Current status of this novel:
All twenty-one chapters have been written! I haven't posted them all yet – there is still editing work left to do. Unfortunately, I've gotten slightly behind on the editing. I'm currently hoping to have chapter 20 ready by September 23, 2020, and chapter 21 the week after that.
Meanwhile, Sarah Fensore and I are hard at work on making illustrations! Most of them aren't complete yet, but I'm including our sketches in the story for now, and I'll replace them with the completed drawings as we complete them.
I'm also working on significant edits to the earlier chapters (which aren't quite up to my standards after everything I've learned by writing the rest). So the existing chapters may change unexpectedly. I know some of you may want to read (or reread) the story after it's no longer in flux, so I'll update this message with the current status as I make progress.
Chapter Nineteen: The Waiting God
Content warnings for this chapter:
Detailed narration from the point of view of a character with PTSD, processing strong feelings and thinking about abuse.
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)
Two bodies lay before me. One dead, one only unconscious, both my doing. One Justicar. One Rinn.
Was it over?
I listened for the future. There was the heavy hum of Alchemist’s presence. The deadened coil of Morrow’s anguish. And the strong, reassuring pulse of Rinn’s heartbeat. I followed its thread down every branch, into every corner of the future, letting no tiny offshoot escape my notice. But everywhere I looked, the heartbeat continued. All the paths led unerringly to the final portal.
It was –
If I said it was over, I would sit down, and I wouldn’t get up again for a long time. But there were many things I still needed to do.
First, I would have to look at Rinn. There would still be injuries on her body. But logically, I knew that she was not in pain, and that the injuries would not be permanent. The healing potion I had given her would see to that. So there was no need for me to feel anxious about what I saw.
Unspeakable feelings loomed at the edges of my mind. If I kept looking at this mutilation, I wouldn’t be able to stay in control. I would strike Justicar in anger, even though she was already dead. And the tradition was clear: Anyone who defiles a corpse will be cursed for life. I was not sure if the curse was literal, but this would not be a good time to risk being cursed, not after everything we had just survived. So I looked away.
I took a minute to pack away the unwanted thoughts. Then I tried again, looking at Rinn’s body the way a doctor might, seeing only the practical facts and not my tangled feelings about them.
The left arm and left leg were positioned at angles that wouldn’t be possible if the bones were intact. Most likely, they had been shattered by Justicar’s first attack. Before they could heal properly, I would have to move them to a more natural position. Meanwhile, beneath the body, the right shoulder was also crushed, torn and bloody. Again, I would have to reposition it.
How would I go about this? What position could I put them in?
In the first aid videos I had seen, they said that you were supposed to put an unconscious person on their side, to make sure they could breathe properly. Did that apply to this situation? If I put the body on its side, it would put a lot of weight on one of the shoulders. And both of the shoulders had been crushed. They were being magically healed, but I didn’t know what would happen if they tried to heal while they were still in a deformed position. I checked the future, but the healing process wouldn’t be complete until after we returned to the material world, so I couldn’t see far enough to be sure.
Could I put her in a different position?
Also, how would I transport her? One way or another, she would have to arrive at the final portal. She was light enough that I could carry her, but if I slipped or jostled her along the way, it could reinjure her. It would be better if I found a way to move her while keeping her stable, with padding.
I considered this for many minutes. At last, I settled on an idea. Concentrating, I manifested the same rolling hospital bed that we had used in the Stern God’s layer. By itself, this wouldn’t be suitable for the current layer’s cracked and slanted roads, but it was a start. Next, I changed its wheels. Using manifesting, I reshaped them to have big, soft rubber tires, to soften the bumps. Also, relying on one of the old Farseers’ experience as a mechanic, I added ratchets to the wheels, so the bed wouldn’t roll back down a hill if I lost my grip on it. After a lot of reshaping, I ended up with a sort of bulky wagon with a mattress on top.
The next thing was to put Rinn on it. I didn’t want to injure her more by trying to lift her directly. So I manifested an inflatable cushion under her body, and slowly inflated it, to lift her up a little at a time. With careful manifesting, I was able to lift her whole body evenly. Once it was up alongside the mattress on the wagon, I manifested another mat under her so I could slide her across.
By the same process, I lifted her into a sitting position in the wagon. To make sure she wouldn’t fall, I surrounded her body with stiff foam blocks. I shaped each block around her, so her whole body was nestled in a perfect mold. Once I got the shape right, I made the blocks merge together, and also merged them into the mattress underneath, so there was one, solid object holding Rinn in place, and it couldn’t slip or fall apart.
I stepped back and checked my work. It seemed suitable. Rinn was secure now, with only her head sticking out of the foam. There was a peaceful half-smile on her face. She looked so cozy, nestled in the foam. It made me want to ruffle her hair, to cup her cheek in my hand. But if I did those things, I would want more, and then more. It would lead to things I shouldn’t do when she was unconscious, even if she wasn’t injured. If I started down that path, I would have to spend my concentration on calming myself down, just as much as I did when I thought about Justicar or Morrow. It was easier if I didn’t think about any of it.
Now there was nothing more I could do for Rinn immediately. Maybe now I would have time to think and plan my next move.
Should I find a place to sit? It would not be possible for me to relax, not so soon after Rinn had been in danger. And even if I could, it would put me in pain. As much as I had improved my endurance, I could already feel my muscles aching from the strain of combat. For now, the feeling was kept at a distance, but if I relaxed, it would catch up with me.
I compromised by manifesting a hard bench and sitting up straight on it. That called back a memory of Szaieto chiding me that it wasn’t good for me to be so tense. It was funny to think of such an ordinary thing at a time like this. I allowed myself to be amused, but only for a moment. I had plans to make.
I had never intended to drink the unravelling potion. I had made sure it was created, but not for the reasons I had let on. I had done it because it gave the Blood God something to hope for. The potion’s existence meant that Rinn could believe in a simple solution, so that the Blood God would not resist what we were doing. It was one less complication in a situation where our lives were already at stake.
The first time I had foreseen Alchemist approaching with the idea of the potion, my first thought had been to make Rinn drink it. But I couldn’t accept an outcome that would let the Waiting God succeed. And then, of course, my next thought had been to drink it myself, to starve the Waiting God. But in the end, I couldn’t accept that either.
In many different futures, I had tried to convince Rinn of my true plan. But the Blood God refused to hear of anything that would allow the Waiting God to rejuvenate. I might have been able to convince it if at least Rinn had been on my side. But this wasn’t something that Rinn could truly understand either. To her, a fight was simple. You beat up the enemy, and then you won. So the way to win was if the Blood God rejuvenated and the Waiting God did not. Anything less would not be enough.
To me, even that wasn’t enough.
The Waiting God had allowed its Farseers to die. It had callously sacrificed them, for no more reason than to prove its story that the Blood God was a monster. Rinn’s words echoed in my head: I will kill you and kill you and kill you, and when I am gone, you will still be strong. And the Waiting God knew it. The Waiting saw the grand span of time. The loss of a single rejuvenation, in a single year, was insignificant to it. And so that loss was insignificant to me as well. I was not content to take away only what it had already willingly discarded.
