Mercenary

Somewhere in the world a Matoran closed his eyes, drew in a deep breath, and prepared to face the day.

He was sitting at the bar of a local tavern, one of the few patrons at this time of day. Cold sunlight streamed in through scratched windows, sketching out abstract scenes on the floorboards. A thick woody musk came from outside and birdsong chimed in the background.

The eyes of the Matoran flitted lazily around the bare room before settling into the glass he cradled, watching the olive tinted liquid swish against the sides. Apart from the sharp bronze light flaring off the better part of the spirits in the glass, he could see a pair of dark-rimmed eyes staring back at him. Stoic fatigue locked the reflected mask into a tight poker face; any vestiges of humour or liveliness were long gone from his visage. The face in the image may as well have been a still for all the feeling it portrayed.

Ayrh was his name, and he was currently invested in staving off the thousand and one issues that were pecking at his mind. In spite of the vacancy in his facial expression, his thoughts were a mess of hazy memories, scheduled rendezvous, debts that needed expunging and errands that needed to be run. He lingered here because he knew once he stood up from this stool, he'd need to own up to the attention he'd skimped these demands out of out of up to now.

He chugged the remainder of his drink and sucked dry the last modicums of foam before clapping down the drained glass. The barkeeper eyed him concernedly from across the counter.

"Another," Ayrh commanded, already feeling the spirits depressing his inhibitions and shifting the proverbial cogs in his head. The barkeeper set down a glass he'd been polishing and came over. He slung his cloth over one shoulder and leaned over on spread arms, still wary as he examined the customer.

"Are you sure, chap? That's quite some hard brew, especially for this hour."

Ayrh wasn't certain of the exact time. Some stretch before noon. He was fine.

He fished into his coin purse and slapped a sheaf of notes onto the counter. "Another," he repeated dryly.

The barkeeper let his eyes fall to the widgets. Whatever reserve he held vanished when he weighed the girth of the proposition and he promptly swept up the notes. "Your call."

Ayrh reached up to massage his forehead. He absently wondered whether the grogginess he was feeling was induced by the spirits or if it was simply just a recurrence of the dark mood that had swallowed him of late. A voice inside his head was beginning to regret coming here so early, and he lamented not heeding the barkeeper's cautioning. He swiftly put a stopper on these qualms.

The barkeeper returned. Ayrh took the drink and threw back half in a single draught. Withdrawing the glass from his lips, he heaved in a breath.

"Wow," remarked a voice from beside him. "A second of Madu rum in one sitting just after dawn? Is it fair of me to assume someone had a rough day yesterday?"

You have no idea. With a hampered motion, he turned in the barstool to situate the speaker. She wore stiff black attire over her naturally sandy armour complexion and had eyes that were bright and intelligent. Her mask was polished and her dress conspicuously formal. Her demeanour was that of a figure of importance. What interest could she possibly have in him?

"It's a long story," he grunted, turning his eyes back to the glass to make it clear he wanted to avoid the topic altogether.

She leaned in. "Oh? I have time."

His assumption was that she was on midday break from whichever profession she worked, but her negligence of the subject – she didn't even glance at her timestone – gave him the impression she was perfectly capable of bending any rules as she pleased.

Then he realised where this conversation was headed and he became nervous. It wasn't like him to get flustered around others – even prim and alluring women in uniform – but the discussion was encroaching on matters he didn't care to divulge and, judging by his minor but very real level of inebriation, currently lacked the shrewdness to deflect. He had to end the interaction.

"You know," he said, "I'm flattered, I really am. You seem like an astute person for being a suitor. But I think it's about time for me to go."

She recoiled as if struck. "Well, you're a class act, aren't you?" Her voice curled with indignation. "I was only being polite. Pardon me for trying, you arrogant clod."

Ayrh smiled and stood up. Just as he turned to leave, some bloke materialised in the space between he and the Ce-Matoran. He was a Matoran himself, and came from Stelt by the looks of it. He loomed head and shoulders over Ayrh, wore jagged maroon armour, and looked just about as thickheaded as Ayrh assumed he was about to behave.

He didn't disappoint. The first words out of the Matoran's mouth were, "Is there a problem here?"

"The only one I can see," Ayrh doled out, humouring the chap's play at being valiant, "is there's something blocking my path to the door."

