Chapter 11: Facing the Tension
“Oh, uh, hi, Alchemist,” I said awkwardly.
Alchemist kept clinging to the other side of the ladder. It was like they thought they could hide from me, even though I could obviously see them right through it.
Seeing Alchemist afraid had mostly knocked me out of the Blood God state I’d been in. I was definitely going to be mad again later, but right now, I was just panicking about how I’d scared Alchemist. “It’s okay, I’m not going to hurt you!” I said. “It’s the Seeking God! It just – it absolutely fucked me over!” Alchemist seemed to shrink even further away from me, if that were possible. Right, Alchemist was really sensitive. I couldn’t just tell them I wasn’t mad at them, I had to act in a gentler way too.
Belatedly, I turned my bleeding blade back into a regular arm. I had been waving it in Alchemist’s general direction, hadn’t I. Stern take it all.
“I’m –” I forced myself to sound calmer, despite my pounding heart. “I’m really not mad at you.” I opened my arms, making sure they both had regular human hands on them. “It’s okay. You can come out now.”
Alchemist didn’t come out from behind the ladder.
“Okay, fine, I’ll just, uh, wait over here until you’re ready,” I said. I sat down on a big rock, trying to give them space, and started kicking at the sand with my foot. I couldn’t stand sitting quietly after what the Seeking God had just done to me. But I had no idea what else to do. And I didn’t want to make Alchemist hate me on top of everything else.
It really was just sand and rocks around us. The rocks came in all sizes. In some places, there were piles of tiny pebbles. In others, there were huge round balls of rock, half-sunk into the sand, but still as tall as we were. And scattered randomly among the rocks, there was the occasional ladder – all looking like some sort of cheap, translucent plastic, and all sticking up straight out of the ground into the air.
“You’re – you’re definitely not going to hurt me?” said Alchemist tentatively, poking their head out from around their ladder.
“Of course not! I’d never hurt you, you’re – you’re adorable!”
Alchemist giggled a little. A little at a time, they moved out from behind the ladder. Their mouth moved slightly, as if they were trying to say something, but eventually they stopped and we just stood there awkwardly.
I tried to find something normal to talk about. “So, what is this place?” I asked. “It doesn’t look like the rest of the Endless Maze.”
“Yeah, there’s normally, like, loads of twisty passages and puzzles and stuff. This just doesn’t seem like the Seeking God at all. It’s more like…” I searched the endless sand and stones for something to explain it. There was a sense of emptiness here, like an incomplete world. “…more like the Broken? Wait, did you do something to this part of the world?”
“I… maybe?” said Alchemist doubtfully.
“Or, wait, what if the Seeking makes different puzzles for each of us? Justicar’s puzzles had rigid rules, too. I mean, the rules were a trick, but it was still based on rules, it was, like, built for someone who liked the idea of rules –” Ugh, if I kept talking, I was going to walk into something that would make me mad again. I needed something to do with all my extra energy. And Alchemist wasn’t really helping with that.
So I climbed one of the ladders. I sprang upwards, and in moments, I was twice my height up from the ground, straddling the top rung and weaving my legs between the other rungs for balance. Unfortunately, even from the top of the ladder, I couldn’t see very far. The gray fog was clouding my view in all directions. I strained my eyes, but before long, I was just looking down again.
Below me, Alchemist picked up a smooth rock the size of their hand, rubbed it a little, then put it back down in a different place. Once that was done, they picked up another. Now that I noticed it, it looked like they’d been arranging the rocks in a pretty pattern, with lots of curves and spirals. There was a long stretch of rocks that were arranged in the same pattern, going off into the fog in one direction. That must have been the direction Alchemist had been coming from when I showed up.
Watching them, I felt a terrible loneliness. I had been so close to Yali, and then she’d been snatched away from me again. I felt like I was going to cry. Justicar had been right all along. Ugh, fuck that! I needed something else to think about. I jumped down from the ladder and called out to Alchemist. “Why are you putting the rocks like that? I mean, it looks nice, but is there a reason for it?”
“I… don’t know? It just, felt, like, something.”
“Well, it’s cool that you’re doing it!” Why was I saying that? I looked down at the pattern. Then I promptly got distracted by Alchemist’s feet. Alchemist was barefoot on the fine sand, wearing a loose robe that came down to their ankles. It looked soft and warm and comfy – no, I didn’t have time for comfy things! I had to keep fighting – ugh, how was I even supposed to fight? Maybe I could just be comfy like Alchemist and forget about it. I kicked off my own shoes – well, technically, I swung my leg while unmanifesting my shoes – and walked barefoot on the ground. I had to admit, the sand felt good between my toes. Even the stones were smooth enough to be comfortable to walk on. It felt like they were giving a firm massage to the soles of my feet.
Forcing cheerfulness, I jumped down into a sitting position next to Alchemist. “So, how do you come up with these designs?” I said, picking up one of the stones to look at it. Alchemist flinched. “Oh, uh, was I not supposed to touch that? Let me just put it back.” Luckily, I remembered where to put it back.
I tried to make more conversation with Alchemist, but they seemed reluctant.
“I could give you some space! I mean, if that’s what you’d like –”
“I… maybe?” Stern take it, I couldn’t tell whether they were uncomfortable telling me to go away or uncomfortable telling me not to go away. I felt like I should go away, to make sure I didn’t fuck anything up. Plus, the back of my mind had started itching to look around this place, just in case the fog was hiding something we could use to get back to the others.
“I’ll be back soon.” I summoned the map. “If I get lost in the fog, I’ll just go towards the Cloven Earth. I mean, unless the Seeking God messes with me. But apparently, the Seeking God can mess with me whenever the fuck it wants, so it doesn’t make a difference, does it.” I scowled. “So yeah, uh… see you soon.”