What I needed was a way to access the Waiting God directly. A way to exert my own will directly onto its existence, so that the marks I made there would be permanent.
What I needed… were the threads it had woven into my soul.
And so, here we were. Everything was going according to plan. Justicar was no longer a threat. Rinn… Well, that was one of the things it would be easier not to think about. Working with Alchemist, I had learned that the most powerful healing potions also leave the drinker unconscious, sometimes for days at a time. And when Rinn wasn’t with us, I had asked Alchemist to heighten that effect even further, just in case. I had sincerely hoped that Rinn wouldn’t have to be injured. If she hadn’t been, I would have used the Seeing again, to search again for ways the Blood God could be convinced. But this way, at least, everything was simpler. Now Rinn was no longer a threat, no matter what I chose to do. Neither she nor the Blood God inside her would wake until we had already entered the final portal.
Now only my most powerful enemy was left.
How was I going to do this?
I would need to access the Waiting God’s threads within me. But I was not yet certain how to do that. I knew how to use the Seeing, but that was not a complete connection. It was only me listening for the information the god would bring me, with only a limited ability to direct it. Of all my powers, the only thing under my direct control was my power to place the Watchful Eye, but even that had felt more like… more like performing a protocol to access the god’s magic.
Rinn had fully connected with her god. How had she done it? It was probably easier with the Blood God, for more than one reason, but there might still be something I could learn from it.
Thinking back, I remembered how she had talked when she was speaking for the Blood God. She hadn’t said “Rinn” and “the Blood God”. She had said “me” and “me”. If I wanted to influence the Waiting, it wouldn’t work to think about it as attacking an external enemy. I would have to treat it as if I was trying to change part of myself.
I smiled grimly.
Thinking of it this way, it wasn’t so different from the Seeing after all. Keeping still and silent, I listened for the Waiting God’s consciousness. The reassuring pillar of inevitability. The watchful presence that knew the past and future, that would grant me the knowledge to guide the world to my chosen outcome.
It was time to cast doubt on all that. I thought it over, doubting each part in turn. Its reassurance had no foundation. The knowledge it offered was misleading. Its vision for the world was wrong.
With each new thought, the presence felt weaker. This was too easy. It couldn’t possibly be this easy to influence the god, so I had to assume I wasn’t influencing it. After a little more thinking, I realized what was really happening. By denying the god directly, I was only distancing myself from it. To really influence it, I would have to synchronize with the god. I would have to go deep into its thoughts, even if that meant feeling like I believed them.
To do that, I would have to feel like the Waiting God. Once again, I was uncertain. Until now, I had only known what it felt like to listen to the Waiting God. What did it feel like to be the god?
I did not know, but I knew. The Waiting God did not feel the reassurance of inevitability. The Waiting God was inevitability. To be the Waiting God was to watch and wait. To plan. To know. The Waiting God did not obtain knowledge. It reviewed knowledge. Past and future were already united within its being.
So… I waited. The knowledge I wanted would come to me. In fact, it was already here.
I closed my eyes. I reached out for the Seeing, then allowed my mind to drift. Threads of past and future floated past me, ghosts of other worlds that could have been. In the darkness of my closed eyes, I could still see the Blood God’s city around me. Only I could see it even more clearly than before. I saw the buildings and towers from every side at once. I saw the foundations and the insides of the walls. From every brick and beam, more threads trailed off, leading back to the Ravellers, from whose imagination they had formed. The mimicry was so simple, so bold. It was easy to see how Blood had made this. It had chosen these images of ruination, even now, when it had only just begun to weaken. Perhaps it understood what was coming. Yes… it could see the shape of things. This was one of its few virtues. Yet how unfortunate that it could not see as we did.
It could not see the truth of our city.
The city stretched across the centuries, from its cloudy origins as a struggling cluster of huts, to the compromise of the five walls around its present-day center on the hill, to the unified metropolis it could one day become. We who rested in every foundation, we who stood watch over every lintel, had guided this city, quietly pointing the way to its potential. The city did not always take the straightest path, it did not always follow where we led, but we showed it to the shape of what it could become, and it would always return to that shape in the end.
Within our oversight, three other powers struggled to guide the city, each with their own shortsighted fragments of wisdom.
The Stern were a foundation. Flawed, yes; at times unnecessarily cruel, yes; but a foundation. Where humanity would not accept our gentle guidance to the proper path, the Stern would ensure that the way was not lost. And where the Stern reached to excess, they could be tempered, guided into a more efficient shape.
The Seeking were a source of inspiration, pointing the way to undiscovered futures. Ever impetuous, they reached out for disaster in equal measure to progress. Yet they had no power to achieve disaster without a loan of another’s strength. The strength available to them could be regulated, and when they were adequately regulated, their ingenuity could be turned to the benefit of all.
Blood refused guidance. Unlike the Seeking, they did not merely flare up and die down. Once they had latched onto an agenda, they refused to let go, even if it went against all that was right. Across history, a trail stood out, a trail of instances when our careful dreaming had unveiled a route the city could take for the benefit of all, only for Blood to reject it. When the other powers did such things, adaptations could be made. When the Stern denied a plan of ours, we could find an imperfect alternative – one that would be palatable to the Stern, yet serve the same overarching purpose. But with Blood, it was as if they could see into our process, so that they could spitefully reject every alternative design we conceived, even if it was a design that Blood would otherwise accept.
Thus, for now, the city was limited, only able to develop in ways that could navigate around Blood’s limitations.
The thoughts subsided.
Part of me was Yali again. So far, the Waiting God hadn’t technically admitted to anything, but with what I knew, the implications couldn’t be more clear. I tried to prompt it, to see if it would reveal more. And so we were going to do something about that, weren’t we, I thought.
That was an odd thing to think. Who was we?
I concentrated. I had felt like we was the right thing to say, because that was how the god’s thoughts had felt to me. But of course, the god hadn’t really been thinking human words like that, it was just the closest approximation that my brain could fill in. I repeated my thought, carefully using the god’s concept of itself instead of just the human word. And so we were going to do something about the Blood God, weren’t we?
No, do something about was too combative a term for it. It was only natural that the Blood God couldn’t be allowed to go on forever. We could work around them, we could still guide the city despite the occasional outbursts, but we had understood for millennia that there would come a time when it was necessary for Blood to come to an end.
In these last scant few centuries, it had become clear that this moment was approaching. Humanity was on the verge of a great triumph. Their cities grew beyond their previous limits. Their technology was flourishing, finally beginning to help them transcend their flaws and limitations. Never before had we had such a rich variety of –
I was jarred out of my thoughts. As Yali, I tried to make sense of things. The god had seen something as plentiful, but what? The thought had been… very inhuman. I had seen my body as a spiderweb reaching throughout the cosmos, and the… things, as… soul-inside-through-soul-refining-maintenance… maintenance of ourselves? Something that maintained a god – could it be the Ravellers? It was unsettling to think of the Ravellers as things when one of them was me. No, the Farseer wasn’t me, I was – we were – we were the whole spiderweb – the Farseer wasn’t – but the Farseer wasn’t not me – I could feel the god patiently waiting for me to stop trying to explain things using this imprecise concept of “me”. Someday we would find a better way to explain it. No, I was me, and the Waiting God wasn’t. I wasn’t going to give that up just to mimic its godly level of understanding.