The stranger made no effort to move. Instead, he fixed Ayrh with a frighteningly serious look. "Are you giving this kind lady a hard time?"

"Look, brother, you've got it backwards," Ayrh sighed. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have things to do. Why don't you go play bouncer someplace else, hey?"

"Hold up," the Matoran grinned frostily. "I know you. You're the merc who docked here just a few drifts ago, aren't you? Ayrh, isn't it? How is being a mercenary faring for you? Are you still conning every city in the Mainland out of their fortunes, or has that lost its lustre?"

Ayrh clenched his jaw. "That's it, I'm done here," he said curtly, shoving past the Matoran. Barely even midday and already he was being bogged down with antagonism from stupid people.

Just as he reached the door, he heard the Matoran chortle and say, "Walk away then. Heard that's all you're good for. You mercs, I swear, you stalk around these parts and you hire for fast payment because not one among you has the stones to get a real status in the Forces and do something meaningful with your time and bloodlust. Cheap guns, right, Ayrh?"

He stopped in his tracks and breathed deeply.

"You asked for it," Ayrh said, just before he turned back and threw a fist into the other guy's mask. The Matoran doubled back, crashing into the bar and sending glasses rolling.

The Ce-Matoran who'd tried to talk to Ayrh shrieked. He wasn't surprised. She probably led a sheltered life and wasn't ever exposed to brutality like this. Brutality; reality was more like it. As a rule, he didn't like taking shots at his person, and if somebody was bold enough to go there then they were dense enough to elicit the consequences.

This wasn't uncalled violence, he reasoned. It was merely response.

The Matoran let out a string of colourful curses, the bewilderment in his face changing to anger as he turned and caught the next punch Ayrh had thrown. With his free hand he jabbed Ayrh in the gut and shoved him away. Pain sprung up in Ayrh's side and he stumbled back, just before his mask was splashed with burning liquid.

Another attack and Ayrh crashed into a wall. He could vaguely make out people yelling by now, and in his peripherals the barkeeper was having a fit. His Steltian assailant was in his face in less than a heartflash. Ayrh kicked at his shin, grabbed him by the collar and flung him into a table. The upholstery creaked dangerously and silverware clattered to the floor. Ayrh leapt onto him, pinning his throat with one hand and rearing the other back in a threatening fist.

"The problem with having a big mouth," he snarled, "is that chances are one day somebody's going to come along and smash it in."

A hand cannon clicked and both Ayrh and his assailant turned to see the barkeeper pointing a disk launcher at them. He slowly walked out from behind the bar, keeping a steady aim as he walked.

Ayrh climbed off of the Steltian Matoran.

"Get out! The both of you!" the barkeeper shouted. Ayrh put his hands in the air and moved for the door, and the Steltian followed suit. The barkeeper balanced the launcher in one hand and shoved the two brawlers outside. Beside Ayrh, the Steltian muttered under his breath and shouldered away the barkeeper's push.

"And don't come back!" yelled the barkeeper just before the door slammed. The Steltian looked at Ayrh with hatred in his eyes. He seemed intent on starting fighting again, but a sharp whistle and a clap of talons interrupted them. Ayrh turned to see a groomed Matoran riding up on a tall Pokawi, flanked by four personal guards.

The Matoran casually dismounted, his pearl white armour gleaming in the morning suns, and he moved to approach Ayrh and the Steltian while his guards took care of the steed. When he was in speaking distance, he stopped and smiled warmly. "Ayrh. How do you do?"

Ayrh forced a smile for the sake of being polite, but his mask was bruised and pain shot through his cheekbones. "Beaming, Caya. Always a pleasure."

"Taveno, you are dismissed," Caya said. He gestured to the Steltian, who dropped his head shamefully and went to join the guards. When he was gone, Caya gently placed his hand on Ayrh's shoulder and guided them down the road.

"He's one of yours?" Ayrh asked, glancing back at Taveno.

"Yes. I apologise on his behalf, he's always been a bit temperamental. But never mind him," Caya said nonchalantly. "Let's focus on you. How have you fared on your undertakings so far?"

"Like a wreck," Ayrh grumbled. His breath streamed around him in a cold mist, despite the increasing radiance of the suns. "Spent the last week dodging all kinds of filing and legal claims in order to find our mark. The enforcements got wise over the last stretch, though, and I spent yesterday in a prison cell."

