added in wonder, "You're... alive."
And Mira began to realize why the Crystal had called her back here. She pulled out a shirt and pants for Rumel, politely turning her back while some of the Podlings helped him into the outfit, and then she looped her arm under his shoulders and helped him to stand dazedly on his feet. He was trembling violently.
"It's all right," she said gently, letting Rumel brace himself against the wall. "We're safe. We're all safe now."
"We're not! Not here! Where's Lord Scientist?!" He dragged his eyes from a frantic search of the room to stare at his shaking hands as if he'd never seen them before. "I remember… I… we lost…"
His shoulders shook; he sank to his knees, and sobbed. Mira hesitantly placed a hand on his shoulder and he automatically leaned into her touch.
"He's gone, Rumel. None of the Skeksis are coming back."
He didn't seem to hear her.
It's not fair…
"Mira!" one of the Podlings called. She turned to see three new figures stirring on the floor in the center of the chamber—two boys and a girl. Mira gave Rumel's shoulder a squeeze, only hoping that could communicate enough, and followed the Podlings as they rushed to grab more clothes. A couple of the Podlings left the group to sit with Rumel, talking to him in soothing tones.
Clutching a garment she'd found in the pile, Mira reached the Spriton girl first, helping her into a sitting position and wrapping it around her. When Mira was able to see her face, she identified the girl immediately.
"Selfot," she said firmly, and the other Gelfling blinked as a light of recognition flickered in her eyes. She stared at Mira.
"But you were dead," Selfot whispered.
Mira and Selfot had slept in the same barracks and occasionally sat with each other at breakfast. When Selfot's father had died, Mira had volunteered to cover her shift.
"I'm back, Selfot," Mira said quietly. "And you are, too."
Next to them, a Podling was helping the newly-arrived Stonewood boy to sit up. Mira's heart skipped a beat—but he was too tall, his face too long.
"Selfot! Mira!" the boy croaked, staring at them with wide, disbelieving eyes. "But I thought… Gelfling returned to Thra…"
"We're not dead, Kensir," Mira said, and at the sound of his name Kensir looked deeply shaken.
He was another guard that Mira had spoken little to, but she knew that he had often been stationed by the castle doors and he tended to the Landstrider mounts, always giving them treats against orders.
The other boy to have appeared, a young Spriton, screamed.
Everyone jumped badly. The boy had his eyes closed, hands pressed to his face, his throat stretched in an unending, keening shriek. Mira rushed over to him—Rumel the Drenchen, as the only other Gelfling who'd managed to stand, stifled his tears and stumbled toward them as well.
"Lant!" Selfot, the Spriton girl, said, her voice pained. She made to stand, but didn't seem able to summon the strength.
Lant was one of the youngest guards, having come to the castle only a few unum ago (by Mira's own timeline, not this one, she realized). Though she wasn't sure of his exact age, he almost looked as though he couldn't be more than a childling. His eyes flew open but remained unfocused; Mira doubted that he was seeing the rest of them at all, and that he was seeing only the ruined Chamber of Life.
Mira crouched beside him, but did not touch him. "Lant?"
The young guard's screams died, but his expression remained unchanged, his mouth gaping and his eyes still unseeing. Rumel reached them, kneeling beside Mira but looking as unsure of what to do as Mira was. Podlings joined them as well, draping a cloak over him and continuing to murmur soothingly in their own language.
Three more of them helped Selfot to her feet and led her over to the little gathering, where she knelt in front of Lant and took one of his hands. Bowing her head, she closed her eyes. And gradually, the boy's breathing calmed, his eyes fluttering closed.
They were dreamfasting.
I remember everything about that night. I was so nervous…
I could tell.
With a sharp intake of breath, Mira got back to her feet, drawing away from them. She looked around for the others—Rumel had helped Kensir, the Stonewood boy, to dress and stand, and they were being given steaming bowls of stew by the Podlings.
"I- I can't believe you're alive, Mira," Kensir said, stumbling closer to her and holding his bowl close to his chest. "You're alive, and we- we never knew…"
"I wasn't," Mira said. Her heart pounded, a sense of cold creeping down her back. "I've only just come back, just like all of you."