I wanted to get back to thinking about the god’s plan. What had I been thinking before this interruption? Yes, I had been thinking about how we… how we had a rich variety of choices for… Ravellers, yes, that word was close enough. Humankind’s prosperity had begun to give them the leisure to… to Wait, to observe and plan for something beyond their immediate hunger. It was far from fully formed, but the potentialities were there. With proper guidance, humanity could become so much more. Their technology, as it had already begun to do, would give them cause to reshape their minds around it, making them more receptive vessels for structure. In only another scant few centuries, this could increase a thousandfold. In the absence of interference, we would need only to point the way.
But among the possibilities we had anticipated in our precautions, the one that was coming to pass was the one where Blood’s interference increased with every step of progress. Blood tried to impose their own rules on how humanity would transform, rules that were limiting and self-contradictory. They wanted the benefits of technology, yes, but not the full benefits. Whenever a thing was created, they demanded to know how it would serve humanity’s blood. Even the Stern were more permissive. The Stern had their rules, but they would accept anything that did not contradict those rules. But Blood rejected everything that did not fit within their own narrow conception of reality.
And why? When we gently probed for their reasons, Blood screamed about injustice, about human suffering and alienation. But these things had existed for all of history. Blood understood this. Before a baby could learn to control its limbs, it first had to flail and hurt itself. There would always be suffering as humanity learned how to use its new capabilities. As long as they could be steered away from total destruction, they would eventually learn their limits and settle into a structure that was both actualized and safe. On the scale of a single life, Blood understood this. It was unfortunate that they could not see the same on the scale of all of humanity.
However, in the end, it made little difference. Blood had always been a flawed power, a power which would hold back humanity for as long as they could act on their intention. They would not have been saved by a small respite of understanding. It would only have made the necessity more regrettable.
Working slowly, I woke myself up from the god. It felt a lot like a dream, so I thought back over the god’s thoughts using my own mind, to make sure I would remember them.
This conflict was all about Blood interfering with the path we knew was right… or, to translate… it was all about the Blood God interfering with what the Waiting God believed in. Or, that was what the Waiting God thought it was about. It didn’t have to be how I would see it when I was myself.
In a different history, I might have been tempted by the Waiting God’s ideas. Humanity was shortsighted and corrupt, and it needed to change. Technology had transformed me, literally freeing me from abuse. But if the Waiting God had gotten its way, both Rinn and I would have died a brutal death. There was nothing it could say that would stop me from working against it.
I spent a while sorting out the thoughts, looking for weaknesses in the Waiting God’s logic, things I could use to cast doubt on its plan. But I had trouble finding anything specific to work with. The god thought on such a grand scale that it was hard to relate it to anything human. If I said “you killed seventy people”, that wouldn’t even make an impression on it. Even though it saw every individual death, even though it understood the echoing consequences of each one, it felt them only as ripples in a lake.
How many people would have to die for the Waiting God to care? I imagined the deaths of ten thousand people, fire raining from the sky and destroying entire city blocks, and I listened for the Waiting God’s reaction. The god found it… concerning. Ten thousand deaths would be a warning sign of inadequate disaster readiness. Well, if that wasn’t enough… I imagined the entire city being destroyed in a single night. The Waiting God found that unacceptable. At least it had some limits. What about destroying half the city? That would be a very heavy price to pay. The god wouldn’t allow it unless it was absolutely necessary.
That line of thinking wasn’t getting anywhere. There was no way I could make the god care that it was killing Rinn and the others.
Still, if this conflict was about the fate of humanity, there had to be some way I could make the connection between the god’s scale and the scale of everyday life. Or, some way I could understand exactly what it had disagreed with the Blood God about. It had thought a lot about… about the growth of the city, about technology in general, and how it would affect humanity… but there hadn’t been any specific details about what technologies that had been about. Was it about cell phones? Cars? Stone tools? The god didn’t react.
This must have been what Rinn had experienced when she was trying to get the Blood God’s side of the story.
I slowly tried to coax out more details. What was a specific example of a time the Blood God had obstructed something? Not the big picture, but a detail, maybe something small and unimportant.
Images flowed into my mind. A galaxy of images, too many to comprehend, fading in and out of focus. Most of them were alien. I saw human souls as complex knots being tugged in many different directions. I saw webs of soul links winding through computer systems, connecting people thousands of kilometers apart. There were probably vast amounts of information here, but for the moment, I just needed something I could understand. I tried to focus on the more human-looking memories. I picked one at random, trying to hold onto one specific memory amid the torrent of thoughts. The Waiting God resisted a little, thinking I couldn’t understand the one memory without the full context. But I couldn’t understand the full context either, so I insisted on taking just the one.
I slowly made the memory come into focus. I saw a room, a meeting around a conference table. On one side, there were a few people in business suits. On the other, another group, not dressed quite as formally, but clearly some sort of organization, like they were claiming to represent… more people… a neighborhood? What were they actually discussing, though? This was frustrating. The Waiting God’s thoughts were clear: the businesspeople were offering an opportunity for progress, and the other people, influenced by Blood, were irrationally rejecting it. But beyond that, I couldn’t tell what was actually happening. It felt like this memory was on the far edges of what the Waiting God could remember, it didn’t have the full details.
Also, why business? I had expected to see something involving the temples. But then again, the Waiting God hadn’t thought about the temples earlier, either. It was more interested in… the people of the city. The downfall of Blood’s temple had been an important touchstone, of course, but only because of its influence over the city’s people, and it had occurred as part of the natural course of humanity’s shift.
Even that last thought – when I had wondered about the temples, the Waiting God only bothered to think about the Blood Temple. Did it not even care about its own temple very much? Yes, when I listened… the Waiting Temple was a valuable tool, but ultimately only a means to an end.
I was going to be angry if thought about the Waiting Temple too much. But – this was also an opportunity! I could learn, once and for all, what the Waiting God was thinking when it accepted my mother as its high priest! Concentrating, I pictured her in my mind. But I didn’t find what I was looking for. There were only a bunch of fragmentary images of… how other humans saw her. In hindsight, it made sense. The god wouldn’t have known her by her physical appearance. How did the god think of her? Well, it would be “my high priest”… Well, our high priest… well, that thought was wrong, because our temple had a long history. I saw the glowing threads of their souls, not of just one high priest, but an unbroken chain of high priests stretching across the centuries, with a few fading branches where there were disputes about the succession. Humans possessed barely a shadow of the skills needed to choose our representatives, but our guidance led them to tolerable choices. And… the one hovering in the present time, in the middle of the chain, where the fixed past met the branching future… It was a little threadbare. But it had a strong core. It was entirely sufficient to keep our temple functional.
I felt myself getting tense. This wasn’t what I had expected. I had thought the Waiting God would approve of her, but instead, it found her… barely passable? For a moment, I didn’t know what to think. But then my anger came back again. If the god didn’t even like her, how could it justify keeping her after what she did to me? I searched for the god’s thoughts again. Did it understand what this… glowing ball of threads… had done wrong? I reached inside the threads, and… it was there, as clear as anything. A sodden tangle of selfishness, denial, and guilt, sometimes tugging the important core away from its stable position. And the Waiting God’s attitude was clear, too: this was a tangle of typical human failings. It made this one a worse high priest, but long experience had taught that it was wasteful to hope for humans to be clean of such things.