Caya was silent for a while, processing the information. Finally he asked, "Did they confiscate the memos?"

Ayrh nodded. Immediately he sensed the air between them tense and a callous look fell onto Caya's mask. He had a feeling that if he let the suspense hang too long, there might be some hostility, so he was only quiet a few moments before he grinned broadly. "Their fortifications were terrible, though, and they obviously didn't anticipate who they were dealing with. I broke out and reclaimed the memos, with ease might I add."

Relief visibly surged back into Caya's expression, and he cracked a smile before clapping Ayrh on the back. "That's why I hired you! I knew you could do it."

Ayrh slung off his rucksack and retrieved a bundle of tablets all roped together, which he handed to Caya. The Matoran examined them vigorously, his eyes bright with avarice. It took him a full five minutes before he broke out of his trance and thought to reach into his own bag and give Ayrh his payment. It was a tied burlap sack filled with coins, and it rattled as Ayrh took it. The money wasn't nearly as precious to Ayrh as the tablets obviously were to Caya, so he just slipped it into his rucksack.

Caya clapped Ayrh on the shoulders again, and he was beginning to wonder whether or not the Matoran knew any other way to show appreciation to a mercenary.

"You, my friend, have saved me a great deal of labour," he breathed even as he still fondled the tablets. "I'm not even sure if my payment is sufficient."

"The widgets are fine," Ayrh assured him.

By this time they had rounded the block and the Pokawi, along with Taveno and the guards, were coming into sight. There was a bounce to Caya's step, as if he were just on the edge of running toward them. Finally, he stopped his pacing to turn and face his companion. "You're a good fellow, Ayrh."

Ayrh faked a smile, but only one side of his face tugged up and the result was a queer grimace. "I try," he said.

And then he was forgotten, and Caya strode the rest of the way to his waiting men without looking back. Ayrh stood there for a couple minutes, before a little voice inside his head reminded him there were more tasks that needed to be dealt with. His face fell back into the frown he'd become accustomed to, and he tugged the plates of his coat tighter over his chest to keep out the frigid air. Walking away from the tavern, he slid his gauntlets further over his hands and breathed into his palms. The sky was clear and the suns were shining, but the shroud of cold that gripped the region was unrelenting, and a harsh sign of what was imminent.

As he looked into the sky, his eyes watering from the cold, it dawned on him. Winter was coming.

#

The rest of the day had consisted of Ayrh renting out an Ussal crab to lend him speed in performing the rest of his tasks. He had traveled outside of the small town of Kyramore and rode the worn paths through the outlying mountains, visiting several different encampments in haphazard areas. The beings he conducted dealings with were varied, from Matoran to Vortixx, but if there was one element of consistency it was that every establishment with which he communicated was crooked to some degree.

After leaving the tavern, he found himself riding toward the canyons just a matter of kios north of town. This part of the wahi was entirely deserted, and for good reason. Ayrh had to be careful navigating his Ussal around the treacherous cliffs, roving through paths carved narrow by erosion. One false step and the outcome was a kio fall to certain death. Luckily these types of crabs were famed for their precision, and weren't stymied by heights like regular steeds would be.

Ayrh ended his roaming through the yawning canyons at a massive grotto, carved into the face of the bluffs. It was hardly a private site, literally being only a few dozen bios deep and open to the skies and the gully. Its denizens weren't too concerned about intruders, though, because the only way to get to the grotto – the path Ayrh had just took – couldn't admit more than around ten people at a time.

He arrived to the stench of smoke. In one corner, a group of Skakdi were hunched over the source of the stink. The tall, spindly creatures were lighting Zamor fluid and inhaling the fumes, and making a great deal of noise as they did. Some of them squealed, others moaned. The fumes tampered with their psyches, and Ayrh could only imagine the hallucinogenic fits they were having. Already, three were collapsed on the ground, clawing at the gravel.

Ayrh puffed disapprovingly, waving his hand in front of his mask as to disperse the smoke. He slung off his rucksack and tossed it on the ground, making a thud that caught most of their attention. A lot of them curled up in fear, some even fled into the shadows. It was obvious they were too far gone to properly converse with them.

"Are there any among you who are sober enough to do trade?" Ayrh demanded.

"Aye, old friend," boomed a serpentine voice from above. Trellen stood on an overhang protruding from the grotto wall, "Come hither."