I walked off into the fog, my bare feet rubbing over the sand and stones. The further I walked, the more the cool, damp mist settled on my skin. Hoping to find something different, I kept heading straight in one direction for a while. But there was just more sand and stones and ladders. I climbed a few of the ladders, and it was a good workout, but it was still no different than before.
Before long, I was bored. I headed back towards Alchemist. I was half expecting to get lost in a magical fog maze, but it just worked normally. Soon, the dark shape of Alchemist loomed out of the gray mist.
“Hey Alchemist, where’s the puzzle? I mean, this is the Endless Maze, there’s gotta be a puzzle somewhere in here, right –”
Alchemist startled and dropped the rock they were holding.
“Oh, sorry! I didn’t mean to disturb you, I just thought, we could talk about, uh…” I stood there stupidly.
“It’s, okay? We can, talk, I guess?”
We sat down next to each other on a big rock. Alchemist reached out hesitantly and held my hand, weaving their fingers in between mine. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, but their hand was warm and soft, so that much was pleasant. But I felt like there was still a big tension between us. I wanted to say something nice, but I couldn’t think of what to say. What was Alchemist even interested in? “Uh… so, what are you interested in?” I said.
“I don’t know…”
“What do you do in your spare time?”
“I… maybe… I used to feed… pigeons? Before…” Alchemist shrugged. Well, at least I could tell what that shrug meant. It meant before I got yanked out of my life by the god.
“I’m sorry. It must be hard for you, having the gods pull you out of your life all of a sudden.” Alchemist stiffened. “Sorry! I didn’t mean to make you remember anything traumatic!”
“If, you, want, to, talk, about, –”
“It’s okay!” I said quickly. “I mean, I want to get to know you better, but I don’t want to make you do anything you don’t want to do –”
“You could, get to know me better? If you want?” said Alchemist. But they sounded reluctant, and their body was still all tensed up next to me.
“Are you sure you’re okay with that?”
“It’s, okay, –”
“Look,” I said, “I can tell you’re not comfortable around me.”
“No, it’s okay. I get it, I haven’t exactly been, like, a really nice person. I’ve swung swords around and shit, I totally understand it if that makes you, like, nervous or anything. I just, like, want to get it out in the open, you know? I just can’t stand leaving things like this, with us just dancing around it.”
“Well – um –”
“Go on, do your worst.”
Alchemist leaned into my shoulder. Hesitantly, they said, “I, maybe, Justicar said you’re dangerous…”
“Oh for fuck’s sake –” I began. Then I caught myself and made sure to settle down a bit before I said anything stupid. “Look, she’s got her own, like, opinions about stuff. But I’m really not going to hurt you. And if she was going on about the whole Blood Child and Farseer thing, there is no fucking way – er, there is no way I’ll ever hurt Yali either. I really won’t.”
“Oh…” said Alchemist. They sounded pretty disappointed. I was starting to get the idea that, whenever Alchemist said “oh” like that, it didn’t really mean they understood something. It just meant they didn’t feel like pushing anymore.
“Look, it’s okay. If there’s something you’re still worried about, about me, I want to hear about it. Just spit it out, don’t leave me hanging.”
Alchemist swallowed. They wobbled back and forth, trying to psych themselves up. Finally, they spoke.
“Are… you… going to hurt Morrow?”
“He’s not here right now, is he?” Ugh, that was a stupid thing to say. Alchemist obviously meant in general, not right now. “I mean, I don’t want to hurt anybody! I’m not going to hurt him if he doesn’t hurt anybody else!” I said defensively.
“I… saw…” Alchemist moved the hand that wasn’t holding mine, and ran their fingers wavily through the sand. Around the fingers, the sand formed into a picture – Morrow’s face, with a handprint on it where I’d slapped him. “It was smaller than his hand… so it must have been you…” Alchemist said mournfully.
“Right, you would’ve seen that…” I said awkwardly. “So, what happened is, we tried trading phones when he was, you know, but then he freaked out and smashed mine. So, I was mad. But it was only for a moment! And it’s not like I injured him or anything –” Ugh, I could already feel I was doing a bad job of this. If I wanted to reassure Alchemist, I’d have to come up with something better than saying it could have been worse. “I promise not to hurt him if he doesn’t hurt anyone else.”
“He might…” said Alchemist sadly. “He might hurt… somebody else. Will you hurt him then?”
“You’re wiser than I thought,” I said. Alchemist seemed like they didn’t like to think about painful things, so I hadn’t really expected them to bring up something like this. But, fuck, they sure knew how to ask the hard questions. I sighed. “I, like, I can’t promise it’ll never happen, but, I guess… Even if he’s hurting someone, I promise I’ll try everything else I can think of first. Like, I’ll, I don’t know, just try to block him, or whatever. I promise.”
“Thanks…” I could tell Alchemist wasn’t completely satisfied, but they sounded sincere. Tentatively, they put their arms around me. Their hug was warm and gentle, lumpy in some places and bony in others. I hugged them back. And then, abruptly, they went limp, collapsing half their weight onto my shoulders.
I quickly adjusted so I could hold them up. “Woah, are you okay there?!”
Alchemist had tears streaming down their face. “Mama, Papa, Bubele, Niemah…” they sobbed. They kept crying and saying more names, probably all the people they had left behind on Earth.
“Hey, hey, it’s okay. We’ll get you back to everyone safe and sound.” I squeezed them tight.
“But I’m so… I’m so…”
Alchemist nodded. “And…”
They nodded again. “And…”
“Well, I’m here!” I said cheerfully. Alchemist giggled despite themself.
Travelling with Alchemist was oddly comforting.
After a while, it had finally sunk in that I was never going to find Yali anytime soon. I had felt defeated, bitter, like there was a yawning hole in me, an empty space where my mission should have been. But then Alchemist came and… filled some of that space. I didn’t understand how, but somehow, it was easier to just focus on what I was doing with Alchemist than to worry about the gods. The gentle resonance of their voice was almost enough to distract me.