So I might as well just expect everyone to let everyone else suffer? I didn’t like it, but I had no confidence to argue against it. Hardly anyone could claim to be good enough. The police had protected me, but they hadn’t bothered to see the truth until I forced them to. People like Alchemist, and Szaieto and the other monks, didn’t want to hurt anyone, but they were useless in a crisis unless somebody else told them what to do. But was I supposed to think that Arinyo Seti was no worse than they were? After everything I’d gone through because of what she did?
And what about the god? Even if it couldn’t fix its high priest, at least it could have had the decency not to pick me as its Raveller! How had it decided to pick me?
That was something I actually wanted to know. And it was hard to hear the god when I was this frustrated. I forced the frustration back and listened again.
The Waiting God’s view of Ravellers was completely different than its view of high priests. I wasn’t looking at a chain of souls from a distance, I was inside the souls, practically tasting them. Overwhelming, alien sensations told me exactly what I – the god – wanted to… to absorb. And this one? The latest one we had chosen? It was a little unusual, but so very gratifying. Strong and sophisticated, a little more Stern and less Broken, on the cusp of its coordination. Maybe we should have taken it the previous year, since it would be… overripe soon. But it was still an extraordinarily appealing candidate.
But didn’t we know that I… that this Raveller… had been betrayed by our high priest? Wasn’t it cruel to take her – it – when we had already been responsible for its suffering?
The Waiting God couldn’t make sense of that.
Did we even understand that this Raveller was the one who had been betrayed by our latest high priest?
Naturally, we understood the life history of every Raveller. This one had indeed been neglected in the way we had identified. But by a high priest? No, it was by… I saw the image of my mother. But wasn’t the high priest this very person? Yes, it was. So wasn’t it by the high priest? The Waiting God didn’t have an answer to that.
I tried again. The Raveller had been mistreated by Arinyo Seti? Yes. The high priest was Arinyo Seti? Yes. The Raveller had been mistreated by the high priest? …Nothing.
I squinted. The god could clearly perceive the link between me and my mother, but somehow, it hadn’t made the connection between the way it chose her and the way it chose me. It was a completely different decision-making process, almost as if the god wasn’t just a single being making intelligent decisions, but many different beings working independently from each other. That made a few other things make more sense, too. The god clearly knew that its Farseers were being killed, but I had still felt its excitement about rejuvenating from my soul, even though logically it would be unlikely to rejuvenate from it. Yes… in most years, there was no need to preempt our normal process.
Frustration was building inside me again. Since the moment I had been Chosen, I had hated the Waiting God for taking advantage of me. For expecting me to serve it after it had done nothing to protect me. But somehow, it hadn’t even understood that that was what it was doing?! Was I supposed to be patient with it for not understanding, like I was supposed to be patient with a baby for being clumsy?! But it wasn’t a baby, it was a god! It had no right to not understand!
I forced the thoughts back. I couldn’t afford to let myself get upset. One way or another, the Waiting God was still my enemy. I had to stay focused to see the ways I could work against it. And this – actually, anything the Waiting God didn’t understand about itself was a weakness I might be able to exploit. Even so, this detour into my past had gone on long enough. It was time to get back to thinking about the Waiting God’s plan.
Why had I – we – tried to hide the plan from us – from the humans? Well, that was straightforward. Humans were tangled creatures, full of complications that limited their growth. There was nothing to be gained from allowing them to have knowledge of such things. It would only disquiet them, creating pointless turbulence.
That was unsettling. The god hadn’t shown the least bit of concern that humans could stop the plan. It was only worried about indirect effects, like humans behaving self-destructively because they were upset about it. Was its victory that inevitable? I glanced at Rinn nervously. Hadn’t I kept her alive? Oh, we had? It seemed that we had. Well, the plan could accommodate a few errors. How many errors could it accommodate? Blood could be allowed to… grow… healthy… rejuvenate, that was the human word… twice in every fifteen cycles of the seasons, and they would still become powerless as early as was needed.
It was like I thought. A single rejuvenation wasn’t enough to stop the plan. In fact, if the Blood God hadn’t rejuvenated even once in the last seventy years… the Waiting God was being much more successful than it thought it needed to be.
If it was going to win anyway, hiding the plan seemed petty and manipulative. Didn’t humanity have a right to know what the gods were planning for them? Yes, we had a long-term plan to establish such a right, once humanity was better equipped for it. As things were in the present, it wasn’t posssible. Regardless of what we might do to communicate our plans to humanity, they still wouldn’t understand clearly enough for such a right to have been fulfilled.
I tried to focus on myself. I didn’t like this merged state, where the god’s thoughts could interrupt my own. But I still had to use it.
Maybe it was time for me to be more direct. Maybe I understood enough for that now.
I invited the Waiting God to think over its plan again. To think of the parts it – we – were the most confident about. The city we knew would come. The process would be long, and Blood would not let go easily. But we knew the way to the overarching goal. In time, Blood would fade, and humanity’s true potential could start to emerge. They had spent so many centuries struggling in the murk, but once there was no more Blood, the city could flourish unhindered.
Or perhaps there was something wrong with this flourishing we were imagining. Something tainted.
That was a strange thought, askew from our centuries of planning. Why would we think this now? It felt more like an error, something irrational introduced by our human element. We temporarily put aside our thoughts of the plan, to examine –
No! You – I – we needed to keep thinking about the plan! There was a mistake, there was a flaw inside it, from the very beginning! It had felt right, it had felt justified, but we hadn’t thought about what we were doing, she was suffering right in front of us! We didn’t deserve –
Terrible uncertainty crept into the base of our mind. Our… our human chest had filled with a crushing feeling. This made no sense. To doubt the plan of centuries, without even a scrap of new information, was incoherent. Yet the thought would not go away. Why had we thought the plan was wrong? Why… why had we thought of Blood as “she”? Something had drifted far out of position, we needed to review our –
I was Yali again, my body shaken away from the god by a violent force. It was agony, pushing myself back upright and trying to control the painful tears. My mind was in disarray. I’d thought I was being clever, using my own feeling of guilt, but it had gotten mixed up with my guilt about Romhisat – no, it HAD been clever! It had worked! The Waiting God was shaken too, I had felt it! A feeling of triumph rose inside me. And this was only the beginning! I gathered my determination. I listened for the Waiting again, and felt…
Nothing but fatigue.
It was like the way I had felt back in the material world, when I had forced myself to use the Seeing for as long as I could. Had the god taken precautions against a Farseer doing what I was doing? Had I triggered a failsafe that would make it disconnect from me? I strained to remember the god’s thoughts. It had wanted to review something… maybe a plan for how to interact with me? But gods couldn’t think human thoughts by themselves, so when I stopped thinking its thoughts, it wouldn’t be able to review anything. So why would it do that?
