Chapter Fourteen: The Priorities of Justice
Content warnings for this chapter:
Details of depressed thoughts, including dissociation and anhedonia; combat and fear of death; child abuse and neglect, including sexual abuse, with no physical details and no long scenes of abuse, but many details about the social and emotional context, including adults refusing to believe that the abuse happened, told as a retrospective summary.
If you see other material that should be marked (such as common triggers or phobias), e-mail me. I am serious about web accessibility, and I will respond to your concerns as soon as I can manage.(hide content warnings)
My eyes followed the point of Justicar’s sword hovering in front of me.
“So you’re gonna kill me,” I said hollowly. I was still sitting with my back to one of the statues. I could have gotten up to face her, but what was the point? In the state I was in, I wouldn’t stand a chance against her.
“I have no choice,” replied Justicar.
“You have to kill me when I’m helpless,” I said bitterly.
“Were you helpless when you struck the Farseer?”
I had nothing to say to that. She was right. I was no better than a murderer.
“But I understand your meaning. To that, you must consider the position I am in. If need be, the Stern God will grant me weapons capable of damaging the fabric of the Otherworld itself. But it has always been my duty to minimize the harm that is done. That is why I must take the opportunity I have been given. I must finish this while you are too weak to summon soulfire.”
“Soulfire? What’s that?”
Justicar looked at me incredulously. “A Blood Child three layers deep, and you can’t even summon soulfire?”
“See? I’m not what you think I am!” I said desperately, not trying to convince Justicar as much as I was trying to convince myself. “You don’t understand –”
“I understand enough! I was told that you could hold back the Blood God, and for a time, I was foolish enough to consider it. But you are a Blood Child through and through, and now, you have crossed the final boundary. From here on, your very existence places us all in danger.”
“No, no, no…” I moaned.
“I am sorry. But there is nothing I can do for you except to make this quick and painless.”
She stepped forward. The sword rose up in an arc, gleaming with a white light, a numbing light that held me transfixed and tried to erase every thought of fear and pain.
For a long moment, the sword hung high in the air above me.
A strange relaxation came over me. So this was it. It would all be over soon. The sword would enter my body. I would die. There would be no one left to put Yali in danger. She would go on. She at least would escape from this place. Even if I didn’t get to escape our fate myself, at least my sacrifice would –
Don’t you dare sacrifice yourself for me.
It was like my body moved out of its own accord. It flung itself sideways just as the sword swung down. It was so close that the side of the blade bruised my elbow as it passed. Rolling, I staggered to my feet, my muscles screaming from being yanked without a chance to prepare.
I was barely on my feet when the sword came at me again. I leapt to the side, barely fast enough to hear the woosh in my ear as it missed.
I had no time to think. Death was waiting just an arm’s length away. Desperately, I wrenched a Blood Blade out of the air. Even that was a strain. I felt like my blood was far away from me, like I had to pull it from the bottom of a deep well. And the moment the blade was in my hand, Justicar’s sword was already whirling towards my eyes. I had to twist my body to block it, both hands shoving my Blood Blade up in its way.
The two blades met with a sickening thud. I felt mine crack in my hand, terrible fractures spreading throughout its body from the force. I leapt backwards, trying to put even a moment’s space between me and the onrushing death.
The Justicar stepped towards me, unhesitating, inevitable. I tried to stumble away, breathing hard, my thoughts blank with terror. How could I ever stop her?! She seemed invincible. I reached out wildly in my mind for an answer, grabbing onto anything I could think of.
A thin shred of rage answered me, fragile but blinding. “I don’t deserve this!” I screamed, trying to make it real. Justicar. How could she do this to me?! Just days ago, we had spoken to each other! She had told me about her life, and I had told her about mine! And now she would toss that away like so much trash?! If only I could reach her! If only –
The words sprang to my lips. “Am I worthy of my blood?” I demanded.
“Are your victims worthy of theirs?”
The truth burned inside me. If she was trying to turn my question around, that meant her heart still held some guilt about what she was doing. And that meant I had a hook in her. “Answer me, yes or no!” I yelled.
“Do not imagine that I enjoy killing! I would like nothing more than to say that no one has to die! But what of the Farseer? What of the hundreds or thousands who will die if the Blood God is allowed to rejuvenate, as its rage infects our city once again?”
Justicar leapt at me again, her sword swinging in a powerful arc. But when she had paused to argue her case, she had given me just enough time to get my bearings. With that scrap of rage had come a fragment of my old power. I had the right to protect my life at all costs, to make her burn and bleed if she would not back down. And now, I saw my chance.
As the sword came down, I allowed one of my Blood Blades to lose its shape, flowing over my palm and fingers like a glove. I caught the sword in my hand, my blood closing around the blade and trapping it in place. I knew I’d only have an instant before Justicar would understand my strategy and free her sword again. So in an instant, I rushed forward, focusing all of my will to form a blade in my other hand and aiming it towards her. It was like my vision narrowed to a tiny window. The only thing that mattered was the point of my blade, zooming forward and inwards, ready to stab into the exposed skin of Justicar’s face.