Bit by bit, they started to share more details about their life before the Ravelling. Their family life sounded really boisterous. They had five brothers and three sisters, and a bunch of aunts and uncles who lived with the family most of the year as well. Before the Ravelling, I’d always been like, “siblings, who needs ’em”, but the way Alchemist described it, it sounded wonderful. They kept telling me about different little traditions and habits everyone had. Alchemist obviously loved all of their siblings deeply, it was really sweet. Of course, it was also sad. Sometimes, they just talked about everyone happily, lost in the fond memories. Other times, they barely got started before their eyes got all teary. But that made sense to me now. Having random, different feelings about the same thing, depending on which thought happened first, was kind of what I’d been living with for a while.
The weirdest thing was the world around us.
“Seriously, what’s up with there not being any puzzles here?” I said one day. We had been wandering aimlessly through foggy landscapes for ages, only pausing occasionally to manifest a place to rest. It didn’t seem like the rest of the Endless Maze at all.
“I think, maybe, there are? If you just, wait, and, let them come to you?”
“What the – I mean, what do you mean by that?”
“One time, I, was lying down, and I saw, a shape? On the, rocks, there was a, shadow, the light between the different rocks. It made a shape. And then I made the shape, with the, stones. And then, it gave me another shape… There was a sequence…”
“Did it lead to something?”
“I forgot one of the shapes…”
“It’s okay. Maybe it’ll come back later.”
I was kinda tired from walking, so I manifested one of my giant fluffy couches and flopped down in it. Alchemist joined me, and we leaned together, shoulder to shoulder.
I idly pulled out my broken phone and fidgeted with it in my hand. Twirling it around to catch the light, idly poking at the buttons as if it would turn on again.
Alchemist leaned in to take a closer look. “Is that, the one that, broke?”
“Yeah…” I muttered.
“It’s, still, broken?”
“Phones don’t unbreak by themselves!” I said irritably. Alchemist flinched. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to snap at you like that.”
“Maybe, if, you…?”
“If I what, manifested it back together?” I held the phone at arm’s length, as if I was trying to find an angle to fix it from. “I wish. But Yali said we probably can’t manifest on our phones because we don’t know how they work – wait, no, she said we couldn’t recharge them because we don’t really know how to do anything but put them completely back to how they were before – wait, that’s it!” I wished I had Yali here to tell me whether it would actually work. But it wasn’t like my phone could get more broken. I focused my mind at the phone, willing it to change back to how it had been right before it broke. Right away, the cracks disappeared and the screen lit up.
I threw my arms around Alchemist and hugged them tight. “That’s amazing! You’re amazing, Alchemist!”
Alchemist smiled happily.
Now that we were this comfortable together, it felt a little weird that I was still calling them by their title. “I, uh, I heard Morrow call you Raylie earlier, is that your name?”
“It’s, uh, short for Raline,” said Alchemist awkwardly.
“Should I call you that? I mean, calling you Alchemist all the time just feels kinda… cold and formal,” I said.
Alchemist shrugged. “You can call me whatever you like.”
“Okay, uh…” They’d technically given me permission, but calling them Raline just didn’t feel right. They hadn’t told me that name willingly, and they didn’t really seem enthusiastic about it now. For all I knew, they didn’t even want Morrow to know that name! Morrow could have just read it out of their mind somehow, and started using it without asking. Or with asking. I got the impression that Alchemist wasn’t very comfortable saying no to things. “Look, you’re allowed to say no to me if you don’t want me to. I won’t bite.”
That made Alchemist look even more uncomfortable, Stern take it.
“So, uh, you know how Morrow can read your mind all the time?”
Alchemist smiled involuntarily.
“Hang on, is he reading your mind right now?!”
“No… From there to here, there’s no good connection, he can only smell and, touch, my feelings, from here…” they said sadly.
“So… are you, like, okay with that? With him reading your mind?”
“It’s wonderful.” Alchemist’s face lit right up, and their voice turned all relaxed and dreamy. “He always knows what I want. I never have to figure it out myself when he’s around. He makes me so happy.” Alchemist giggled a little. It was adorable.
“Hang on, you normally have to figure out what you want? How do you not know what you want?”
“I, just, don’t know? I, how do other people know what they want?”
“I mean, I just want things. What does it mean to want something without knowing what it is?”
“Oh…” sighed Alchemist. They had such an expressive, emotional face. When they were happy, they looked totally blissful, and when they were sad, they looked like just the saddest thing ever. I just wanted to hug them forever.
“Do you want a hug?” I said.
We both awkwardly moved in for a hug, bumping our arms into each other. And once we settled in, neither of us felt the need to say more words for a while.
The more time I spent among the rocks here, the more they seemed… just not quite right. For one thing, rocks were supposed to have rough edges. But all the rocks here were smooth and blobby, almost… organic. And the world was almost completely repetitive, it was like we kept walking past the same rock over and over again. But it was never exactly the same. Seeing them almost settle into a pattern, then be slightly off the pattern, was downright eerie.
But none of that was the really weird thing about them. The really weird thing about them was…
I had no idea.
It was driving me crazy. I felt trapped in this place. Even if I wasn’t going to get to Yali, it was so stupid to not even TRY to get closer to her! So I had started checking the map obsessively, measuring out from my position to the nearest landmarks, to make sure I was actually getting somewhere and the Seeking God wasn’t somehow cheating me out of my progress. But it was! My location on the map didn’t stay consistent at all, it just sort of randomly moved around, totally unrelated to the direction we were going.
“This fucking map!” I complained. Right now, I was tired, slouching on a couch I’d made, cuddling with Alchemist. At least this part was comfortable. “We go one direction, and it says we’re going the other! And not even consistently! This whole place…”
Alchemist rubbed my shoulder gently, not saying anything. It was nice and all, but it wasn’t really what I cared about right now.