Unless… When I thought back, it hadn’t fully understood that it was in a human body. Maybe it had tried to review some divine plan, but failed. If it tried to access part of the broader god that the Farseer wasn’t able to access… that would be a lot like me trying to use the Seeing more than I was capable of. So maybe I was just exhausted in the same way as before.
If that was true, that was a relief. The god hadn’t detected my interference and protected itself – it had just accidentally overtaxed the connection between the Farseer and the rest of the god. If it was like before, it would recover after a time. It would not be soon, but I would have many more chances to confront the god.
Still, this was troublesome. There were multiple things I would have to consider. While I was recovering, I wouldn’t have access to the Seeing either. From the moment I’d entered the Otherworld until now, it had never been fully inaccessible. Even though I couldn’t fully trust it, it was an important tool. What other things was I relying on the god for, that I might need to consider? I checked whether I could still access the memories of the former Farseers. I could – the memories were still there. The god must have actually implanted them inside me somehow, rather than just giving me access to look at them. At least that was one less thing to worry about. And I could still see through the Watchful Eye to both Rinn and Morrow. So I had only lost the Seeing and a few other magical senses I got from the god. I could live without them if I had to. I could challenge the god again as soon as it got back, and even if this fatigue might happen again, I didn’t have to worry about it.
But… if I challenged the god every time I had contact with it, I might end up spending most of my time out of contact with it. The more I thought about that, the less it seemed like a good plan. There were many things I wouldn’t be able to do if I spent most of this layer with no access to the Waiting God’s thoughts. And in hindsight, it was unlikely that I could change the god through only a few weeks of challenging its ideas, even from my position as its Raveller. The most powerful way to change it would be through the Ravelling itself. If I made my entire soul reject its plan, then once it absorbed part of my soul, it would permanently have a part of itself rejecting its plan. To make sure that happened, the most important thing was for me to get the thoughts in my own soul just right. I had to make them oppose the Waiting God’s plan perfectly. And to do that, I needed to understand the Waiting God’s plan perfectly. And that meant having access to its thoughts.
If the god didn’t seem changed when it came back, I wouldn’t plan on challenging it again just yet. The real confrontation would take place inside the final portal.
For now, there was nothing more I could do with the Waiting God.
I forced myself to my feet. I had sat for a long time, thinking and planning, but my thoughts had begun to stray. If I tried to keep at it much longer, I would start to think of things that were not necessary, things that would only distract me with worries. It was time to take Rinn and begin moving.
But first… there was Justicar’s body to consider.
If I left Justicar’s body now, there would be no one left to say the prayer for the dead. A brief and spiteful thought told me that I could simply leave her to rot. But the satisfaction would be short-lived, and I would likely have guilt and doubt about that decision for much longer. It was better to say a prayer. It would bring closure to this tragedy.
But which prayer should I say? Every god had its own prayer for the dead. All the Waiting prayers were etched in my memory, but it seemed cruel to say a Waiting prayer, when it was the Waiting God which had created the situation that caused her death. The Stern prayer was what she would want, but part of the Stern prayer said “let her sacrifices be not in vain, but let the world bear the fruit of her toil”. I would not be able to say that sincerely. And in the judgment of the gods, an insincere prayer was the same as no prayer at all.
And the Blood prayer for the dead was lost to me.
In the end, I settled with the Broken. I stood over the body and spoke, keeping my voice level.
“As the sun rose, you were a tangle of hope, holding on to life. As the sun set, you were smoke and threads floating on the wind. Now you may return to the Broken, as we all return. Our souls are one with the sky, our flesh is one with the earth. So says the dust.”
I stepped back from the body. This was good enough. The prayer had been said, and there was no need to physically bury her when this world would be absorbed soon anyway. I could finally leave her behind me.
Part of me wanted to keep looking back at her. This didn’t feel like a satisfying conclusion. But no matter how long I would hesitate and look back, it wouldn’t make me feel any less unsatisfied. So I decisively turned away, hefted the handle of the wagon, and prepared to start rolling Rinn through the city.
Next to the vast structures of this world, I felt very small. Walking past just one building took multiple minutes. I felt suspended in time, slowly trudging away, wheeling Rinn along with me, the pulsing sun continuously burning away. I couldn’t look straight ahead without getting it in my eyes. So I looked down. I had no sense of what was coming. The buildings and flagstones went past me one after another, not following any pattern I could see.
The road heaved sharply uphill, twisting at an angle that made it hard to walk, as if a mountain had begun rising under the city with no regard to what was built there. I trudged past a collapsed tower, even its fallen stones taller than I was. I trudged past a massive spike of metal reaching up at an angle into the sky, like a giant’s spear stabbed up through the ground from below. And everywhere, the braided cables of steel, huge and winding, that Rinn called the muscles of the city.
My road ended at the entrance to a massive open-air forge. Enormous mechanical bellows sat motionless, looming nearby broad anvils which were layered with the dust of years. Vast crucibles stood against the sky, with channels where molten metal might have poured down from them. The whole place was piled with every kind of tool and device imaginable, the floor barely visible under them. I could just imagine Rinn digging through the piles, pulling out random devices and doing irresponsible things with them. I smiled despite myself.
But to me, it was only a pile of trash getting in my way. I looked for a way around, but I already knew I wouldn’t find one. This was the Blood God’s world. I would have to face my problems head on.
If Rinn was awake, she could have manifested a giant bridge going all the way over everything, like she had before. Maybe even I would be able to do that, if my “heart was ready”. But that wasn’t something I could think about now.
In the end, I had to cut my way through the pile by hand. Most of the tools were rusted through, easy enough to break apart and toss on top of the rest. It was heavy work, making a path just wide enough for me and my wagon. But I made it through.
Beyond the forge, there was another long stretch of road, but my body was nearing its limits. I rolled Rinn into a hollow shell of a building by the road, and manifested new glass for its broken windows to keep us sheltered from the wind. For myself, I made another hard bench, with a back only slightly reclined. My body might need rest for now, but this wasn’t the time to let my mind succumb to rest. I had to be able to keep going.
My body was sufficiently rested again. I forced myself to my feet and began to walk again.
Most of the journey was not difficult. I only had to endure the soreness of my legs, from the walking, and my arms, from hauling Rinn in the wagon, and my eyes, from the constant glare that I somehow couldn’t keep out of my sight, even when I wore a visor. It was all unimportant. What mattered was reaching the black dot in the distance, the final portal.
The road was wide and rose steadily uphill. Here, it was long and straight, letting me see far into the distance. I picked out a tower near the end of my vision, and when I counted the time as I walked there, it took me most of an hour to reach it. When I did, I picked out another landmark and counted the time again.
After nine hours, I came to another obstacle. Ahead of me, the road was interrupted by a huge chasm. This was a problem. I had to keep going towards the portal, but I couldn’t think of a way across the chasm. It was too wide for me to manifest a bridge across it. The edges were too steep for me to cart Rinn down one side and up the other. Looking down, I saw the remains of multistory basements embedded in the chasm wall. Judging by the depth of the basements, the chasm was at least ten stories deep, maybe more.
Once again, I wanted to go around the problem. But as I looked to the left and right, the chasm went on as far as I could see. It might have even formed a complete circular moat around the location of the portal. One way or another, I would have to cross over it.
