The First Goodbye
Rika was having trouble sleeping. It had started soon after they had escaped from the Crystalis mines, and she and Simon were tasked with tending to Isa’s wounds and the odd effects that exposure to Fòrsa caused. Except, Simon was also the group’s point man, so much of the burden of care fell upon Rika’s narrow shoulders. Not that she begrudged it, Rika would always be there for Isa, but Rika was the one she called for in the night. And so Rika slept lightly now, and some nights she hardly slept at all.
She had just dozed off, when a murmur from Isa caught her ear. Instantly, she was awake again, lying in the darkness and listening. There was another, louder murmur from Isa, followed by the sound of bedcovers shifting. Quickly and quietly, Rika extricated herself from her pallet on the floor and stood up. Blinking back sleep, she stepped over her bed to Isa’s much more comfortable bed. Normally, they would have shared it, but you only had to be awakened in the face by an elbow so many times before a bed on the floor looked surprisingly comfortable. Murmuring soothing words, she placed a hand on her friend’s forehead. “Oh Isa,” she sighed. It was another fever dream. Ever since the incident in Crystalis, they had been happening more and more frequently. Isa never seemed that sick when she was awake, but her nights were spent sweating and burning, and often seeing visions. Of what the visions were, Rika was not sure, for Isa rarely remembered them and was reluctant to talk about them when she did. Still, the best thing was to wake Isa up before night terrors took her and she woke up everyone else.
Rika reached out and shook Isa’s shoulder, “Isa, Wake up!” She kept her voice low, but insistent. There was no response from Isa, so she shook her again, harder, and repeated her command.
Again, Isa didn’t respond, but seemed to sink deeper into her dream. Her eyelids flickered rapidly and her limbs began to thrash, throwing off the covers. A small whimper escaped her mouth.
She is not just sleeping, Rika thought, grimacing. If Isa was this far gone into her dream state, there was only one thing left to do. With a sigh, Rika raised her hand eye, and slapped her friend across the face as hard as she could.
Isa reacted before she even woke up, punching her fist out aggressively. Rika avoided it with the ease of long practice, slipping to the side and trapping the arm so Isa could not hit her with her elbow on the follow-through. Once had been enough to remember that. Rika waited, and soon enough Isa’s eyes opened and she sat up, rubbing her cheek. “Alos, Rika, we have to find a better way to do this.”
“I don’t mind.”
“I bet you don’t,” Isa was still rubbing her cheek. “That hurt.”
Rika softened, “I am sorry, but it is the only way to wake you up. Would you prefer to be still having a nightmare? Was it the plain again?”
“No,” Isa said, “and yes. It is always the same thing. I am standing on an empty, featureless plain, as a pair of glowing… somethings approach,” she looked up at the rough-hewn ceiling and sighed. “I am so sick of this. It was manageable when it was only every once and awhile, but it is the same dream every night now.”
“I know,” Rika gave her hug and held her close. “But at least it only happens once a night. You can go back to sleep now.”
“For now,” Isa muttered.
Rika chose to ignore her. “And maybe Roshan’s plan will work out.”
Isa snorted. “When has that ever been the case? He just wants to use me as an experiment again.”
“You know that is not true. We are all here for you, and we will find a cure.”
“I will settle for an explanation, by this point.”
Rika squeezed her tight. “That too. Now stop feeling sorry for yourself and get back to sleep.”
“Yes ma’am,” Isa’s smile was still shakey, but Rika would take it. Isa lay back down, and shut her eyes. Rika stayed next to her, loath to return to her bed on the floor. They lay in silence for a few moments, and then Isa spoke. “Rika?”
“Don’t mention it,” Rika replied, and held Isa close. Eventually, they both drifted off to sleep.
Roshan paused outside of Rika’s and Isa’s door, feeling awkward. What if they were not awake yet? He knew they had not been sleeping well, although both women had been evasive about why, and he did not want to wake them if he could avoid it. However, if Isa’s situation was as worrisome as Rika kept saying, then it would be wise to waste as little time as possible.