“Alchemist, what do you think? How do we get out of here?”
“I, don’t, know?”
“Come on, work with me here. You’ve gotta have some idea.”
“Well, maybe, I, wonder, if,…”
“Go on, spit it out.”
“I, maybe, see you trying so hard, and nothing changing. I wonder if, maybe, that’s why?”
“That’s why what?”
“I saw, more things change, in the stones, before you, were here. It was easier, without, trying to make it happen. I wonder if, because you’re trying so hard, that’s why, it doesn’t…”
“What, so I’m not supposed to try –?!” Fuck that! Fuck this whole place!! I yelled inside my head. But of course, I didn’t yell it out loud, because it was fucking Alchemist. I just gritted my teeth in frustration.
Ugh, why did the Seeking have to stick me with Alchemist? I felt like I was having to suppress my feelings all the time. And sure, I had to suppress some of my feelings with Yali, too, but at least Yali let me be angry, just as long as it wasn’t at her.
That was the problem – I liked Alchemist, but they just… weren’t Yali. Even right now, I was comfortable enough here cuddling with Alchemist in the soft cushions I’d made, but it just wasn’t the same. I missed Yali’s big strong arms around me… Her lips, her wide soft cheeks…
The fucking gods. It was bad enough that the Blood God was trying to make me kill her. Now the Seeking God wouldn’t even let me be close to her?! For gods-knew-what mysterious scheme? All I wanted to do was touch her. If only I had her here right now, she could ruffle my hair, squish me under her weight… I imagined her squishing me, pressing into me like she had when we wrestled on that one day before the Ravelling. That was how life should be. Why wouldn’t they let us have that?
I drifted out my daydream to find that I was nuzzling up beside Alchemist’s head, practically brushing my lips against their neck. I pulled back sharply. “I’m not – I didn’t mean –”
Alchemist sleepily laid an arm over my shoulders and tugged me back towards them.
“I didn’t mean to be so – intimate – I’m with Yali! I mean – we’re poly, I guess –” Heat rose in my cheeks. Alchemist’s big eyes drifted close to my face. “I mean, I don’t like you in that way –” I gently pulled away again. Alchemist’s arm stayed around me, not quite limp, reluctant but allowing me to go. But before I pulled all the way, a heavy hesitation settled over me. I couldn’t bear to do it. All of a sudden, Alchemist looked so sad and lonely… “Wait –” I said. “Do you – how do you, uh, feel about me?”
“I don’t, know?”
Uncertainly, I allowed Alchemist to pull me closer to them again. They laid their head beside mine, rubbing our cheeks together.
I did like Alchemist in that way.
My feelings were a huge mess. It wasn’t supposed to be Alchemist here, it was supposed to be Yali! But the gentle pressure on my cheek told a different story. My heart wanted to sink into Alchemist, to leave the rest of my worries behind. I wasn’t even sure if I liked them for themselves or if I was just trying to pretend they were Yali. And I didn’t know which was worse. If I just used them as a temporary substitute for Yali, that would make me an asshole! But if I pulled away, then… I’d be… so alone…
Tears came into my eyes. I clung to Alchemist, clutching at the soft back of their robe helplessly. Alchemist held me gently, rocking back and forth and slowly rubbing my back. I couldn’t help relaxing into it. I needed this. I needed someone to hold me.
Alchemist let me slowly cry on them for a while. They just kept holding me and humming their aimless tune. I just buried my face in their robe. There were at least three parts of me that were uneasy about this, but they weren’t strong enough to do anything. They were practically getting washed away in the feeling of release.
I wiped my tears away on Alchemist’s robe. Not that it was really going to help, since there would be more soon enough. “What will Morrow think?” I mumbled. “About us, uh, being like this?”
“Morrow won’t mind.”
I was surprised by how confident Alchemist sounded. I had pretty much been expecting that they would just say I don’t know again. “Are you really sure about that?”
“I can feel, what, Morrow wants? He likes it when I’m, happy. Like this.” Alchemist smiled involuntarily.
“Woah, so, you’re actually happy?”
“I, I guess I am?” said Alchemist happily.
“Well, uh –” I said uncomfortably. I really didn’t want to lead Alchemist into expecting something that wasn’t going to happen. “So, you know, right, just so you know, when I’m back with Yali, I don’t know if I’ll want to keep, you know…”
“I know,” said Alchemist.
Being intimate with Alchemist was like having one injury healed and another injury ripped back open. We spent hours lying together, nestled in each other’s arms, rubbing our faces together and exchanging soft kisses from time to time. It filled me up with such warmth, such wholesomeness, I felt like I could just float in that feeling forever. But at the same time, the more we touched, the more I couldn’t stop thinking about Yali, too. With Alchemist, I had such a deep, emotional closeness, but… I just wasn’t that attracted to them physically. Even when we touched, my skin was craving something else. Something big and squishy and strong and luscious and Yali.
Well, at least I was having the good obsession with Yali instead of the bad obsession with Yali. Any time I fantasized about getting in her pants instead of killing her to death, that was a win in my book.
How many days had it been now? Somehow, the time just melted away when I was with Alchemist. And even when the Blood God popped up, its fury was also doubtful, mixed with something bittersweet. Nothing was quite how it should be, but still, somehow, every part of me had agreed to let this happen. Just for a while, to forget the mission, forget the puzzles, and just lean into the warmth.
And that’s when I first began to notice… it.
We were lying in one of the many beds we’d left littered across the sand. As I stuck my head out to adjust the blankets, I thought I saw a peephole through the rock. When I looked, there wasn’t actually a hole in any individual rock. It was just, when my eye was in exactly the right place, a bunch of totally separate rocks combined to look like a narrow hole. But when I looked down the “hole”, I could see a long way, going straight past the fog.