I stood near the edge and thought about my options. Earlier, through the Watchful Eye, I had seen Morrow and Alchemist get across this chasm, in a different place, but they had used Alchemist’s potions of flight. I still had some – I had used one of them in the fight – but Rinn couldn’t use them right now. I would have to figure out my own way to get past this.
Could I manifest a hot air balloon? No… even if I could do that, I wouldn’t know how to land it without jostling Rinn. Besides, Rinn had said that we wouldn’t “get closer to the heart” unless we moved using our own bodies. Would it count as using my own body if I used my arms to operate an engine that carried me…? How did Rinn even know what counted and what didn’t? If she was awake, she’d probably say it was obvious, like you could feel it with your body or something.
It wasn’t obvious to me.
Either way, flying across probably wouldn’t be practical. For any way of flying, I just wasn’t enough of an expert to do it safely. And I also wasn’t an expert in… whatever it would take to slowly lower the wagon down one side and then slowly raise it up the other. One of the old Farseers was a engineer who might have been able to do it, but just because I could remember designing pulley systems didn’t mean I had the skill to make a new, complex design in the present.
Besides, none of this was like the Blood God. It wouldn’t have put this here just to make me think of a clever solution. I felt like I was supposed to go straight across. But how was I supposed to go straight across? There was no way I could manifest a bridge that big. Unless…
Rinn had manifested that huge stone hand and that golden bridge earlier. They were way bigger than anything she had manifested in the earlier layers. It could have been a new Blood Child power, but my powers could normally sense the difference, and it had felt like just regular manifesting. It was probably an aspect of the Blood God’s world, just like how the weather in the Broken God’s world responded to people’s unconscious emotions. If something about this world made it possible to manifest at a huge scale, then I might be able to do it, too.
I stood and held out my arms, copying the way Rinn usually stood to manifest. How did she do it? What kind of feelings did she draw on when she was making that golden bridge? She was probably just completely confident. She could probably unleash the full power of her soul, without trying at all. The problem was, that wasn’t me.
I had to try.
In my mind, I visualized a bridge in front of me, a steel structure that would span all the way across the chasm. Then I focused my will on making it real. It flickered into existence, but then flickered out again. I stayed calm and focused, trying to make it stable. But it was too weak. I pushed with my mind, but it failed to become real.
I stared at the chasm for many minutes, trying each variation I thought of. First I tried to push harder with my mind. When that didn’t work, I tried to push more gently. I tried to build the bridge a little at a time, but it got harder and harder the more I added, and I ended up with something that didn’t even reach a quarter of the way across. I was clearly missing something. When Rinn had done it, it felt like she wasn’t trying at all. So I tried not trying at all, just waving my hand and expecting the bridge to appear for me. Again, nothing happened.
A shred of impatience slipped in from the back of my mind.
The instant it did, the bridge was real. The instant I got myself under control again, it was gone.
Was that impatient feeling the way to do the manifesting? I tried to do it again, allowing the impatience to come forward. I glared at the chasm, forcing the bridge to appear again. It did, if unsteadily. Now all I had to do was to stabilize it, to find a way to sustain the impatient feeling long enough to finish the bridge, but not to lose control –
When I looked, the bridge was gone again. Even with the impatience still at the forefront of my mind, the bridge had disappeared the moment I felt like I could regulate it.
So that was how it was.
I should have known. This was the Blood God’s world. It would want us to unleash our feelings, not to regulate them.
I could already feel my heart thudding, a foul feeling in my mouth and throat. The Blood God wanted me not to regulate my feelings? It wanted me to put aside every skill I’d used to keep myself under control, to keep myself safe, to make sure I didn’t hurt Rinn the way I had hurt Romhisat when I was a child? Fine, then. I would. And it would only have itself to blame.
Before I began, I rolled Rinn far away from the edge. If I was about to do something unwise, I wanted her to be far out of the way. Then I walked back alone, to stand at the edge of the chasm, glaring at the city.
A bridge. I could make a bridge. But why should I just adapt to the world when it had never adapted to me? I raised my arm like a claw. I would show the Blood God what would happen if you tried to control Yali Seti. I reached out my will and crushed the ground on the other side of the chasm. Under the force of my manifesting, concrete cracked and collapsed, buildings crumbled, and the waste slowly slid and fell into the hole. What had Rinn said? “Every human is the equal of the entire world”? How foolish. I was better than this world. Rinn and I were the only things that mattered. Everything else here, from this insulting chasm standing in my way, to the crumbling temple buildings that had never done me any good anyway, was worthless. They didn’t deserve for me to leave them standing.
I felt a pressure pushing back at me. I could tell what that meant. The Blood God didn’t like me calling its world worthless. But I didn’t care what it liked. I pushed past its resistance, toppling building after building into the pit. You tried to kill me, you put the one I love through so much pain, and now you dare tell me how to feel? We may have a truce, but you have no right to speak to me.
Mountains of waste piled up in the pit as I expanded my swath of destruction. At last, the heap grew to the very lip of the chasm. That was my bridge. I flattened it down, pounding it into place with a titanic fist of force, compacting the various wreckage into a solid mass.
I stared at the surface. It was mostly flat – flat enough to roll the wagon across. For a long moment, I wasn’t sure what to do next. Then I released my breath. The dangerous feeling had relented, a little, and I was suddenly aware of how much anxiety it had given me. I hurried to force it back out of my mind. Then I walked to fetch Rinn’s wagon.
While I wheeled Rinn across the “bridge” I’d made, I tried to clear my head from the feelings it had brought up. I knew these feelings were a warning sign for abusive behavior. I had read all about it online. If someone put their partner on a pedestal, but hated everyone else, they were likely to mistreat their partner too. And I was no exception. If I let this feeling control me, it would start with me hating things that Rinn liked – in fact, I already had, because this world was something Rinn liked. And then, if I was honest with myself, there were things I disliked about Rinn herself, too, and I would hate those things and try to control Rinn so she’d be the way I wanted her to be. And then, when Rinn didn’t do what I wanted, I would hate her, and try to make her suffer, even while I still loved her. These were things that other abusers did all the time, and they were what I would do too.
But I understood the danger. I wouldn’t let that happen. It would be dysfunctional to stop myself from ever feeling hatred, but I could keep it directed at the ones that actually deserved it. Like the Dalners. Like Arinyo Seti. Like the Waiting God. Like the Blood God. Like Morrow. Even if Rinn liked those last two. I was always allowed to hate abusers, even if Rinn liked them. It didn’t count as “hating things Rinn liked” because I wasn’t trying to control what she liked. She was allowed to have complicated feelings about Morrow. I could make myself be okay with that. And she was allowed to like the Blood God, because –
No, she wasn’t! How could I be okay with Rinn liking the Blood God?! After everything it had done to us?! Even if we had seen its good side, even if we wanted to stop the Waiting God from slowly starving it, it was still the god who had gone in her head and tried to make her kill me! There was no way I could be okay with that! Well, that could be another exception. The Blood God was probably distorting her sense of reality. I didn’t have to be okay with what she liked if she only liked it because of an outside force controlling her mind. That was just basic logic.