I saw Justicar react, moments too late. My blade landed squarely onto her cheek.
And then it stopped.
My bones shook with the force of the blow. Justicar lifted one hand from the hilt of her sword and took the tip of my blade between her fingers. She firmly pushed it aside, making it scrape over her cheek like it was my fingernails being scraped over concrete. And once her fingers passed off of the side of her face, they revealed a smooth and flawless cheek, without a trace of a scratch to be seen.
I stumbled away, uncomprehending. “How?” I gasped. How had my only weapon been so powerless to injure her?
“I told you, did I not? The Stern God’s will protects me from all physical harm.”
“No fair,” I said, my voice breaking.
“The battle between good and evil should not be fair,” Justicar declared. “The Stern God understands this. And that is why the Stern has granted me the power to do what must be done. None of your grasping has had the slightest chance to change this. Do you imagine that you have been cheated of a victory, only for want of a more powerful weapon? The Blood God does not even comprehend what it is fighting against. A Justicar is not simply a human who will fold over when struck with a blade. Even if you find a way to pierce my defenses, even if you tear my heart from my chest, the will of the Stern God will always carry me forward.”
She advanced towards me.
Before I got five steps, I crashed headfirst into a wall of steel. Desperately, I pressed my palm to the cold metal, trying to unmanifest it by force. It flickered for a moment – not enough for me to pass through, but enough for me see behind it. And behind it… was a second wall, which Justicar had placed there while I was struggling with the first.
Hopelessly, I turned around again.
Justicar was still advancing towards me, barely more than a sword’s length away. Every road away from here was already blocked off by steel. I couldn’t fight. I couldn’t run.
“Get away from me!” I screamed. I reached out desperately for anything that could keep her away. I stuck out my hands and summoned a jagged mass of fragments, a thornbush of Blood Blades jutting out in all directions. I felt like I was pouring out the last of my heart.
Justicar sized it up, raised her sword, and shattered her way through my thorns with a single blow.
When the Blood Blades broke, I broke. The little strength I had left drained out of me. My body dropped to the floor, sprawling limply against the feet of the statues. Dimly, distantly, I could feel the pain and terror and longing. But I couldn’t move, couldn’t speak, couldn’t form a coherent thought. I was completely empty.
Justicar stood over me and raised her sword for a final time. A tiny part of me screamed that it was time to roll out of the way, but my body did not hear it. Not a muscle moved to take me out of her path.
“By the Stern, the Waiting, and every soul you place in danger,” she declared. And then she plunged her sword into my unmoving chest.
The pain reached me as a distant echo. I watched, unfeeling, as my blood oozed from the edges of my wound. It was over… I didn’t have to fight anymore…
As my consciousness flickered, I tried to whisper her name. I couldn’t even whisper. I tried to think her name, holding onto the one thing that still made me feel a tiny flicker of heart.
And then it almost seemed like she was there with me, standing solidly between me and Justicar, striking back to protect me…
She… actually was?
My mind raced to catch up with what was happening. Somehow, Yali had appeared right in front of me, fully solid and already in motion, crashing into Justicar and jabbing two fingers into the side of her throat.
Justicar leapt backwards, ripping her sword out of my body. “Was that a Severing Step?” she demanded. “That is not a normal Farseer power!”
“I’m not a normal Farseer.” Yali’s voice was cold and vicious. In the next instant, she whipped out a weapon of her own – a crude spike that buzzed with sorcery, glowing with a greenish, crackling light that felt like it was stabbing into my eyes.
Justicar stood across from her. With one hand, she still held her sword, dripping with my blood. With the other, she touched her neck, where Yali had struck her. The mark of the Watchful Eye was already blossoming there. “You had the advantage of surprise, and you chose only to place the Eye? You must be very confident that you can defeat me.”
“I am,” said Yali grimly. “If you had killed Rinn Akatura, you would already be dead.”
That was funny. Justicar had killed me. I was dead, wasn’t I?
Not taking her eyes off of Justicar, Yali knelt down beside me. “Take this,” she said out of the corner of her mouth. She handed me a potion.
I struggled to hold the potion in my hand. My arms didn’t even want to lift up off the floor. Still concentrating on Justicar, Yali carefully moved the potion to my lips. Obediently, I tried to swallow. I felt like I was choking. Half the potion spilled down my chin. But a little found its way down my throat. It started warming me on the inside. Just a little, like a candle on a cold night. But it was something.
Satisfied, Yali stood again. “Now begone. Leave us before I change my mind.”
Justicar’s sword pulsed with white light. For a moment, I was afraid that she would attack again. But she was only cleaning it, making the blood vanish from its surface. A moment later, she slid it back into its sheath. She stood at the far edge of the intersection, about to leave us. “Just tell me one thing,” she said. “I would understand if you only chose to stand against me. The wills of our gods are not always in alignment. But you, every step of the way, have chosen a path that is far astray from the path of the Waiting God. I cannot fault you for standing against my god, but who are you to defy your own?”