"Back from where?" Rumel the Drenchen's face still looked pale, his eyes bloodshot. "Back from where, where have we been?"
"Far away," Selfot breathed. Her eyes were still closed, lost in the dreamfast, but her ears twitched as though she was listening. "We were all far away."
"No…" Lant moaned, his face convulsing slightly as he drew the cloak more tightly around himself. "No…"
Mira sat on the cold stone floor near him and indicated for Kensir and Rumel to do the same. "What do you remember?" she asked them. "Can you talk about it? It's all right if you can't."
The two boys both looked at each other, and Kensir's gaze wandered to the bulky covered objects. "Chairs… we were strapped down by our wrists…"
Rumel swallowed hard. "We saw the Crystal—the Crystal of Truth, Mira, the Crystal—but they were abusing it, they were hitting it with lightning, I could hear the crackling—"
"It was the Skeksis lords, they were waiting for us, I don't know how they knew… how did they know?"
"We didn't stand a chance." Rumel's body shook with barely-restrained sobs again.
"We should have listened to Rian from the beginning." Kensir stared down at his stew.
An icy claw closed over Mira's heart.
There was a question that burned inside her, a thought that had plagued her since she had first realized that there had been others, and she almost didn't dare ask. It was a wonderful, selfish, terrible thought, because if Rian came back, it would mean that he had suffered the same fate she had.
But it would also mean she'd see him again.
"What happened to him?" she asked at last. "Do you know what happened to Rian?"
But they didn't answer, merely looked away or stirred the food in their bowl, and she understood.
As far as they knew, Rian was gone.
Gelfling guards continued to arrive throughout the night, tended to by Mira and the seemingly tireless Podlings.
Some were confused, fearful, unable to understand how or why they were alive. Others arrived screaming, just as the young Spriton guard had done, the sound tearing from their throats; Selfot, who had remained behind with Mira, knelt with each one to dreamfast, and eventually they calmed enough to take in their surroundings.
Still others returned to the world angry. Furious. Once they were dressed and able to walk they took it upon themselves to push aside any offered food and storm through the castle hunting for the lords, but of course did not find them.
Likely roused by the commotion, Jen and Kira turned up in the chamber long before dawn, looking at the newcomers with their faces shining with tears. They greeted each Gelfling in turn, laughing with startled joy, bringing some of the new arrivals fully into the present at last.
Mira sat in the hall outside the chamber with a Stonewood girl named Nayse, to whom she had never spoken before, sipping from a bowl of soup that a Podling had brought her. She found she was famished, even though it hadn't been long since she'd last eaten.
"We rose up against the lords," Nayse was explaining to Mira, idly stirring her own soup. "They'd killed Captain Ordon and even... All-Maudra Mayrin."
"No…" For a moment, Mira seemed to be detached from her body, floating; it felt as though splinters of glass had pierced her heart. The captain… the All-Maudra...
Nayse nodded slowly, and she continued. "The entire guard decided to fight back. Or at least, that's what we thought, but one of us must have betrayed us all. If I find out who it was and they come back..." Her hand gripped her spoon tightly enough to bleach her knuckles. "The lords were waiting for our attack. They stopped our rebellion and hunted us all down. I was dragged to this chamber by my hair."
The Stonewood ran a hand through her hair as though she could still feel someone gripping it. Her eyes flicked to the empty, gaping window that led to the fiery shaft below the Crystal. "...I don't suppose anyone's told you..."
"Told me what?" Mira placed her bowl on the floor and hugged her knees to her chest, her loose hair tumbling down to her waist. It was a childish pose, one that until today she hadn't assumed in many trine, but she supposed it didn't really matter anymore.
"I suppose they're trying to avoid it." Nayse tugged at her cloak, which she had opted to drape over her shoulders and cover her wings. Mira's own wings rustled uncomfortably at the mere thought. "I don't know if I should tell you, either. Maybe it's better if you don't know."