That explanation didn’t make me feel better. Instinctively, I knew things were more complicated than that. Some part of the real Rinn liked the Blood God now, too. Why did the Blood God have to make things complicated? Why did it have to make Rinn take its side? Why did it have to force me to feel things I didn’t want to feel? Why couldn’t it just get out of the way and…
…let me go on with… my plan?
My hands began shaking as I realized it. That was how the Waiting God felt. I had resented the Blood God, just as it had. I had seen it as getting in my way, interfering with me. I would never be able to change the Waiting God if my own soul had the same judgments inside it.
There was a great pain behind my eyes. I didn’t want this. I had been justified. Every part of my dislike for the Blood God was fully justified. But it didn’t matter how justified I was. If I kept fighting against it, the fighting would be part of me. And then the Waiting God would absorb that part of me. And then it would continue the cycle that had nearly killed us.
If I wanted to win, I would have to do the opposite. Somehow, somehow, I would have to, to value the Blood God’s perspective.
I would have to accept its influence. I would have to become more Blood.
I was still walking across my ruinous bridge. It was a long way across the chasm. And my eyes had decided to start crying. I kept having to blink the tears away so I could see where I was going. It was making me have to concentrate harder to keep rolling Rinn along steadily.
Even if I could make myself accept the Blood God… how?
Rinn would know what to do. She was really into this Blood stuff. She’d probably say something like “just feel your feelings!” or “look to your own heart!” like it made perfect sense. But my feelings didn’t make sense. If I let them control me, I wouldn’t be able to think or get anything done. That was why I had to keep each of them under careful management. If I got upset when I had to do something important, it could destroy everything I had worked for, and then I would have much more to be upset about. Being upset was supposed to mean you didn’t want something to happen, so it made no sense to be upset if that would cause more of it.
Of course, I couldn’t get rid of my feelings either. I had tried it once. When I was eight, I had told myself that if my feelings were getting me hurt, I would just refuse to ever feel anything. It had worked for a while, long enough for me to be proud of it. But when I read more about it, I started to see how much it was costing me. I had found a long thread on an abuse survivors’ forum where people were talking about how hard it was to recover from emotional suppression. Once I knew what it was like for them, I knew I didn’t want that to be me.
So that was why I had to strike a balance. It was like I had told Rinn, months ago now. I had to take each of my feelings out for a drive, in a controlled way, when it was safe. That way I could know their limits. I could know how to put them back away when they were getting in my way.
But that was something to do when it was safe. It wasn’t something to do during a crisis. And we were still in a crisis, weren’t we? The entire Ravelling was a crisis. If I didn’t stay in crisis mode, I wouldn’t be able to do what I needed to do. So it was definitely still a crisis.
I kept that thought in my head for a while, mulling it over.
Something was wrong about it. It felt very logical, and before the Ravelling, the logic had made sense. But now, my feelings were part of the crisis. If I wanted to connect to the Blood God… I wasn’t sure if my strategy of “taking my feelings out for a drive” was the same thing the Blood God would want me to do, but it might be a place to start. So now was the time to do it.
Well, not now. When I did it, it might have physical effects on the world, so I needed to get Rinn to more stable ground again. I was all the way across the “bridge” by now, but I had done a lot of damage to the ground here, and it didn’t feel completely steady.
To be safe, I walked another half kilometer further into the city. Then I parked Rinn and looked for a good place to sit.
In front of a dried-up fountain, I manifested a black iron bench, the right amount of cold and hard to make this a little bit easier.
I sat. I stared.
I hadn’t done this in a long time. Ever since I was chosen as the Farseer, I had been entirely focused on how to keep us both alive. Managing Rinn’s feelings was important to keep us physically safe, so that was what I had filled my mind with. My own feelings weren’t important to that, except when they were relevant to keeping our relationship healthy. So I had held them back for this whole time.
I was already getting a headache. I didn’t want to do this.
But the Stern was in my nature. To achieve my goals, I would always do what I needed to, no matter how painful it was in the moment. And the pain was waiting for me, right in the back of my mind where I had stored it away. All I had to do was bring it forward.
Decisively, I brought it forward.
The sun was glaring in my eyes. It was hard to breathe. There was a lot of pain in my head. A lot of emptiness. I didn’t know how to handle it. I wanted to force it to go away again. But that would go against my goals. So I left it there.
My eyes were crying again. It hurt. Was this what the Blood God wanted? Was it Blood to just have all this pain? With Blood, the pain was supposed to mean something. But I didn’t feel like there was any meaning at all. I needed to do something Blood, but there was nobody here to tell me what that was. I would have to figure it out by myself.
Why? Why did it always have to be me? Why did I have to do all the work when everyone else could only see what was right in front of them? Hadn’t I worked hard enough for one lifetime just to escape the Dalners? Hadn’t I worked hard enough for two lifetimes just to keep Rinn and me alive? And now I had to suffer for a third time? When would it end?
Thinking about this was making me feel deeply unfulfilled. I wanted something more. That meant it was time to get myself back under control – no, if I was trying to be Blood, it was right to keep going. If I wanted something more… what did I actually want? I couldn’t tell. I tried to pay attention to what I was feeling. For a moment, I had an impulse to curl up on the ground. But that didn’t make sense. If I curled up on the stone street, that would just give me extra, physical pain, not the cathartic feeling I seemed to be imagining. So that wasn’t really what I wanted. Or was it? I couldn’t tell. What was the Blood thing to do? It definitely wasn’t Blood to keep sitting around wondering about it. Blood was more impulsive than that. Was I supposed to just follow the impulse without thinking about it? That might be it. I tried to force myself to curl up, the way I had imagined. That ran into a block. I couldn’t get myself to do it.
Why couldn’t I do it? When I tried, there was a haze in my mind, holding me back. I felt like the world was closing in on me. What was this feeling? It was like I was terrified of… something. Or, that was the feeling. I was terrified.
It didn’t make sense for me to be afraid of this! Hadn’t I explained this exact thing to Rinn, only months ago? There was no harm in feeling the feelings if you were going to come back from them afterwards! Right now, there was no immediate danger, so it made no sense to be afraid of taking some time to feel things! Wasn’t I Yali Seti? Hadn’t I let someone stab a blade through my body just to get what I wanted? And I would do it again without a second thought! Why was this so much harder? Why was this fear, this feeling, getting in the way of me being more Blood?
I stared at the paving stones. I needed to think. I knew I was missing something important, I just couldn’t see what.
Time passed. I thought some more. Then I realized something, and it put another unpleasant feeling in my head, the feeling of knowing I had made a mistake. Even when I was trying to be more Blood, I was still being anti-Blood about it. The Blood God wouldn’t want me to see a feeling as getting in the way. It was like Rinn had said, a feeling was supposed to mean something. What did the fear mean? If it did mean something, how was I supposed to figure out what it meant? It was just a feeling.
If only I understood the fear better. Then maybe somehow a meaning would show up. Or maybe it wouldn’t. I didn’t know. I wouldn’t know until I found a way to learn.
“Listen to your body,” Rinn had said. A stray tear dropped from my face onto my hand. I brought the fear forward, and listened.