Ayrh nodded, reaching down to collect his rucksack and approach the speaker. The Skakdi leapt onto the wall, using tiny bulges and crevices as impossible handholds. Once on the ground, he began to search for the urn in which they stored their stolen loot.

The Matoran reached into his own rucksack to withdraw a roll of cloth, stuffed to almost bursting with petrified twigs and vials of Zamor fluid. He felt dirty just touching the contraband, let alone being the main provider for these addicts. He knew Trellen was aware of his discomfort with the dealing. Every stash that was passed between them felt like a mutual sentence.

You're just doing what you have to, the voice in his head whispered.

"Thanks," Trellen said, taking the roll of contraband and tucking it under his arm as casually as he would a kolhii ball. In return he handed Ayrh a handful of jewellery, glinting with that stolen gem sheen. He watched the Skakdi walk away to show off the new stash to the rest of his band. Their gasps and howls resonated throughout the grotto, irritating Ayrh's jaw line.

The grey-clad Skakdi came back, and they walked outside the confines of the cave as a new flame was being started. "You don't have to keep doing this," Trellen said suddenly.

"Withdrawal's always tough," he continued. "But they can stand not to have some once in the while. Karzahni, I've been trying to get a few of them to kick the habit. Ziike went clean for a full two years before they pulled him down again."

Even though he tried to suppress it, there was an undercurrent of pain cording the Skakdi's voice. Because of their nature, Trellen's band had been exiled far from any civilised society and was unable to perform any real quests like they used to. They made their living by raiding caravans and passed the time smoking Zamor fluid. Ayrh couldn't imagine the stress that would put on one: being forced to remain sober in order to manage a bunch of demoralised users and make sure they didn't kill themselves.

Whenever Ayrh 'visited' he and Trellen would have long conversations. Usually the Skakdi told stories about some of the band members as they once were, in their bygone glory. He'd go into depth about journeys they'd shared, battles they'd fought, the little personality quirks each one of their ranks had. Then he would gesture to the characters in those tales and all Ayrh saw before him were jabbering husks, ghosts of people.

"They deserve better," Trellen said. This time he didn't bother to conceal the solemn rage in his voice. They stopped walking and the Skakdi let his chin drop, face scrunched into a pained frown. He was easily three feet taller than Ayrh, with defined musculature rippling across his limbs and a solid shell of armour coating his spine and torso. Therefore, it always came as a surprise when he spoke openly with the Matoran, and even moreso when he expressed emotion. "They deserve better."

By the time Ayrh left, the sun was at its zenith in the blue sky. The members of the band cowered deeper into the cave's shadows, and judging by the pallor of their armour it wasn't hard to see they rarely lingered in the sunlight. The idea sent a chill through every fibre in his body, coaxing up dark remembrances from a time in his past.

He quelled his miserable thoughts and hopped back onto his Ussal crab, which had waited patiently on the trail. After having spoken his farewells to Trellen, he turned tail and headed back. The day quickly steeped into twilight, and by the time he was headed back for Kyramore he had visited six different bandit camps, collected over two hundred widgets and slain one kavinika. Two mios north of Kyramore at the campsite of the Blackrock Clan, their leader had allowed his pet kavinika get a little too close to Ayrh's steed. When the wolf had gone to bite off one of the legs of his Ussal crab, he had stepped in and put a dagger through its head. Needless to say, they didn't take well to the gesture and he was chased out of the area without receiving payment.

The word 'melodrama' came to mind. It was just a rahi, after all.

He rode back into Kyramore under the light of the twin moons, where he returned the Ussal crab to the stable he'd rented it from and gathered his bearings to head for home. An intermediate sized and dome shaped mud-stone structure, the simple shack he'd occupied for the past four drifts, was located on the crest of a hill, removed from the rest of the town by a swaddling of pine trees.

A creak sounded as he pressed open the door and stepped inside to a cloud of stiff blackness. The only break in the darkness was the faint bubble of illumination from a candle in the corner, along with a pair of narrow eyes glaring at him from the black. He shut the door behind him and fumbled for the lever, throwing the circuit that tapped the lightstones back into function. White light showed the shack for what it really was: a worn residence, bare save for the most basic of furnishings.

Moria stood swiftly from her chair and crossed her arms in frustration.