Mira squeezed her eyes shut, burying her chin in her arms. "It's Rian, isn't it? He's dead. Actually dead, not... drained."
It was what the others had called their shared experience. The word made Mira's skin crawl, the hairs on the back of her neck standing up.
"I don't know. He might be." Nayse's head bowed. "He was still on the run when we were all caught, spreading the word of what the lords had done to you. But I heard the Hunter was after him, and the stories… they say he never fails to catch his prey. And I'm sorry, Mira. But… it gets worse."
Mira's stomach clenched. Worse? How could it get worse? Everyone knew the stories of the Hunter. No one knew who or what it was—they only knew that the Hunter chased its prey without remorse, and without fail.
"When you disappeared, Mira, Rian vanished too. None of us knew what could have happened. You both missed your shifts, you missed role call. Whispered rumors started to circulate, but no one knew what to believe, and then…" She heaved a sigh, and turned her face away. "Lord Chamberlain appeared and told us what we thought was the truth. He told us that Rian murdered you."
Her heart stopped.
"Later it was said that Gurjin was involved, too. That he and Rian conspired to steal a treasure from the lords, and when you found out, they killed you. Of course, no one questioned what they could have done with your body, but if someone's already going to commit such an unspeakable act then it doesn't take a lot of imagination to theorize on what they might have done to cover their tracks…
"But Rian escaped the castle, and Gurjin disappeared. I think the lords killed him."
The Stonewood Gelfling said all of this so bluntly, so matter-of-fact, as though her words hadn't brought Mira's world, already tottering on a shaky foundation after shattering once, back down around her head.
Liars. Thieves. Murderers.
It was all she could think of them. To have stolen her life away, and then to turn around and state that Rian had killed her in cold blood—Rian, whose anguished face was the last thing she had seen as the corrupted Crystal tore her apart, unable to do anything as he watched her die…
Her heart started beating again, but it seemed out of time, as though it had been torn through the middle.
Mira stood abruptly, accidentally knocking her bowl and spilling soup onto the floor. "And you believed them, didn't you?"
"I'm sorry," Nayse said again, but her voice was flat.
"He was from your clan," Mira said. "You owed it to him to believe him."
Nayse's eyes narrowed. "I owe nothing to murderers and traitors."
"Rian was not a murderer."
"I didn't know that at the time. You were gone, Mira. What else were we supposed to think?"
Mira didn't answer that. She aimed a sharp kick at her bowl and showered the other Gelfling in cold soup to a startled gasp, then left before Nayse could say anything else, pushing through the corridor until she was out of her sight.
He told us that Rian murdered you.
Around her, everyone was reuniting, crying out each other's names, shedding tears, embracing, sharing memories. They were all guards from the Castle of the Crystal. The Skeksis had not spared one.
Mira found it hard to breathe, watching them. Every one of these Gelflings had known. Every one of them had believed the lie.
I think it's past time my father had to listen to a few stories about his son.
There were certainly stories now. Listening to the talk around her, she realized that Rian's name came up a lot, along with discussion about the lords. Despite the rejoiceful atmosphere, no one seemed convinced that the Skeksis would not return.
The world seemed to spin around her, and she backed into a wall lest she stumble into someone. She scrubbed at her face, though she had shed no tears. It didn't seem possible.
Just like everything else that had happened.
"Mira!" someone called. She looked up to see that the Drenchen, Rumel, had returned, and was beckoning her back to the chamber. "Mira, someone needs you—"
She shook herself. She would need to figure this out later, on her own. Right now, Gelflings were still appearing, and she needed to be there for them. Mira hurried back through the crowd and into the chamber, where she stopped.
At the center of the room a newly-arrived Vapran girl had pushed herself into a sitting position; someone had wrapped a cloak around her shoulders. Mira took a shuddering step forward, her eyes wide.
"Brir…?" She couldn't keep the tremble out of her voice.
Brir was her neighbor in Ha'rar. They had come to work at the castle together.
She knelt down beside her friend and placed a hand on her shoulder; Brir cringed away, until her eyes fell on Mira's face with a look of utter shock.