I jumped up. “It’s like it’s showing me something!” Before Alchemist could say anything, I took off running in the direction it had pointed.
Unfortunately, before long, I lost my sense of direction. I wasn’t sure I was still going along the same line I had seen. I tried to line up my eye with the rocks I’seen before, but I couldn’t find the spot.
“Argh! I lost it! I’ve got to find it again –”
Alchemist padded up behind me. “I don’t think, trying to force it, will –”
“Come on! This could be our chance to GET somewhere!!” I kept frantically searching for the line of sight.
But of course, it didn’t work. Alchemist was right. Pissed off and dejected, I wandered back and let Alchemist fold me into their arms.
“I thought I had something,” I muttered irritably.
Alchemist just pulled me gently closer. Not knowing what else to do, I leaned into them and brushed my lips against theirs. But I still just felt stupid. Why was I wasting my time kissing someone irrelevant like Alchemist when I had more important things to do?!
A few hours later, just when I had almost forgotten about it, I randomly saw the peephole again. Or maybe a different peephole, I couldn’t really tell. This time, I wasn’t going to mess it up. I slowly worked my way in the direction it was pointing, methodically lining up my eye with each rock in the sequence to make sure I still had it. Alchemist followed along, sometimes pausing to look down the peephole for a while.
It went on for a long time. I didn’t see anything new, though. Finally, I got tired and sat down with Alchemist again.
“It’s teasing me,” I complained. “Making me think I have a chance. But it’s just going to keep doing this to me forever.”
“It’s, okay –”
“No it’s not,” I snapped. I didn’t want to be snapping at Alchemist, but it came out before I could think. Dejectedly, I looked again in the direction we were going. I wasn’t expecting there to be anything there. There was just more fog. Except… “Wait. Is that –” I jumped up and ran a few steps forward, peering into the fog.
Sure enough, there was something there. Not far in front of us, the ground ended. A cliff dropped away downwards. “Hey! Check this out!” I yelled.
“Rinn –” began Alchemist sadly.
“Come on, I really found something this time!”
“Hey! Check this out!” my voice came echoing back to me. So this wasn’t just a cliff, it was an enormous gorge.
I stepped right up to the edge. Alchemist followed a few steps behind. The wall of the gorge went down further than I could see through the fog, and there was a strong breeze blowing up from the depths. Along the wall, there were long ramps zigzagging back and forth, offering paths to walk downwards.
“Maybe it wasn’t a trick after all! Let’s see what’s down there!” I headed for one of the ramps.
Alchemist’s hand tugged me back.
“What are we waiting for?! This is the first new thing we’ve seen in days! This could be our way out of this desert!!”
“When you’re, looking for a way out, it doesn’t, make you feel good…”
“I’m not TRYING to feel good, I’m trying to get OUT of here!!” I yanked my hand away from Alchemist. “You can stay back here and keep wasting your time if you want to! I’m going to DO something!”
Alchemist’s mouth opened and closed a little. They stared back at me, distraught.
In my frustration, I didn’t want to care how Alchemist felt, but it still hit me like a stab in the gut. “I, uh, I didn’t mean that,” I said through gritted teeth. “Look, I’m going to, uh, go. Like, for a walk.”
It hurt me to leave Alchemist on that sour note, but with all the thundering impatience in my head, I couldn’t get myself to say anything nicer either. I stood up and stomped off before I could make things worse.
Not sure where to go, I picked out one of the ramps into the gorge. At least that way there’d be more new stuff to distract me. As I walked through the cold, damp air, it took me zigzagging back and forth, down and down into the gorge, until the fog was too thick to see my way back up.
As I walked, I thought about what I’d been doing. Alchemist was right, it wasn’t making me feel good. And what was I even getting out of it? It wasn’t like the Seeking God was going to give me what I wanted. Worse, every time I played along with its tricks, I was basically handing it more power over me. The Blood God might want a way out, but now that I thought about it, even the Blood God part of me didn’t want me to end up just dancing to the Seeking God’s tune. If I was going to get anywhere, I should be doing it on my own terms. But how was I supposed to do that? How would I beat a god that could transport me through space whenever it wanted? Maybe if Yali was here, she’d have some genius way to do that. Ugh.
The wind was brisk and cold. I felt pretty alone, standing in the middle of a cliff face that went up and down as far as I could see. I didn’t want all these gods. I wanted something I could do for me. What could I do that I was in control of? What could I do here?
Well… Alchemist was here. I wanted Alchemist to be happy.
But thinking about that made the rage flare up inside me. This is no time to just sit around doing nice things for Alchemist!
“What the fuck is it time to do, then?!” I yelled.
I have to do SOMETHING! This isn’t right! This isn’t enough! I was getting sick of these thoughts. If only I didn’t have the Blood God looking over my shoulder all the time.
“You are not me,” I shouted into the void. “I don’t care what you want! I don’t care about your fucking murder quest! And I’m sick of you trying to take away my chance to enjoy being with Alchemist when there’s nothing we can even do anyway! And so, I am going to go back up there, and be everything Alchemist wants me to be! I will treat them like an absolute princess! I mean, a… whatever the non-binary equivalent of princess is! A princ… uh… whatever, actually even if they were a dude I’d still say I was going to treat them like a princess! So that’s what I’m going to do! You hear me?!”
The wind howled through the gorge in front of me. From the part of me that was the Blood God, I felt… Pain. Despair. Empathy. Anger tearing in more than one direction. It was hard to tell what it was really feeling. But with the way it was fighting with itself, it definitely wasn’t united against me. I was the strong part. I was the one who knew what I wanted.
Satisfied, I started the long trek back up the wall of the gorge.
When I got up to the edge, I walked over to Alchemist. “Hey,” I said softly. I gave them a gentle hug. “I got some things figured out about myself. I’m sorry about earlier. Let’s do things your way.”