He had finally tracked down the Don, and after explaining what they knew of Isa’s situation, was granted use of the Foinse-rod with surprisingly little argument. Despite his plan for the Foinse-rod being what Alistair had wanted all along, Roshan had expected him to be reluctant to give up the rod. The Don had asked several probing questions about how Roshan planned to modify the Foinse-rod to drain Fòrsic energy, questions that Roshan answered only with great reluctance. He agreed with both Syd and Rika that honesty was the best policy, but once knowledge of his glyph sequence was out, he would no longer be able to choose how it was used. The more time before that happened the better, as far as he was concerned, and detailing his plans to one of the world’s most accomplished Fòrsic Theorists was not in service of that desire. Still, he had the stone, and he had not divulged all of the sequence. Small victories, he supposed.
All the Don had asked of him in exchange for the Foinse-rod was that he bring it back it one piece and that he get to observe the treatment. Considering that the man had been showing an intense, and, Roshan felt, predatory, interest in his research the past several five-days, this was definitely getting off lightly. It made him nervous, like an itch between his shoulder-blades that he was unable to reach. He had to press forward, however, and, shaking his head to clear his thoughts, Roshan reached out and knocked.
Silence. He knocked again. “Rika and Isa, are you in there? It’s Roshan,” he listened for a response. He looked at Eithne, next to him. “Do you think they are still asleep?”
Roshan listened. He thought he heard a giggle, an echo of muffled laughter. He reddened, but before he could say anything else, Rika said from beyond the door, “What is it?”
“It’s Roshan,” he repeated. “The Don has given us permission,” he did not want to be yelling about the Foinse-rod in the corridor, even if the other, adjacent rooms belonged to Syd, Simon, and Trentor. Better to keep it vague.
“Just a moment,” Rika had clearly understood what he meant anyway, because the door was yanked open soon after. Her face was flushed, and she was tucking her shirt into her pantaloons. Behind her, Roshan could see Isa looking on with a smug look on her face. She was already dressed, in stout wool trousers, and a heavier looking shirt. Despite it being the start of spring, the air was still chilled, and he knew Isa hated the cold.
“Are you both ready?” He said, raising an eyebrow.
Rika’s flush deepened, but otherwise ignored him. Isa winked. “You mean, ready to be a laboratory experiment again?” she asked “I suppose I am.”
“Well, it is a little more involved than just being an experiment. But hopefully it would be for the last time.”
“You make it sound so inviting.”
Eithne cut him off, rolling her eyes. “I swear, Roshan, sometimes you seem to forget what tact is.”
“I was just answering the question,” he said, feeling chastened.
“It is all right,” Rika clapped him on the shoulder, “Isa does not know what tact is, either.”
“Look,” Roshan interjected. “I thought you said this was serious, and urgent.”
“Yes, sorry,” Rika said.
“So, are you ready? We have a bit of a climb ahead of us.”
“A climb?” Isa said. “Aren’t we going back to the library?”
“The Don did not want us to damage the books,” Roshan shrugged, “He insisted that we do it at my lab.”
Isa shivered, “That does not make me feel better, either.”
“I am sure it will be all right,” Rika turned to reassure her. Then, she looked back at Roshan. “Where is your lab?”
“In a cave up on the hillside,” He smiled. “Bring your cloaks and walking shoes.”
“A cave?” Isa frowned. “Sounds cold and damp.”
“It is much better than it sounds. According to the villagers, the Don used to use it for meditation. And besides,” Eithne hefted the wicker basket she was carrying, “I brought food. We can have a picnic!”
“I don’t feel much like having a picnic anymore,” Isa said, two hours later. She was covered in mud, and her teeth could be heard chattering faintly.
“We can eat inside,” Rika said, studying her with a look of concern.
“I am sorry,” Roshan said, reaching the pair and pulling Eithne up to stand next to him. “I had not considered the affect the snow melt would have on the trail,” it had been much easier to climb up here in the winter, when the snow had provided purchase. With the coming of Spring, the trail had been more a mud slide than anything else, one they had to tumble up to reach the rise that denoted the cave mouth that led to his laboratory.
“It is fine,” Eithne said, puffing. “We are here now, and the food survived,” she looked at the basket, which was dripping as much mud as the rest of them. “We might have to clean it off though.”
“There is a spring inside,” Roshan said, and strode, or more accurately, squelched, up to the entrance. He was not looking forward to the return trip. “We can wash up and start a fire,” but as he pushed open the door, he felt warmth on his face. “That is odd,” he said.
“What is it?” Rika was behind him.
“Someone appears to have beaten us here.”
“Who else comes up here?” Isa asked, shifting into a guard stance.
Before Roshan could answer, a hearty voice came from inside. “Come in!” The voice commanded. “You are letting out all the warm air,” Roshan’s heart sank. He recognized the voice.