Yali stared at Justicar for a long moment. Then she laughed – a long, cold, hollow laugh that rang out like a bell and seemed to shake the very statues around us.
“Who am I? I am Yali Seti, the betrayed daughter of Arinyo Seti, high priest of the Waiting God. I was six years old when she was called by the Waiting God to be its vessel. Six years old when she chose that call above her duty to protect me. Any god who would ask someone for that, is no god of mine.”
Justicar tensed. Visible anger crossed her face. “The gods always have their reasons! You, of all people – for something that you didn’t understand when you were a child –”
“You have nothing to say that will change my mind. Now begone.”
“Very well,” said Justicar coldly. She adjusted the position of the sword on her belt. “But there will be a reckoning. I promise you that.”
She strode away, with Yali glaring after her.
The moment Justicar was out of sight, Yali rushed to my side, all her grim determination replaced with panic. She put her hands around my arm and shoulder, clumsily trying to pull me up into a better sitting position.
“You don’t need –” I began.
“Shhhh! Don’t talk yet! Take the rest of your potion!”
“I’m okay,” I said weakly. “See, it’s already heal– ow–” I patted my side where Justicar’s sword had stabbed through me. There was still a hole in my shirt, but the wound in my body had closed up.
“No, you are not!” Yali thundered. “Your soul is still damaged! Half of that skin is a manifested patch! If you don’t take more of the potion, you will die!”
“Okay, okay…” I let Yali feed me the dregs of the potion. Then she tried to collect up some of the part that had spilled. Luckily, it was pretty gooey. She managed to wipe part of the spill from my neck and let me lick it off her fingers. I almost drifted off, just sucking on her fingers, but Yali kept talking at me, insisting I stay alert. Still, the potion was definitely making me feel a little better, life oozing back into my body.
Yali examined my wound again. It must have satisfied her, because she settled down from an outright panic to just drawn-out anxiety. “It’s enough to keep you alive…” she said uneasily. “I’m sorry, I didn’t think of, I, I should have brought a second potion, I –”
“Look, I… ’ll be fine…” I muttered, straining to speak. “Alchemist can make another… And as long as you’re around to kick Justicar’s ass if she tries anyth…”
Yali’s face turned ashen.
“I was bluffing,” she whispered back. “I don’t have anything that could have hurt her.”
“What about –”
The spike she had been holding earlier was still lying near us, but its energy was already fading. She picked it up and stabbed it into her own hand, and it just fizzled into nothingness. “I tried to make Alchemist make a real weapon for me. Right after they made the Severing Step. But they couldn’t! They won’t think of how to hurt people even when they NEED to! If I’d had more time –”
“What’s a Severing Step? It’s how I got here in time. It’s a sorcery that temporarily severs the link between your body and the world around you, so that your soul can pull you to wherever you want to be in an instant –”
“An Alchemist power…?”
“I mean, Alchemist did it, but it’s just a regular type of sorcery that regular sorcerers can do, too. You just don’t hear about it much because it’s too dangerous to use in practice. No one wants to risk tearing their soul or –”
“You did something really dangerous… for me.”
“Of course I did. I will risk anything I need to, to keep us both alive.”
Yali blushed a little, but suddenly turned agitated again. “That doesn’t matter right now! The important thing is keeping you safe! I, I, I need to think! I don’t know what’s about to happen!”
It took me a moment to realize what that implied. “Wait, the Seeing –?”
“I don’t know why I didn’t see that this was going to happen! I used the Seeing! I specifically looked for danger! I didn’t see Justicar attacking you! Why couldn’t I find it?!”
“Could the Stern God… mess it up somehow?”
“I don’t know! It doesn’t feel like it! But, but, I don’t know! Until I understand why it didn’t work, I can’t assume that we’re safe, ever again! So! First of all, I am not leaving your side again, and I don’t care what you have to say about it!”
“Good! Now, second, we need to get you to Alchemist as soon as we can! And then we need to get you out of this layer before anything worse happens! But, but, how, how are we going to meet up with Alchemist? If I’d – I didn’t think of having a way to contact them –”
It was too much work to explain, so I just did it. I opened my mind, calling out for Morrow with my thoughts.
Almost immediately, I felt his voice in my head. Just like the first time, it sounded less like his voice and more like my own thoughts. But there was no mistaking the kind of things Morrow would think. What happened?? Did Yali beat Justicar?! Wait wait I’ve gotta tell Raylie, he’s so worried –
“Morrow. Please shut up,” I said out loud.
It was a lot of negotiating and confusion, trying to communicate through Morrow. I didn’t know how Alchemist could stand it all the time. But we managed to do it. We planned out a spot to meet up, mostly taking the Alchemist’s Path to meet each other.
Yali didn’t want me to walk. “I’ll carry you. No, no, that would jostle you too. We should, we should put you in one of those rolling hospital beds.” She stuck out her hands, but nothing happened. “I must not have one imprinted… I think I’ve only seen them in shows…”
“I think I was in one when my leg was broken…”
Manifesting was still agonizingly difficult, but I did it. So now here we were, Yali pushing me along in a hospital bed, occasionally shouting out to order the statues out of the way.