From then on, I let Alchemist take the lead about how much to explore. We spent a lot more time just resting, cuddling, wandering around, playing and drawing pictures in the sand. Alchemist told me more about their family, and I told them some things about my life too. I steered away from my family, because I was sure I would just end up complaining about them. I mostly told Alchemist about fun times I’d had with Layo. Out of all my friends, Layo was the only one who was really into wholesome stuff.
A lot of the conversations ended with Alchemist crying about how much they missed their family. I couldn’t help but feel bad for them. They had never lived away from home – not that I had, either, but I would have if I could – and the Ravelling had taken them totally by surprise. Their family was probably worried sick about them. I told Alchemist it was okay if they didn’t want to talk about it, but they just kept talking about it and making themself sad. So I mostly just listened and cuddled and manifested tissues for them.
Still, it wasn’t that long before Alchemist was curious about the gorge. When we went to explore it, I walked along ahead of them, manifesting guardrails everywhere so they wouldn’t have to be nervous. Alchemist moved slowly, looking up and down, occasionally pausing to touch weird rock formations. I kept wanting to run ahead, but I stopped myself. That would just be the same thing I’d been doing before, that made me and Alchemist argue. So instead, I followed what Alchemist was doing. When Alchemist paused to look at a rock, I paused and looked at one next to it. When Alchemist moved on to something else, I moved on to something else. When Alchemist was curious about something up out of reach, I manifested raised platforms for us both to climb up on.
I ended up noticing a lot more things that way. The rocks had subtle patterns all over them, gray-on-gray swirls that never seemed to repeat themselves. The wind didn’t blow in the same direction everywhere, and there were spots where it was blowing upwards in one place and downwards just a step away. It felt like all the patterns were connected to each other, I just couldn’t see how. Alchemist said the wind reminded them of a book they read about climate and weather patterns. They rambled for a while about some details they remembered, occasionally manifesting one of the pictures from the book to show me. It was kind of adorable. It turned out that Alchemist knew a lot of weird facts about a lot of different subjects, if you just stayed quiet long enough for them to start talking. They always had trouble putting things into words, but a lot of the time they filled in the gaps by manifesting images and shapes. I had trouble understanding at first, but I didn’t have anything else to do, so I sat around and listened. Surprisingly quickly, I started to get an intuition for what Alchemist meant, even when they weren’t explaining themselves clearly.
Was this “making progress by not trying”? Was the Seeking God trying to show me some sort of lesson here? Ugh, it had no right to force lessons on me at a time like this. But it was nice being with Alchemist. I didn’t have to worry about that right now.
Without fanfare, we reached the bottom of the gorge. There was another sandy floor down here, a wide, flat strip of sand going down the length of the gorge, just before the opposite wall went up above us.
I could feel that Alchemist wanted to rest. I set about manifesting my usual couch, laying out all of Alchemist’s favorite cushions just how they liked them.
Alchemist didn’t sit down right away. They hesitated.
“What’s up?” I said.
Alchemist didn’t answer. They wobbled back and forth a little. Finally, they said, “I think I’ll, maybe, take a walk? If that’s okay?”
“Oh, of course it –” I jumped right up. “…Oh. You meant without me.” Alchemist gave a tiny nod. “Well, I mean – that’s okay – of course. Go ahead.” I sat back down, deflated.
Alchemist half-nodded again. “I’ll, be back,” they muttered. Then they shuffled off into the fog.
I wasn’t sure what to do without them there. What could I do to keep myself entertained by myself? Thinking about that reminded me of when I was alone with Yali in the first layer. I didn’t want to think about Yali right now, because that would just bring up my bad thoughts again. So I threw myself into preparing for when Alchemist would be back. I made a whole cozy little room for us, like a little cottage with walls keeping out the wind. I remembered that they liked the smell of old books, so I manifested a whole bookshelf full of old books. I wasn’t thinking about what bookshelf to use, and it ended up being a shelf of kids’ books from the library from when I was younger. I almost decided to unmanifest it and use something else, but then I thought, why not? Alchemist might think it was cute. Of course, then I spotted a particular kids’ book that had made me mad when I was a kid because the ending was really unfair. So I took that book out and ripped it up. And then I unmanifested it so Alchemist wouldn’t know I’d been ripping stuff up.
Alchemist still wasn’t back.
I filled up the rest of the walls with all kinds of nice things I thought they’d like, like little sculptures, flowerpots with plastic flowers, and paintings of landscapes. I even put up a giant banner that said WELCOME BACK ALCHEMIST, but then I felt like it might put them on the spot, so I took it down again.
Finally, I didn’t have anything more to do, and Alchemist still wasn’t back. All the stuff was set up, but it just felt like kind of a waste. I was just bored and alone.
I checked the time on my phone.
It had been a few hours since Alchemist left. They hadn’t said how long they were going to take, but I had kind of assumed it wouldn’t be this long. I kind of wanted to go after them. No, what I wanted was for them to come back normally so I wouldn’t have to push them if they actually just needed space. But did they just need space, or had the god done something weird again? Something that Alchemist might not know how to handle? Actually, that seemed disturbingly likely. Reluctantly, I got up and followed after them.
It turned out they weren’t even that far away. I found them was sitting on the ground, with a bunch of geometric shapes drawn in the sand in front of them. Their hands slowly traced over the shapes. It looked like that was comforting to them. They had definitely been crying.
When I got close, Alchemist noticed me.
“Oh… you came…” they said unhappily.
“I was just worried – if you need more space away from me, I can –”
“It’s not, that…”
I approached them cautiously, trying to be gentle. “Okay, then, what is it? Come on, talk to me.”