Evidently he was not the only one. “It’s the Don!” Eithne said, excited.
“Really?” Isa said, “What is he doing here?” The three women pushed past him and into the cave’s antechamber, leaving Roshan to close the door. He did so grumpily. He had thought that he had time to prepare everything before the Don arrived to observe, and was not pleased to find him already here. He followed after the trio in glum silence.
“Take off your cloaks and shoes in the anteroom,” the Don said. He was seated in the main chamber in a cushy looking armchair, in front of a blazing fire. Roshan had sat there himself on many a cold winter’s day, and had even spent some time investigating the cunningly designed flue that carried the smoke up and away, releasing it further up the mountains. Seeing the Don sitting there smugly raised his hackles, and his jealously, although rationally this was the Don’s hidden cavern, to do with as he pleased.
The women were busily divesting themselves of their outer-wear, and Roshan hastened to follow suit, trying to repress his feelings about the other man’s presence. He was not entirely successful. As Rika and Isa moved into the main chamber, and began chatting with the Don, Eithne stayed behind. She put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed it encouragingly. “Don’t worry. It will all work out. You said he wanted to observe, and so here he is.”
“I know, it’s just…”
“I know. It feels like his is invading your space. You do not have to be such a male about it though. Remember, this is his space too.”
“Thank you,” Roshan swallowed his ire. “I will be fine.” Eithne was just trying to help, and she was not completely wrong, either. But he just could not shake the feeling that she was not completely right, either.
Following on Eithne’s heels, he stepped into the chamber. The fire did feel nice, he was glad of that, at least. “I did not expect you to beat us here, sir,” he said, mustering a smile.
Alistair Gaunt grinned, and waved his hand at their mud-spattered faces. Roshan could not help but notice that he was dirt free. “Forgot about the snow melt, did you? I took a… dryer route.”
“Would have been nice to know about that route ahead of time,” Isa groused.
“Nonsense! Exertion builds character, my dear girl,” his smile was broad.
Roshan suppressed the urge to roll his eyes.
Alistair turned to Roshan, “Now, what do you need to set up?”
He thought for a moment, “Um, just the foinse-rod and some chalk, Sir. Some paint too.”
“No other crystals or acids? How will you etch the symbols you need?”
Roshan looked around the room and shrugged. “Most of my notes are here already. And the main reason to etch glyphs is to improve the efficiency of the crystal, but that does not matter with the Foinse-rod. Paint and chalk will do for our purposes.”
“How interesting,” the Don steepled his fingers. “Those implications of the Foinse-rod’s energy had not occurred to me. I hope you do not mind if I observe the set up.”
“Not a problem, Sir,” Roshan said through teeth that were only a little gritted.
Eithne caught his mood anyway. “What do you need from us?” She said, changing the subject.
Before Roshan could respond, Isa looked down at the splattering of mud all over her, “if you are going to be experimenting on me again, shouldn’t I get cleaned up?”
“We should all clean up, for that matter” Rika said, “I, for one, am tired of being wet and covered in dirt.”
Roshan nodded, “You are both right. Why don’t all three of you go and wash up, while I prepare the Foinse-rod.”
“A great plan,” Alistair pointed towards a door on the other side of the chamber. “The washroom is through there. The basin is fed by snow melt. It is a quite ingenious system, if I do say so myself.”
Well, you did build it, Roshan thought, but refrained from saying aloud.
“Works for me,” Rika said.
“Me too,” Isa said, and she and Rika headed off through the doorway.
Eithne followed on their heels, but paused to look back at Roshan. “Are you sure that you do not need help?”
“I will be fine,” Roshan smiled at her. She gave him a sharp look, but turned and followed the other two without further comment.
A yelp came from further down the hall. “It’s FREEZING!” Roshan heard Isa yell.
“Don’t be a baby, it is not so bad,” came Rika’s quick response.
Almost a bell later, all five of them, including the Don, were ensconced in the experiment Chamber where Roshan had spent a better part of the winter. It felt comfortable, familiar, down to the same Fòrsic symbols etched into the stones of the room. They were there to guard against excessive discharges of Fòrsic energy, and he knew from experience that they worked. Force of habit made him check them anyway, but he didn’t think he needed to make any adjustments.