"Save it," he advised, hefting his rucksack onto a table and unloading the contents. She did no such thing, proceeding to go into a long scolding of his character.

"A bar fight?" she was saying. "In the morning? What in the world were you doing at a tavern before noon? I was worried ill for you, Ayrh! Ever since I heard about it at the market – yes, you made quite a tale across town – I've been cooped up here, praying for you to come back. Doesn't that seem just a little heartless to you? Keeping me here, afraid, for twelve hours? Do you have any compassion?"

Ayrh sighed, but he didn't look up from his work. He was arranging the money he'd collected, separating it into notes, coins, and loot. Though he wasn't looking at her, he knew by heart the anger and hurt that was in Moria's face right now.

"Look, I'm sorry," he offered. "I told you I had work today."

"I understand that. But the scrapping, Ayrh. Was that really necessary? And with Taveno no less."

He stopped and looked at her. "You know that lout?"

"He's a nice chap, Ayrh. I've met him at the marketplaces once or twice. I can't imagine what you could've done to upset him."

Was she really defending Taveno right now? Unbelievable. "You know not what you speak about," he stated, resuming his work.

"My mistake," she retorted. "I wasn't aware I was a terrible judge in character. It doesn't take a scholar to tell when someone's a good person, you know. Not everybody is a tortured soul who sells substance to Skakdi addicts just to get by."

He fixed her with a cold glare and she trembled, realising she had gone too far. Averting her gaze, she mumbled a "sorry," but her voice was overtaken by the snapping of wood as Ayrh forcibly shut his rucksack. As he finished his sorting, she'd gone silent. Her ranting had been replaced by cold tension.

He finished and let out a long breath. "I don't want to talk about this now. Can we please just go to bed?"

She nodded. He turned off the lightstones and Moria went to snuff out the candle in the corner. When they climbed into bed, it was the moonshine that spilled in through the windows that lulled them to sleep.

By the time Moria woke that morning, Ayrh was already up. He was standing over the table, scribbling on a stone tablet with a pen. He was so focused on his writing that he started when a pair of arms slid down his shoulders and a pair of supple hands clasped just over his chest. Moria nuzzled her face into the side of his. "I'm sorry," she said.

"Already forgotten about it," he replied. He reached up to touch her hands. "I have work today."

She made a hum of acknowledgment and then pulled away. She walked over to the wash basin on one side of the room and splashed water on her mask. "Just don't get yourself hurt."

"I promise," Ayrh answered. He finished the tablet and shoved it into his bag. Hoisting the bag onto his shoulders, he made sure to leave behind anything he wouldn't need so that we would have room for today's loot. He gave Moria a quick goodbye kiss and headed out the door. Just as he was walking down the hill, he stopped when she called his name. "Ayrh?"

He turned to see the lithe figure of the Ga-Matoran, wrapped in a robe and leaning casually in the threshold. The suns gently kissed her blue tinted armour, casting her in a golden frame reminiscent of portraits from the Renaissance Age. The sight made something inside of him melt.

"I really do care about you," she called. "I want you to know that."

He smiled. It wasn't the impassive, false smile that he gave to employers when they wanted him to agree with them, or to merchants in the bazaars when haggling over goods. It was a genuine, warm smile, something that hadn't touched his face for a long time.

"I do."

She smiled back, and Ayrh turned away, starting the trek back into town. Once he had left the hill behind it was a struggle through a half carved path in the woods, followed by a logging trail that was well-worn by kikanalo caravans. Before he reached the front gates, he stalked off and followed the walls half a kio to the east before climbing in through a rough, Matoran sized crack in the edifice. Being a mercenary, Ayrh wasn't bound to be an official citisen of Kyramore, and that might prove to be a problem with the guards.

Once in the streets, he navigated his way to another tavern. Unlike the other day, though, he was here on business. He entered the building to find an unsurprising shortage of patrons, as they were all working at this hour of the day. Resisting the urge to walk up to the bar, get a drink and fall into a deep brooding state before starting his affairs, he cased the place for a certain individual.

Ayrh found him, hidden away in the corner of a building, smoking a pipe and reading a tome. Though the grasses in the pipe were much tamer than the Zamor fluid the Skakdi he knew experimented with, the smoke was still enough to make him turn up his nose. Regardless, he slipped into the booth across from the figure.