Being carted along in the bed gave me some time to process what had just happened. Or try to. My brain was still a mass of dull pain and shock. My train of thought drifted randomly. I babbled whatever came into my head. “I still can’t believe how badass you –”
The bed’s hard wheels click-click-clicked over the stone brick floor. I tugged at the sheets with my hand. The bed was a little stiff, but it kinda felt better than the floor where I’d been when I got stabbed with a sword.
“I guess now I know how it feels to get –”
“– stabbed with a sword, haha that’ll be fun to bring up at parties –”
It kind of didn’t even feel like something that had really happened. I mean, I was in the bed now. I was just lying limply in the bed, it didn’t really feel like I had been killed and had my death wiped away by the force of Yali. Yali… Seti…
“You’re actually the daughter of Arinyo Seti? I mean, I knew you had the same last name, but it’s a common name, I didn’t think…”
Yali frowned. But after a moment, she decided to answer. “It’s easier if people don’t know that about me.”
The thoughts slowly clicked into place in my brain. Yali’s mother, who wasn’t part of her life anymore… A mother who betrayed her… “Holy shit, is she the one who, uh… Wait, shit, I didn’t mean to bring that up, I’m sorry –”
Yali looked at me incredulously. Then she laughed her harsh laugh again. “I did ask you not to bring that up, didn’t I. But I see no reason not to tell you now.”
I see no reason not to tell you now. Her words were infinitely cold. Back in the material world, I had been curious about her past. I had been drawn to the intimacy of knowing everything about her, even her darkest struggles. But now that she was finally going to tell me… It felt so sudden and harsh. She didn’t say it like an intimate thing. She looked as emotionless as I felt. As she began her story, I couldn’t help feeling a slow sense of dread about what she was going to say next.
Arinyo Seti is not one of the people who abused me. But I can never forgive her for what she did do.
I will start at the beginning. My biological father died shortly before I was born. Arinyo Seti had never intended to raise me by herself. With her memory and attention issues, she knew that she was not prepared to live alone, much less to raise a child that way. In the home where I lived, trash piled up for weeks before she would clear it. More than once, the city shut off our water because she had forgotten to pay her bills. And even though she always made sure I ate before she did, there were some days when there was no food left in the house. We were not poor, and she had friends who were willing to help, but she rarely asked for help until I reminded her. By the time I was six years old, I was more organized than my own mother.
That was not her fault. That was not when she betrayed me.
I was only dimly aware of the negotiations for her to become high priest. There were long meetings for her to go to, meetings with the old high priest and his advisers, rituals where they consulted with the god. As a child, I was only aware of her absences. But I could also feel her hope for the future. She finally had a calling that gave her a sense of purpose. And I hoped for her too.
So when she explained to me that I would be given to another family when she was ordained as the high priest, I believed it was something I could accept. She explained that they would take care of me from then on, that they would give me the care and nurturing that she could not. She honestly believed that this was the way to give me the life I deserved. This was not when she betrayed me.
Pallivan and Miniri Dalner were praised and respected by everyone in our community. They were fashionable. They made huge donations to good causes. And everyone remembered their grand gestures of love for each other – surprise romantic messages that they delivered at their formal parties. They always laughed and smiled charmingly, and whenever they were praised, they always made a show of modesty.
And at the same time, they were a husband and wife who could not have children of their own. So it seemed only natural that they would be a good candidate to care for the high priest’s child when she was consumed by her duties. Everyone told me it was a perfect match. They said it was sad I would be away from my mother, but they could not imagine a better replacement.
At first, I thought they were right. I ate good food. I lived in a clean house. I missed my mother, but she had told me to trust the Dalners, and I believed her.
It was barely days before their performance fell apart. Everything they did in public was just an act to cover up how bitter and dysfunctional they were in private. They hated each other, they hated themselves, and before long, they hated me as well. There was hardly a day when they didn’t find a reason to yell at each other. I have a clear memory of a day when they blamed each other for hours over a stain on one of their tabletops. A stain I could barely even see. If either of them saw something that was out of its perfect order, it was the other one’s fault.
And if I ever spoke up to make them stop, they yelled at me as well. They called me worthless. They called me an inconvenience. I was no better than the furniture they tried to polish until the stain was invisible. I started making sure the house was in perfect order, hoping there wouldn’t be anything to set them off. But when Pallivan caught me trying to clean the house, he cornered me and berated me until I couldn’t speak, accusing me of trying to cover up for Miniri’s carelessness. I quickly learned to clean things up when no one was looking.
They had never wanted a child to love and nurture for her own sake. They had wanted a child because they thought, if they were forced to love and nurture a child, they could pretend that that was who they really were. They could complete the story they were telling themselves about who they were and what their relationship was. But they could not. And once they could no longer pretend, I was just another burden to them, a failed prop that they had no way to get rid of.
And since they couldn’t get rid of me, they put me to any use they could think of.