While the women had gotten washed up, Roshan had accepted the Foinse-rod from Alistair, and had sat cross-legged in the center of the room with his notes spread out before him. The Foinse-rod was a narrow rod about a foot long, with around the diameter of a closed fist, and he had a very complicated glyph set to inscribe upon it. With such a small surface area, etching the runes might make more sense, but he still hoped to use it for its original purpose, and so it wouldn’t do to make any permanent marks. He would do it the hard way.
And so he had sat, the top of his tongue protruding in concentration as he meticulously painted on the energy draining runes with a narrow brush. All the while the Don watched, but said nothing. By the end, all three women were watching as well, also in silence, until Roshan finally put the Foinse-rod down with a sigh. He rolled his shoulders and cracked his neck, “Well, that’s that.” He looked up at the faces surrounding him. “Are you all ready?”
“I’m ready for this to be over with,” said Isa.
“Hear Hear,” Rika smiled.
They arranged themselves in the small experiment chamber. Isa was in the center of the room, inside the etched wards on the floor. She wore white robes similar to the previous days test, but her arms were bare. Everyone else stood outside the circle, their backs to the walls. Rika and Eithne stood closer to the back, while Roshan knelt across from them, near the entrance, with the Don a pace behind him.
“Fascinating,” the Don was peering over Roshan’s shoulder at the Foinse-rod. “So the rod now drains Fòrsic energy?”
“Yes. Although only through touch. I had to limit it because we do not know how Isa’s… infection, is related to Fòrsa. Since I could not isolate her particular flavor of energy…”
“You had to limit the pickup to avoid putting out the lights,” the Don interrupted. He pointed towards a peculiar looping rune on the bottom part of the rod, “I do not recognize this one, what is it for?”
“It dissipates the energy gathered into the air. The foinse-rod appears to have endless Fòrsic energy, but I do not know what happens if you put more into it.” Roshan shrugged, “better safe than sorry.”
“Can you two stop with the questions so we can get this done?” Isa rubbed her arms, Roshan could see goosebumps. “I’m freezing here.”
“Merely pursuing my academic interests, my dear. I do apologize,” the Don waved Roshan forward, “by all means, proceed.”
Roshan stepped forward, “Let’s get started, then,” he said, addressing Isa. “How this works is I will press the rod to the crystals in your arm. The rod will absorb the Fòrsic infection, theoretically allowing them to heal naturally.”
“Would you have preferred I said, ‘hopefully’?”
Isa thought for a moment. “No, continue.”
Roshan stepped forward and knelt next to her. He shook out his wrist, activating the runes on the Foinse-rod. They shone with a colorful mix of gold, silver, and bronze, overlaid onto the shimmering white of the Foinse-rod. Roshan took Isa’s hand in his, it was hot, despite her goosebumps. According to Rika, the Fòrsic infection caused fever and chills in addition to its other more metaphysical effects. He caught Rika’s eye, and she nodded at him. It was time. Moving with deliberation, Roshan lowered the Foinse-stone and touched it to Isa’s arm.
The effect was instantaneous. The glow from the rod shot up the network of crystals in Isa’s arm, filling the room with light. Isa screamed, her head thrown backwards and her back arched in a spasm. Roshan tried to pull the rod away, but it would not budge.
“Stop it!” Rika yelled, starting forward.
“I can’t!” Roshan tugged again on the rod, but to no avail.
Meanwhile, the glow that suffused Isa’s arms was slowly receding, drawing back towards the rod that now seemed fused to her wrist. Isa had stopped screaming, but her back still bent at an unnatural angle, her mouth drawn into a rictus grin. Rika and Eithne rushed into the circle. The three of them grasped the foinse-rod and yanked. Roshan felt like he was pulling on an iron bar, one securely welded in place, but together they managed to pry the foinse-rod loose. Energy crackled in the slowly growing gap between the rod and Isa, and Roshan knew that if they stopped straining it would snap back into place. Finally, an apparent limit was reached, and the force pulling on the rod ceased. The sudden loss of pressure unbalanced Rika, Eithne, and Roshan, sending them sprawling to floor. Roshan lost his grip on the foinse-stone on the way down, and looked up from the ground in surprise to see it hovering in mid-air.
“What in the…” was all he had time to say before a jet of bronze light erupted from the base of the rod and slammed into the cavern ceiling. As the rocks tumbled down, his last conscious act was to throw himself over Eithne and Rika, before an errant stone struck the side of his head, and Roshan surrendered to oblivion.
Chapter 23 is here.