The Matoran, an older fellow of Onu descent, glanced up from his reading to look at Ayrh. Surprised, he fidgeted with the spectacles in his mask to make sure he was seeing this right.

"Well, mercenary, I have to hand it to you. You do work swiftly."

"It's one of my prides," he responded. "I spoke to Caya yesterday. You'll be pleased to know that I have information that will easily spell the unravelling of his campaign." He did well to omit the fact that the only reason he'd spoken to Caya, was to help that politician find grime on the individual he was sitting with now. The perks of being a mole for hire.

The Matoran collapsed the rest of the metal pages in his tome and set it aside. He leaned forward and rested on linked hands, staring intently at his compatriot as he spoke. "I'm listening."

Ayrh reached into his rucksack and slapped a tablet on the table. "A memo outlining the full list of sources Caya has been getting his capital from," he explained. "It might pique your interest to note that, despite his polished public image, Caya is the leader of a clan called the Redborn on the side."

Following the tablet came a memory crystal, which he had used to capture images and experiences from a couple of weeks ago, when he was first making deals with Caya. Then, he had been so bent on gaining in edge in the upcoming Kyramore magistrate ballot he hadn't bothered to pay much attention to Ayrh. He ought to have known that hiring a mercenary was a double edged blade: you never knew who they might also be associating with under the table.

He slid the crystal and the tablet over to the Matoran. "That, my dear Zurui, is an edge. Take it, but tell no one of where you got it. If everything goes right, I'll be out of here before Caya suspects me."

"How can I repay you?"

He shrugged. "Money works."

"Right." Zurui reached into his coin purse and rummaged around for a bit. Finally, he withdrew a stash of notes the breadth of a rock. Ayrh felt his stomach turn at the symbols inscribed in the face of the notes. That was a lot of widgets.

Zurui had no indecision giving him the money. In fact, there was a sheepish smile on his angular mask, as though he was afraid it wasn't enough. "You just saved an old chap a lot of grief," he told Ayrh. "I have to thank you for seeing through to my noble intentions. This ballot means a lot to me."

"No worries," Ayrh replied, but he was too busy eyeing the notes to consider what the Matoran was saying. Politics meant nothing to him. He did what he did to get paid, nothing more and nothing less.

"This calls for celebratory drinks; on me. I know it's early, but what do you say?" He didn't wait for an answer, whistling sharply until the bored barkeeper snapped out of his daydream and jostled over. "Two glasses and a bottle. Make it your finest spirits."

"Yes, sir," the barkeeper said. He hurried away and came back not a minute later, setting the glassware before the two customers. Popping open the cork from the bottle, he filled the glasses to brimming and smiled. Zurui waved him away and took a sip.

"To success," Zurui proposed.

"I'll drink to that."

They clinked cups, and Ayrh gladly drank.

#

"You can't stay, can you?"

Ayrh was taken off guard by the question. He was currently fixated on his forearms, the bare armour of them once his gauntlets were off, that is. They were covered in strange markings, but weirdest of all were the clips that arched up from his cuticle, protrusions that always seemed a little odd. He thought about a pair of gauntlets he had stored in the cellar, a pair he hadn't worn in ages. Not since …

"Ayrh?"

"Hmm?" he looked up, just remembering Moria's question. "Oh. Why do you say that?"

She sighed heavily. Clutched possessively in her hands was a chalice of bula juice. Ayrh had noticed a slight greying in her mask of late, like she was suffering from sleep deprivation.

"It's just that, you arrived here only four drifts back. Not to mention you brought with you a kikanalo's weight in heirlooms and souvenirs from other lands." Every word she said seemed to kill the buoyancy in her tone even more. It struck Ayrh to realise that she had given this a lot of thought. "You do mercenary work, Ayrh. I know how risky that is. You can't possibly settle and start a life here. Pretty soon, the time you've spent here will just be that … souvenirs. Memories. Gone."

He looked up. "I don't recall having ever said anything about settling."

She was silent for a while. "That's the thing, though."

He shook his head and got up, once again studying the armour of his forearms. "I don't get what you're trying to say," he surrendered, walking across the room to the staircase that led to the cellar. He needed to find those gauntlets.

As he descended the steps, he thought he heard Moria murmur, "What I'm trying to say is, what about me? Where do I fit in with you?"