“This doesn’t… feel right.” Alchemist went quiet for a while. I stayed quiet to let them continue. “I can tell, you, have been trying, so hard, to, care for me. And Morrow, told me, how, you, maybe, fought so hard, to, keep him safe, when he was, hurting himself. Having you work so hard, for us… it just, doesn’t feel right.”
“But… I care about you! Why shouldn’t I work hard for you?!” I couldn’t stop a note of desperation from creeping into my voice. I had poured myself into Alchemist in these last days, and now it felt like they were tugging it away from me.
“You’re so young. Me and Morrow…”
“Don’t turn all Stern on me! I can make my own decisions!” I snapped. “How the fuck old are you, anyway?”
“I’m nineteen…” I had already assumed Alchemist was older than me, so that wasn’t too surprising. “Morrow’s twenty-five.”
I stared, open-mouthed. “You kidding me?! No way! He doesn’t look twenty-five. He doesn’t act twenty-five. And how the fuck did you even get him to tell you how old he was? I couldn’t get him to!”
“I, didn’t? He, didn’t, tell me. It was… things. There were some shows he, said things from, and, things from the news, that he might not know, if he was just my age. He was… so… upset, when I realized. He made me promise not to tell anyone…” Alchemist cringed. “Oh… I forgot…”
“Don’t worry, he won’t hear about it from me.” Alchemist stared at me. “Wait, shit.” Morrow was going to read Alchemist’s mind, and then he’d find out that Alchemist had told me. And then he’d also find out that I’d tried to cover it up! “I mean, just don’t think about it when he’s around!”
Yeah, great job, Rinn. Great advice.
“Okay, that was stupid of me. But, I’m sure Morrow won’t be mad. He’ll know you didn’t mean to do it.”
I sat down alongside Alchemist. They leaned towards me, then leaned away uncomfortably. Were they still worried that they were, like, taking advantage of me or something?
“Look,” I said softly, “I like you. Whenever I can do something that makes you smile, that makes me happy, too.” At least, more happy than my own stuff would make me feel. “So whenever I’m, like… helping you out and stuff, that’s what I want to be doing. You know me, I need to have something to do all the time. If I wasn’t doing this, I’d be doing… you know, that other stuff… and neither of us wants that. So please, just let me do this for you.”
I held out my hand. Alchemist brushed their fingers against mine, but didn’t really hold my hand. “I don’t know… I, like you too, this just, doesn’t feel…”
“Doesn’t feel right? Sure, maybe it isn’t. But whatever the right thing is, I’m pretty sure it got taken off the table months ago, by the gods. And this… this isn’t so bad. I’ve been… happy, most of the time, and I’ve been learning a lot from you – ugh, that’s probably what the Seeking God wants. But really, this isn’t so bad.”
Alchemist seemed to relax a little. They took my hand, their warm fingers rubbing on my palm. They were so good at expressing themselves without words. I could just feel the renewing sense of togetherness flowing from their fingers. They turned their head and gave me a long mournful look. “Mmmm, thank you, Rinn. I know, being stuck here with me, isn’t what you wanted.”
“The ‘being with you’ is great! It’s just the being stuck that’s bad!” I laughed. “I wish we could have met some other way, then we could’ve – actually, wait a minute, if I hadn’t been stuck with you, I don’t know if I’d have gotten to know you. Wow. Just, wow. Is that the Seeking God’s lesson for me this time? The whole way it’s not letting us out of this desert – I mean, it’s still a massive jerk move, but maybe –”
The sand disappeared under us.
With a surge of adrenaline, I braced myself in the air and landed on my feet. Beside me, Alchemist wasn’t so lucky.
We had landed in some sort of big unfinished construction area. Concrete floor, piles of bricks everywhere, surrounded by a square of half-finished brick walls. And above the walls, there was just white emptiness, as if someone had started painting this room on a piece of paper but then got bored halfway through. But one of the walls was different. Instead of bricks like the others, it was a wall of shimmering black, just like the portal from the last layer. I didn’t see five separate portals, so maybe there was just a big one for all of us?
“Wait, is that the portal?” I said. “Are we done? That was anticlimactic.”
I helped Alchemist up, then kept looking around. Over in the other corner, there were another three people. There was Morrow and Justicar, who were currently handcuffed together and fighting with each other as they tried to stand up. And – there she was!
Two tides of feeling surged within me. Finally, finally, after so many days, she was here again! Inside me, there was a struggle for control, between the part that wanted to run and hug her, and the part that wanted to charge and rip her to pieces. But I knew which part was me and which wasn’t. I bore down on the second part with all my will, and it wavered. Grinning triumphantly, I stomped it down. Stay in your corner, Blood God, I thought loudly. I am going to love Yali, and cherish her, and give her all the care and respect she deserves, no matter what you make me feel. And if you think you can make me lift a finger to hurt her, you’re stupider than I thought.
I felt the rage inside me subside. It was like the Blood God had given up and decided to sulk instead. Yeah, that’s what I thought.
Confidently, I strode across the room, walked up to Yali, and clasped her in a firm embrace.
Yali hugged me back. But after a moment, she stopped and looked at me seriously. “You’ve gotten the Blood God’s attention.”
I smirked. “Haha, guess it finally got the idea I won’t let it push me around!”
“I know it feels that way, but this isn’t just something to be happy about. It could be a great danger. I had hoped that we could get through the whole Ravelling without the Blood God being aware of how actively you were resisting it. But now… I can feel it. Things are shifting. I think it’s going to try something, when we enter the next layer. And the other gods are starting to notice a change, too.”
I gaped at her. “I thought I was doing a good job!! Does everything I do actually suck?!”
“I’m not, I’m not, not saying you did anything wrong –”
Meanwhile, Alchemist and Morrow were having a moment, too. Once someone had unmanifested the handcuffs, they had run up to each other and started making out. But then Morrow started panicking. “It’s okay it’s okay!!” said Morrow frantically. “It’s no big deal if everyone knows –” Morrow jumped and waved for everybody’s attention “– if everyone knows I’m twenty-five, that’s right, I’m twenty-five years old, everybody! See, it’s no big deal!”