I was six years old, I wanted to just go to bed but I couldn’t, I had to check everything, I had to check the cooktop so no one would get burned again and mom wouldn’t be anxious. I was eight years old in my room, I wanted to scream but I couldn’t, it would wake dad and he would come yell at me, I had to make sure to only feel things when I was outside the house or they would both yell about how worthless I was, I was not worthless, I was worth more than their pathetic lives! I was twelve years old, I wanted to check my recording to make sure it had worked, but I couldn’t, I had to wait until we were all in bed and use one earbud to make sure they didn’t overhear. If I ever forgot, if I ever acted on my feelings, it could be the one mistake that ruined everything, I could be caught, everything I worked for could amount to nothing, I could die. Rinn could die.
That was what the fear meant. It was very familiar. I wasn’t crying anymore.
But now, if I didn’t act on my feelings, it could be the one mistake that let the Waiting God win. Countless future Farseers and Blood Children could die. I could live to see the Waiting choke the Blood out of the city.
It was a contradiction. A situation with extreme risks on both sides. This wasn’t the first time I had had to handle a contradiction like that. Did I risk going to the police, or did I risk staying at home? Did I risk keeping Rinn at my side, or did I risk letting her out of my sight? And every time, I had answered it with the Stern. I had weighed which need was greater, and knowingly sacrificed the other. Any part of me that went against the decision was a danger to my goals, so I didn’t allow those parts to come forward. That was the way of the Stern, and it was what had gotten me to where I was now. My ability to sacrifice my temporary feelings was what let me do things other people my age could not. I would never give up the Stern, no matter what Rinn said.
I didn’t want to think about Rinn right now.
But I couldn’t use the Stern this time. If my feelings were my blood, then the fear was my blood too. I couldn’t just lock it away. Somehow, I had to listen to it, to value it. So I listened for the fear, and waited.
As I listened, the fear kept insisting that I was wrong, I was making a mistake, I shouldn’t listen to my feelings.
I couldn’t help but laugh. It felt incoherent. It felt unreal. Maybe this was what they called a “Broken laugh”, the laugh you laugh when you look back at one of your oldest beliefs and realize it doesn’t make as much sense as you thought it did. It hurt. I felt lost. But the fear wasn’t as strong anymore.
I had the impulse to fall over and cry again. This time, I didn’t try to force myself to do it, and I didn’t hold myself back either. Instead, I released myself to the impulse, allowing it to take me over.
I tilted over and went down onto my side on the bench. Before long, my shoulder was in pain under the weight of my body. My legs got twisted and I awkwardly shuffled them into a better position. My neck ached from trying to hold up my head. I kept holding it up, because otherwise it would be lying on the hard iron of the bench. But… but… I released myself again, lowering my head to the iron. The side of my forehead jammed against the bars. It hurt. My neck hurt from being at a bad angle. Lots of parts of me hurt, too many to process. And I was just lying there. It felt awkward and pathetic. And knowing that I was just lying here, not doing anything about it, made it feel even worse.
What was the point of all this? I had given into my impulses, but I didn’t feel Blood. Maybe Broken, but not Blood. There was still just a lot of pain. I hadn’t suddenly had any insight that would make it mean something. What was I doing? I had no idea what I was doing. Why had I thought I would be able to figure this out? For some reason it had felt like the right answer would be right around the corner when I got around to it, like I had only been putting this off, not that it would actually be hard. It had been so easy to think so, back before I started actually trying this, back when, when…
…when I had been talking with Rinn…
Rinn would know…
If only I could still talk to her! But I had left her unconscious. Why had I done that?! Because of what I did, I could have lost the only way for me to understand Blood! Pain welled up behind my eyes, tears dropping out between the bars of the bench. Why had I done that?! It had been my own decision, and it could have ruined everything I was trying to accomplish! Again! First I had thought I was protecting Rinn by controlling her anger, but it had left her open to Morrow’s abuse! Then I had thought I knew what I was doing when I let her stab me, but it had almost got her killed!! And now – now – My eyes were stinging, puffy. I squeezed them shut, my vision already blurred from the tears. I had thought I knew what I was doing when I gave her the potion that put her to sleep! But now I needed her! Why had I done that?! Why?!
But I knew why. My Waiting side would never leave me, never let me forget the truth. Even though I was overwhelmed by pain, I could not help but think of the answer: I had done it to make sure we would survive. It had seemed like a perfect solution. After Justicar was dealt with and Rinn was unconscious, there would be no reason left that either of us would die. At that moment, it was the only thing I’d thought about. Once I found a future where neither of us died, I had called it a success. I hadn’t looked further than that.
But now that it was over, now that I had a chance to think about what to do now… There were a lot of other things I wanted, more than just… not dying.
I hadn’t stopped to think that I might need Rinn as a resource to help me with my emotions. For all the futures I’d considered, the thought hadn’t even entered by mind. And now it was coming back to haunt me.
An old saying came to mind: No matter how many things you plan for, you’ve never planned enough for the Waiting. It meant you should never get complacent. But it also meant that mistakes were inevitable. When you missed something, it might mean that you were doing a bad job, but it might also mean that you were doing a good job and just couldn’t get lucky every time. It didn’t have to be your fault.
I had had good reasons for what I did. It wasn’t my fault.
I shoved myself up into a sitting position. My hands hurt from pushing hard on the rough iron. I manifested a handkerchief and blotted away my tears.
I had made a mistake. Now I had to think about what to do next.
I decided to think on my feet. I didn’t want to do the work of walking, but I would have to do it eventually, and it gave me something to occupy my mind other than revisiting all my own mistakes.
The road went on and on. The pulsing of the sun – the heart – felt different now. It was almost an invitation, an invitation I had no idea how to answer, one that made me ache to my bones.
And then, I saw something that made me pause and turn to the side.
A crumbling temple rose above the street. Of all the gods, only the Blood God had represented literal temples in its world. The Waiting God – and perhaps all the other gods – had viewed their temples as mere reflections. But to the Blood God, the Blood Temple was something vital. From our very first day in the Otherworld, Rinn had shown anger about its loss. A loss we still did not fully understand.
My gaze fell on the arch of the temple gate. Some unknown temptation drew my eyes upwards over the cracked stones. At the top of the arch was engraved the Burning Heart – the Blood God’s sigil, the sigil that was now illegal to display throughout the city and its territories.
The Burning Heart… I felt an overpowering need to keep looking. Memories crowded into my mind, love and hatred and regret. I was a farmer coming through this gateway to pray for the health of my livestock. I was a librarian coming to the funeral of a priest. I was Garthold Brannet, here to argue a case in Blood court. I was Hiram Soleocchi, returning home to a temple much like this one.
I shivered. These were the memories I had tried so hard to find, the ones the Waiting God had been hiding from me. And now, without fanfare, they were suddenly laid bare. For a moment, I wondered why. But then, with a second shiver, it became clear. My connection with the god was still drained. Just as I had lost access to the Seeing, the god had lost access to lay its guidance over the memories that were stored inside the Farseer. I could dig through the memories for answers now, and nothing would be able to stop me.
It was finally my chance to learn what the Blood Temple really was.