He thought of responding, but realised that it'd been more of a voiced musing than an actual question. She didn't want an answer to it. She was scared of getting one. That didn't bother Ayrh. Brushing the conversation off, he set to work groping through the various ornaments in the cellar in an attempt to find those gauntlets.

#

He drew in a deep breath. Comfort enveloped him like a blanket as he sunk further into the rahi skins of the couch, his feet propped on the armrest and his neck supported by a cushion. He might have lain there for ten minutes, content observing the insides of his eyelids.

"How are you feeling?"

"A lot worse now, thanks for that," he replied. Beside him, Tisiphone offered a kind smile, tolerant of his asinine nature by this point. She scratched notes into a tablet, which was special because instead of stone it was carved from a slab of memory crystal. Ayrh always found it fascinating to watch as her pen slid across its face, tracing light as it did.

"Must you always?" he asked even as she finished. "Are you deducing my psyche from every word I say? That's a terrible conversationalist, may I note."

"As a Psion, that is exactly my job," she merely stated. "Pardon me, but you do not seek in myself a person to casually converse with, do you?"

"It'd help if I were a little more comfortable," Ayrh grumbled.

"Oh? Tell me, what is making you uncomfortable?" she implored in her sweet honey voice, making it impossible for him to accredit her interrogation to anything but pure concern. He knew it was a lie. It was a reassuring pretence, nonetheless.

"Nothing," he conceded. "I've just … had a lot on my mind of late."

"Understandable," she consoled. "Don't worry, it happens to the best of us. Stress is natural." She began scribbling in that tablet of hers again, the words disappearing even as she wrote. She looked back up, and then folded her arms to lean forward. "Tell me, have you had any episodes since we last spoke?"

"What, with Lyranix?" Ayrh asked.

She fixed him with a reproachful look. "What have we said about giving it a name?"

"Sorry," he grumbled, even though he wasn't really. He was still partially convinced this entire thing was a hoax, and she was just here to feed him claptrap until he accepted a comforting illusion of reality in spite of himself. "And no, there haven't been any … episodes. Nothing major anyway."

"Have you been following the instructions I gave you? Meditating in the mornings?"

He thought back to the morning drink that he'd taken up as a ritual now. That counted as meditation. "Sure."

"Taking the medicine I prescribed to you?"

A wad of cured herbs and filtered Kanoka byproduct he promptly scattered into the river every time after receiving it. "Yes."

"What about taking an active role in the community? With your condition, I know it may be difficult for you to handle social situations. You've only been living here a couple drifts so it's perfectly normal to be a bit diffident, but you need to start getting more involved. All right?"

"Of course."

Tisiphone glanced at him from the corner of her eyes, checking to see if he was actually listening. He offered her a look and smiled. She shook her head, disappointed but not surprised, and continued to rattle off her questions.

"Anybody close? You can help manage your condition with support from people you hold dear. Moral support from companions is a very powerful stimulus for the mind to reform itself, farfetched as it may sound."

"As a matter of fact, I do," he told her. Moria appeared in his mind and for some reason he felt compelled to smile. He stayed his mask in place, appalled at how soft he was getting.

"Well, you seem fine to me," Tisiphone concluded, staring at her tablet as if to check if anything was missing. "Yes, all good. Our session is complete; I'll be looking forward to speaking with you next time."

"And you, doctor," he told her, hoisting himself up from the couch and exiting the room. Leaving the hospice, Ayrh strolled down the street against the cold, wintry air until he came across a mechanical transport standing inert on the curb. As he approached, a hatch in the side creaked open and the grinning face of Tarnok, his fellow mercenary, emerged.

The Matoran extended a hand and helped Ayrh into the vehicle, which he then piloted around the curb and out of the small township. The dozen mechanical legs on each side scuttled rhythmically across the road, carrying them through the gate and on a path that led back to Kyramore.

"So? Any different results?" Tarnok asked.

"No," Ayrh said simply. Ever since he'd begun frequenting this Psion there'd been no clemency in her diagnosis. He'd been to several gypsies, elementals and energy readers in his time and every visit had confirmed to him a knowledge he was already aware of: that there was something wrong with him. Tisiphone was the first to put a label on it. She said he had a mild condition, but most of the symptoms were still present. Schizophrenia was what she had called it.

Rubbish, was the response of the little voice in his head.