I was a child. I didn’t understand what sex was. But I had heard them. I had listened through the imperfectly soundproofed walls, trying to understand what made them moan, at one moment, “oh gods, I love you, how could I live without you,” and at another moment, “you pervert, you’re disgusting, if you get off on that then you’re a sick human being”.
And then there was the day when I walked in on them.
I understand that memories can be altered when we remember them. False memories are a thing that can happen. And the order of events I remember is impossible. But I have no doubt of what ultimately happened: They used me as a glorified sex toy. Maybe they were trying to spice up their sex life to forget everything that was wrong with the relationship. And for all their convoluted rules about which kinds of sex were disgusting or perverted, literally using a child’s body to pleasure themselves was not covered.
Once they had done it once, they did it again and again. Both of them raped me many times. Both together and separately.
I blamed myself for a long time. I no longer do. I do not allow those thoughts to have authority in my mind. I thought, “if only I had not given them the idea, by walking in on them that day, none of this would have happened.” Yes. Now I can even say it out loud without being afraid I will believe it. This time was easier than last time. That is good.
On other days, they cried and begged me not to tell anyone what they had done. They said it would ruin them. They accused me of tempting them into it. They accused me of despising them for their weakness. Because I was silent. Because I never cried or screamed. Because I had seen them for what they really were.
And I did what they told me to. I told almost no one. But. I. On one of our visits. Which happened every other week. On one of our visits. I told. My mother. What was happening.
She refused to believe me.
She told me she understood that I wasn’t happy with the Dalners. She told me she understood why I would make up a story to try to get her back. But she was the one who was making up a story because the truth was inconvenient for her! Maybe because I didn’t act upset, she thought she was allowed to not believe me. But she should have listened to what I was saying.
That is when she betrayed me. To keep her grand plan to serve the Waiting God, she could not admit to her mistake, even to save me from years of abuse. I will never forgive her for that. And I will never forgive the Waiting God for accepting her service after that. The Waiting God knows all, but it did nothing to protect me. My suffering was insignificant to it. No matter what it wants or why, no matter how much I seem to act out the Waiting God’s virtues, I refuse to let it puppeteer my life any longer.
But that is about the future, and I am not finished telling you about the past. The Dalners still had to keep up appearances. At eight years old, they sent me to a private boarding school, which is normal practice for the upper class in the First Ring. I later learned that they pretended to be sad when I was gone, pretended they were doing it for my sake. When they were around me, they only sometimes remembered to pretend. It was obvious that they did it to get rid of me, for nine months of the year.
I have been told it was a very good boarding school, but it was not what I needed. I liked it better than home, but I only did what I was told. I didn’t trust the teachers, especially not the ones who were nice. I didn’t like the other kids either. In those days, I had only one friend. Her name was Romhisat. I was very attached to her, but I treated her very badly. I didn’t have anyone else to play with, and whenever she didn’t want to play with me, I yelled at her until she did. One day she left me a note saying she couldn’t take it anymore and she didn’t want to be friends anymore. That day was the worst day of my life.
During school vacations, when I was at home, I ended up getting a lot more alone time. I had gotten more independent at the school, so the Dalners didn’t have to spend as much time taking care of me. And when they weren’t assaulting me, they wanted nothing to do with me. To keep me busy and quiet, they gave me the best computers and phones that money could buy. But that was their biggest mistake. I spent more and more time in my room, browsing the Internet, learning everything I could. And before long, I found information about child abuse. I had always known I wasn’t okay with what they were doing, but when I actually saw the lists that were like “this is what abuse is,” and checked off each thing, it felt different. It felt like something I should be able to stop. And not only that, but I hadn’t known that the sexual abuse was a crime. If it was a crime, there was something I could do about it, just as long as I could prove what was happening.
I began writing down everything they did. I wrote down dates and times, details of every abusive act. The more I paid attention to it, the more I noticed how even the little things were abusive. The way they talked to me. The way they talked to each other. And as soon as I could, I started making recordings with my phone. I installed an app that could record audio without displaying anything on the screen, so I wouldn’t get caught even if they saw it. And I knew their patterns. When they assaulted me, I sometimes managed to prepare by leaving my phone nearby in advance. To make sure the recordings would be incriminating, I begged them to stop out loud, being specific about what they were doing, so that their responses would prove I was telling the truth.
I didn’t show my records to anyone at first. At first, I didn’t want to risk someone disbelieving me again. Even once I knew I had undeniable proof, I still hesitated. But I knew that time was going by. By then, I was already twelve years old. There was already a chance that I could become pregnant from the rape. I hadn’t had my first period yet, so it was unlikely, but the longer I waited, the more likely it would become. And when I thought of what a pregnancy might lead to, I became increasingly certain that I needed to make my move.
I didn’t want to risk reporting while I was living at home. The Dalners had a lot of influence in the Waiting Temple, and I didn’t know how far they would go to silence me. So I planned to report them while I was away at school. As soon as I got off the bus, I went straight to an older girl who was the closest thing I had to a friend I could trust. I gave her a copy of my records and told her that if I didn’t come back, it meant the police couldn’t be trusted, so she should take my records straight to the press.