"Mira?" she gasped. She closed her eyes and shook her head. "It's not enough for the Crystal to take my life, it has to- it has to also show me…?"
Mira pulled her close, her arms wrapped around Brir's shoulders, shaking. "Brir! We're not dead. We're alive. We've come back, both of us, and everyone else, we're all coming back... I'm sorry, Brir. I'm so, so sorry…"
The other girl attempted a watery smile. "Sorry for what? You were only m- murdered…"
Her expression crumbled, and she began crying into Mira's shoulder, tears soaking the sleeve of her tunic.
"You shouldn't have been here!" Mira said, squeezing her eyes shut. "I wanted to serve as a guard all my life. I made you come with me…"
"You didn't make me. I d-decided to come," Brir said. "It's not your fault."
"But it is!" Mira shuddered. "The Skeksis took me because I was in the catacombs. They took everyone else because you had an uprising after they drained me. They hunted down Rian because he saw them do it…"
It's my fault.
The weight of it all seemed to crash over her all at once, like a tidal wave, and she was drowning. She caved inwards, a flood of tears raining down her face, until she realized that Brir was holding her up as much as she held Brir up.
Trembling, she placed her hand on Brir's. I loved him.
I know you did, her friend's voice came back.
It's not fair. None of this is fair.
It's not. Please, please don't blame yourself, Mira, it's not your fault. Brir gave an audible sob. Mira, I believed those things the lords said about you and Rian. I'm so sorry…
And that's not your fault.
Suddenly, she wasn't sitting on the cold stone floor anymore; she had fallen into a dreamfast.
It was a beautiful morning. The first Brother sat high in the sky and a slight wind stirred her hair, carrying with it the scent of the river and blooming flowers. She was walking along the bridge to the Castle of the Crystal, Brir by her side, talking about nothing in particular.
It was their first day, she realized. This was a time when she had only ever seen two or three of the lords, and never up close. It was the day she had first met Rian, but hours before.
She remembered exactly how she had felt that day. The whole world had opened up to her, it seemed. New people to meet, new places to explore, adventures waiting around every corner! It had been her childhood dream, to go to the castle.
Mira marveled at the memory. She walked with Brir to meet the guards at the doors, exchanging introductions and a few nervous jokes with them—after all, they were equals now. One of those guards would end up becoming something of a mentor figure to Mira, before he perished in an Arathim skirmish. The other would retire home to his family within the trine.
The two friends sat together, heads bowed, crying silently, stepping through time in their memories. One of them was even dreaming of music.
No, Mira realized; the airy notes of a well-played firca were coming from the external world, accompanied by voices. With her eyes closed she couldn't see who was playing, but it sounded as though everyone in the room were singing softly.
"Tsian oo as ae oo-oo am
Bez a-a-a, puy-um tsa
Tsian tse a-oo as ae oo-oo am
Bez a-a-a, puy-um tsa
Num mi-ami oo-a-be
It was an ancient song, one shared by all the clans—usually sung at ceremonies to honor the noblest of their dead.
Dimly, Mira was aware of other Gelflings sitting down around them, some laying a hand on a shoulder, others joining hands with hers and Brir's, sharing their own memories with them. Mira witnessed brief moments of strangers' lives—marriages, births, first flights, their first day as a guard—but most of all, the family and friends they had lost.
Bez a-a-a puy-um tsa
Nu mi-ami oo-a-be
Rian. Gurjin. Her friends and her love.
All-Maudra Mayrin. Princess Seladon. Princess Tavra. Princess Brea. The Maudren family of the Vapra. Captain Ordon.
Mother. Father. Jina…
She had never even gotten to see her younger sister's wings sprout.
This was what the Skeksis had striven to destroy, Mira realized. Putting the clans against each other, keeping the life-giving Crystal of Truth far from their sight, and finally using it to drain their lives away. The Gelfling were strongest together, and always had been.
The Skeksis had tried to wipe them out, and had succeeded only in making them stronger. Mira could see that now. United as one, they could overcome anything.
Perhaps, with time, they could even overcome this.