Justicar raised an eyebrow slightly. “What prompted this outburst?”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said.
Justicar glanced back at me. “I doubt whether we should believe he is twenty-five,” she said. “Come to think of it, we are an unusual combination of ages for Ravellers, are we not?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“She’s right,” said Yali. “It’s not that rare to have a twenty-five-year-old Imminent, but it’s a little unusual that we’re all young adults –”
I squinted. “You’d call Justicar a young adult?”
“I see you have not learned tact since our last meeting,” said Justicar.
“Whatever. How old are you, anyway?”
“If you must know, I am twenty-eight.”
Yali continued, “A lot of Imminents are children, like, preteens. Alchemists can be any age, so on average, they’re older than this. And I’m the rarest one. Most Farseers are at least middle-aged, if not elderly. There have been a few children, but never a teenager –”
“There was a fifteen-year-old Farseer in the year after the Year of Prophecy,” Justicar interrupted.
“Never in the last seventy years, at least.”
“I suppose that’s true –”
“What about me?” I said.
Yali answered, “Blood Children are usually teenagers. Sometimes younger, as the name implies, but –”
“I hate being the normal one!”
“It’s okay. Justicar is normal, too.”
Justicar and I glared at each other.
Suddenly, there was a crash of falling bricks. Morrow had knocked a hole in one of the walls, and now he was sticking his arm through into the white space beyond. Justicar rushed over to stop him.
I just watched her go. This was just some regular Morrow stuff, I didn’t have to pay attention to it. Plus, the place I really wanted to be was with Yali.
I grabbed onto Yali and kissed her sloppily. Then I kissed her again. “Oh gods, Yali, I’ve missed you so much.”
Yali smiled. “It’s nice to see you alive.”
I squeezed her tight. “I know, I can’t believe the –” Then I noticed exactly what she’d said. “Oh gods, was I gonna die?!”
“No, no… it’s just, the Seeking God, since the beginning of this layer, it’s been showing me these, these, moral dilemmas. And a lot of them have been like, ‘if Rinn was dying, would you cut off your right arm to save her?’. And it didn’t, like, ask that in words, it showed me a vision and had me act out what I would do. So it’s just –”
“What did you do?”
“In that one? I mean, I cut my arm off –”
I looked up into her eyes. “You’d actually cut your arm off to save me?! Oh my gods oh my gods oh my gods –”
“That was one of the easier choices, actually, I mean, when you think about it, my life wouldn’t be that much different without my arm, it would just take a while to get used to –”
“You’re crazy!” I hugged her even tighter than before.
“There were a lot of ones that were harder. But I learned a lot about myself, about what I would and wouldn’t do. And it turned out that there’s almost nothing I wouldn’t do to keep us both alive. But the really hard questions were things related to… to… oh, never mind. The Seeking God just made me think about this for weeks, I’m allowed to stop thinking about it for now.” She kissed me back.
“Yeah, fuck the Seeking,” I said halfheartedly. Yali was here now, I couldn’t be mad. I buried myself in her big, warm, squishy body. She was my everything, my one love – well, maybe not one love now – ugh, yeah, even right now, my feelings for Alchemist were running strong when I thought about them.
“So, uh… me and Alchemist…” I began. “We kinda –”
“Future, remember?” She smirked a little. She looked around to make sure the others weren’t paying attention, then muttered, “I even did a future where I asked you two to make out with each other in front of me. It was, was, kinda hot.”
“WHAAAAAAAAT???” Oh gods, I had forgotten how hardcore Yali was. Suddenly it came rushing back – all my feelings of how much she blew me away. I had, like, NOTHING to worry about as far as forgetting her for Alchemist, haha.
Something felt unsteady under my feet. I shifted and looked around. Something was off, and in a moment, I realized what it was. The whole room was slowly tilting. It was going to dump us into the portal!
“What?” I yelled at by god. “You’re done with us, so now you’re just going to dump us out? Or –” I hung onto Yali nervously “– is that really the portal? It’s just so anticlimactic, I’m thinking maybe it’s a trick by the god, or something –”
Yali took a good look at it. “No, that’s definitely the portal. We all have to go into it.”
“It’s just, it doesn’t feel like we finished anything!”
“It wouldn’t. The Seeking God isn’t really about, about… conclusions.”
“Fuck! I can’t believe it only just let me see you and now we’re getting dumped out again! And we’re going to be in the Stern God’s world next, too, this is gonna suck!” The floor was definitely tilting more and more. “Hey, Alchemist! Get over here! And the rest of you too –”
We all gathered in a little cluster. I tried to pull everyone into a group hug, which almost worked. “Okay, everyone,” I growled, “the Seeking God is about to dump us unceremoniously into that portal. But we’re gonna do it our own way. Let’s all line up and step through the portal together!” I grabbed Yali’s hand in one hand, and Alchemist’s hand in the other. Morrow caught on right away and attached himself to Alchemist, leaving only Justicar standing by herself.
“You can go on the end with Morrow,” I said, just as Justicar stepped towards the end with Yali. But she stopped and did what I said, reluctantly taking Morrow’s hand. Morrow tried to prank her by yanking his hand away, but she was too quick for him, and she caught his hand in a viselike grip.
“Alright, let’s –” I began.
Yali squeezed my hand hard. “Remember,” she whispered, “the Blood God is going to try something. Don’t let it succeed. I’m trusting you.”
Oblivious to Yali, Morrow shouted, “Yeeeaaahh, let’s do this thing!!” He rushed forward into the portal, dragging the rest of us with him. As Alchemist’s hand dragged me forward, I frantically looked back at Yali. The last thing I saw was her eyes drilling into mine as my body slipped into the well of magic.