Then I snuck off the grounds and walked straight to the nearest police station, using only my phone to guide me.
The police didn’t believe me at first. From the things I’d read online, I knew that might happen, especially for an abuse survivor who didn’t show emotion, like me. So I had prepared for that. I just held up my phone and played back one of the recordings I’d made. Later, there were some unresolved questions about whether the recordings would be admissible in court, but at that moment, it shook them enough to make them listen to me.
After that, it was a long process. Over the next week, at least eight different people came to ask me questions. I’m not sure what they all were. One of them was a doctor, who examined me. Another one of them was a detective, I think. I liked him because he was very direct, he didn’t pretend to be nice. He called me “a perfect witness” and “my little psychopath”. He said I would make a good lawyer one day, and I am not sure whether it was a compliment.
And there were problems of jurisdiction. The police near the school were Stern police, but the crimes had been committed in the First Ring, where the Waiting Temple had authority. The Stern informed them of the situation, but for weeks, the Waiting did nothing. Since they weren’t following up on the case, the Stern made a formal request to take over the case, and the Waiting didn’t answer that request either. The detective told me they were probably dragging their heels because my case would be a scandal for the Waiting. I told him that if that was the problem, I could solve it by threatening to send my records to the press, so that they would have an even bigger scandal if they didn’t do anything. When I said that, he laughed and said he would take care of it. Within a few days, the case was transferred to the Stern.
After that, things went much easier. The Dalners were arrested the next day. Both of them pled guilty. They didn’t get the maximum sentence because the judge decided they had “previous good character”, but they still both got more than ten years in prison. I’ll be twenty-four years old before either of them is out. They also had to pay a huge fine, and they tried to do some legal maneuvers to avoid paying the fine, but it ended with the Stern Temple seizing their house and selling it, putting the money into a trust benefiting me.
I had succeeded. I should have been happy.
For years, I had kept myself going with the thought that if only I could prove what had happened, she would take me back, Arinyo Seti would take me back. But it was never something that was going to happen. She is Waiting, just as I am. She had made her commitments, and she would not change them for anything. She did not even tell me to my face. She wrote me a letter. It was a letter full of apologies and explanations. She wrote that everything that had been done to me was her own fault. That she did not know if she could ever be forgiven. And that I would be better off living my life far away from her.
Twenty minutes after I read that letter, I cried for the first time in years. I still wanted to believe that there was a home I could go back to. I didn’t want to believe that she was no more than a flawed, callous human. I still have that letter, in the drawer of my nightstand. Of all the things I own, it is the one I have the most feelings about.
Since Arinyo Seti would not take me back, and I had no other living relatives near the city, I was given into the custody of the Stern. For the next three years, I was raised and educated in a Stern monastery.
In a way, living at the monastery was easier. My life had been uprooted in every way, but the Stern gave me stability. The monks kept the same routine every day. They woke with the dawn, and there were bells that called us to each meal. The food was simple and filling, and it was the same every day. A few of the monks liked to complain about it, and they made the same complaints every day, too. It was a predictability that I had never had before. It gave me a chance to rest and relax, for the first time in my life.
Szaieto, the monk responsible for my upbringing, liked routines as much as I did. We had all our little rituals together. Every morning, he woke me up by tapping three times on my bedpost. I’ve actually recorded the sound of his tapping so I can use it as my alarm clock now that I live on my own. And after every meal, we had a hand gesture that we did – I can’t really describe it, but I can show you later.
But I was never happy there. For years, I had dedicated my life to a single purpose – escape. But once I had succeeded, I had no idea what to do with myself. I was deeply depressed during my years at the monastery, even if I did not show it on the outside. The monks had answers to a lot of questions, but, but, not that one. There was one other orphan near my age there, but I didn’t have anything in common with him.
So, last year, I asked for permission to live independently, and to attend a regular high school. I don’t think it was a normal thing to ask for in my situation. But Szaieto and the other monks had been very impressed by how organized and independent I was. They were sad to see me go, but they arranged for me to live in one of the houses the Stern Temple normally reserves for retirees. It’s technically rented from the Stern Temple, but it’s paid for out of the trust they set up after my parents – after the Dalners were convicted. So… that’s why I live there now. The arrangement is, I have a stipend that lets me take care of my basic needs, and the monastery sends someone to visit me once a week to make sure I’m getting along okay.
I guess there’s not much more to tell. School’s nice. The teachers at our school are too overworked to care if I’m paying attention, so I don’t have to. And I’ve gotten to meet other kids, like you. I would never have met you in a Stern monastery. School didn’t really help with the depression, though. But I’m not depressed now. I actually haven’t been depressed since I was chosen as the Farseer. I have a mission again. Every day I fill my mind with my plans for my mission, I don’t have time to be depressed.
Yali smiled joylessly. “Can you tell I’ve told this story before? It wasn’t this organized the first time. Except the parts after I left the monastery, that is. I haven’t told anyone about this since I came to our school. I wanted to try having a normal school life, just to try it.”
Her words kept echoing around my head like it was an empty cave. I felt like there were a million things I wanted to say, but none of them came to me. How? How could people be so horrible? I was supposed to be angry, to hate Pallivan and Miniri, and Arinyo Seti, for everything they had put her through. But there was an emptiness inside me where the anger should have been.
What could I say? What would Rinn Akatura say? I was supposed to say something, to sympathize, to have an answer to the whole picture of what she told me. But it was a picture of something I couldn’t comprehend. I could only stumble from tiny detail to tiny detail.
“I can’t believe your only friend left you…” I said hollowly. “Like, officially left you. On a specific day and everything…”
Yali answered matter-of-factly. “It was 100% my own fault. No child Romhisat’s age could have given me what I needed. I practically bullied her until she was a nervous wreck. It was one of the things I saw differently after I learned about abuse… Everything I know about healthy relationships, I learned online, years later. I was the abuser in that friendship, even if –”
“…you did that? You…?”
“You’ve only ever seen what I’m like when I’m with you,” she said simply.
It was true… Until now, I had hardly known anything about Yali’s life before we met. I had loved her and wanted to know everything about her, but she had never wanted to talk about herself. She had kept it all hidden… she’d even told me to – “Wait…” I said. “When you said I couldn’t tell anyone you were the Farseer…”
“She would have wanted me back,” said Yali bitterly. “If the Waiting Temple knew I mattered to their god, then they would have cared about me. It was one of the first things I used the Seeing for. I saw them take me away to their temples, I saw them give me all kinds of training to make me the best Farseer I could be. But I will never let the Waiting use me as their tool! Especially since I wouldn’t have gotten to see you again until we were facing off in the Otherworld!”
“Would they have… forced you? To do the training?”
“Yes! No, no, not exactly. The Waiting Temple is, is, complicated, the way they do things. But I wouldn’t have had a choice.”
“That’s horrible…” I breathed.
Yali squinted a little. “You really think so? I, I guess you do hate the temples. Most people don’t take my side when I talk about the Waiting Temple that way.”
“But it’s horrible, it’s, like, obvious…” I repeated weakly. I should have had a brilliant explanation for how messed up it was for the temples to coerce people into things, but I couldn’t think of it.
A few paces later, Yali suddenly looked relieved. “Justicar has gone through the portal,” she announced. “That’s at least one less danger while we’re still in this layer.”
That should have been a relief, but I didn’t feel it. My brain was still wandering, thinking about the Waiting Temple. “How did your mom get picked to be the high priest if she had a bad memory?” I asked. “Isn’t remembering the past really important to the Waiting?”
“Ah… she was always forgetting things she did earlier on the same day, but her memory for things that happened twenty years ago was flawless. In the Waiting tradition, people like that are actually considered blessed. It wasn’t a blessing for me,” Yali said sourly. But then she stopped herself. “But the Dalners did not have memory problems. If my mother’s memory problems were the only thing I had to deal with, I would have been able to live with that.”
I couldn’t believe how levelheaded Yali was, still finding room to piece out which flaws were forgivable. “You –” I began. I struggled to get my thoughts in order. “You, uh, you’ve really got this all figured out.”
“I do that, don’t I,” she said, not quite sounding happy about it.
We met up with Morrow and Alchemist right where we’d agreed to. They both rushed across the intersection to take a look at me. Yali stood in the way and shouted at Morrow to stay back.
Then she and Alchemist examined me together. Alchemist cried while they were doing it. For me, it was just tedious. I just had to sit still while they talked some technical soul stuff I didn’t understand.
They talked a lot about the residual damage, about how my soul had only been partially healed and then left like that for hours. Apparently, that was bad, but also good. It made things more complicated. Regular magical healing could only heal the body, by making it match what the soul expected. Alchemist’s potions could also heal the soul, by patching the damaged threads with new threads from the Broken God. But if there was a lot of damage, then it was hard to make it come out in the same shape as before. The partial healing had kept my soul mostly in its original shape, but it still complicated things.
Alchemist made me a series of different potions. All of them tasted different from each other, all subtle but unpleasant. I just drank them down as ordered. Eventually, they agreed that it was a success. My soul wasn’t quite the same as before, but it was pretty much whole again.
Then, Yali had Alchemist make her a bunch more potions. Potions of healing, of protection, of strength and speed. I could see Yali subtly trying to get Alchemist to make potions that would be useful for combat, without saying it directly. Maybe if she said it directly, Alchemist might have too many doubts to go through with it…
Alchemist shied away from making another Severing Step, too.
“Your soul, maybe, feels, changed? Maybe, when you used the first one,…”
“It would feel changed,” said Yali levelly. “I had a close call with the death of the one I love. The Severing Step didn’t hurt me.”
But Alchemist wasn’t convinced. They fussed over the idea uncertainly. Yali briefly looked in the future, then dropped the issue, to focus on potions that Alchemist was happier to make.
Once that was done, Alchemist wanted to stay and cuddle with me. And Morrow had a million questions about what had happened. But Yali was impatient to get moving. She all but physically blocked the others away from me, helping me up and making sure I could walk again. And then, we moved. She set a swift pace that I could barely keep up with, given my weakened state.
As we walked, Yali spoke with an edge of frustration. “This isn’t enough. I wanted more protection for you. I wanted to give you your own set of potions. But with whatever’s going on with you, you can’t assimilate them.”
She gave me a tired look. I couldn’t tell what it meant. Dully, she explained. “It’s like when you feel like something is part of you. Or at least connected to you, or yours. It forms a connection between your soul and the object – actually the same type of connection that lets us unmanifest our own manifested matter, but not someone else’s. In the portals, the only things that come with us are the ones we’ve assimilated. That’s why our clothes and phones came into the Otherworld with us, but not, like, the bench we were sitting on.”
“So if Alchemist made the potions, they’re connected to Alchemist instead of us…?”
“No, as long as Alchemist isn’t mentally holding onto them, we can take them and assimilate them. In fact, it should happen subconsciously. Except… you, you, just aren’t doing it. I can tell with my powers, but I don’t know why.”
“I know why,” I said bleakly.
“If you put a potion in my hand, I wouldn’t feel like it was mine. It would just be, like, a thing. A thing that’s there.”
“Oh. Of course.” She looked exhausted. We were both exhausted.
“I’ve felt that way before. I actually, actually, feel that way a lot.”
Moments later, she was agitated again. “If only it wasn’t happening now, when it matters for your life and death! You’ll be defenseless when you get to the next world! And I don’t even have a Severing Step to get me there if the worst happens and –”
Alchemist made a little noise.
“Don’t worry about it,” said Yali coldly. “I know it’s too dangerous to use for anything less urgent than, than, what actually happened. And it’s extremely unlikely that Justicar will get to you before I do, since she won’t know where you are, and I have the Watchful Eye on you. And even if she finds you, I still have this other potion that will let me move faster than she does. It’s very unlikely. There are much more likely ways for you to die that I should worry about before this one. This part is going to be fine.”
She clearly didn’t feel like it was going to be fine.
Silence settled over us again. We continued our long, moody walk to the portal.
I lost track of the time going by. Following the Alchemist’s Path, it was just a long walk. Nothing I had to pay attention for.
Morrow was having trouble too. Every so often, he stumbled and clutched his head. Alchemist had to soothe him while Yali and I waited for him to be able to keep moving. Sometimes he yelled out in pain and argued with things we couldn’t see. It was probably the Stern God. It was probably getting in his head, like it had with me. I was just glad it wasn’t in my head anymore. My mind still felt deadened, but at least it wasn’t that. And it was a relief that Yali was standing between me and Morrow. His noise was too much for me. I just wanted…
I didn’t know what I wanted. Everything was still a fog. But Yali wanted me to go to the portal with her, so that’s what I was doing, I guess.
It wasn’t like I had anything else to do.
Before I knew it, we had arrived.
It loomed in front of me, the black, hypnotic doorway.
“So this is…” I mumbled.
“The Broken Portal. It will be, it will be, different.”
“Will I stop being… like this?”
“Yes.” Yali turned towards me. She put her hands on my shoulders and spoke seriously. “Whatever happens, there’s one thing I want you to remember. Nothing that happened in this layer was your fault. Do you understand me?”
“O… kay,” I said, uncomprehending.
“You don’t believe me,” she said.
“I don’t believe anything right now.”
“I understand. But remember it. In case you need it later.”
I faced the portal.
At the thought of stepping in, a terrible loneliness gripped me. I couldn’t bear to go away from Yali again. With a desperate craving, I turned and moved in to kiss her.
She gently held me away. “Even if you do that, you don’t feel anything. It only makes us both feel worse.”
I slumped against her arms.
“I know,” she said. “But there’s nothing else we can do. Go into the Portal. Things will be better on the other side.”
Her strong hands turned me around and guided me towards the portal. My heart cracked and crumpled as my legs carried me into the blackness.
The Broken Portal swallowed me.
The ocean crashed over me. A black ocean, heavy and infinite, tossed and dropped my body across its waves. It washed into my head, flooding away my tiny feelings of fear and despair and want. It washed into my mouth, flooding away my flimsy words of explanation. It washed into my eyes, leaving nothing behind them but the raw force of the cosmos.
I was naked in the biting storm. The world lashed my skin with lines of pain, but I felt no need to strain against it. Every muscle felt its tension drain away, a deep relaxation like sinking into the softest mattress, like letting my bladder empty itself into the endless water. I was carried away on a tide of warm and cold. My throat was blocked, yet my chest was full of more breath than my lungs could bear.
Deep in the abyss, another feeling began. A scratching sensation spread throughout me, a deep scratch that dug under every pore of my skin and drilled down into my very bones. A rough massage in the inside of every muscle and tendon. I was long past telling whether it was a scratch of comfort or of pain. It filled me up, just as the roar of water filled my ears. This scratch was everything, everything I could feel or be. Tears poured from me, wrenching at my few remaining scraps of emotion, draining them into the infinite sea. I was full and empty, awash with agony and bliss. I was everything and nothing. I was the clouds and the desert sand.