Okay, here goes.
Please don’t hesitate to criticize, but remember I’m a person. And I would absolutely love to see comments or analyses on the meaning you gleaned from the story in the comments section.
Without further ado:
By Reed Buck
Terjjen’s Journal: Day One, MidDay
A new job came yesterday.
Two nobles sought travel to Helzevejn. Said they were carrying a precious cargo. Brought with them a young woman named Olienna, a Waymaker who had just awakened. A supposed relative of a friend, completely green, no experience guiding a party. Something strange about that one….
Day 2, EarlyMorning
Slumber had nearly claimed Terjjen when the sun rose on the Torn Forest.
It shone through trees of a wraithlike and contorted appearance, twisted into bizarre and disturbing positions – products of heavy quakes out in nature where no protection could be found.
Its stretching rays illuminated the Contessa Aurevieu, shamelessly curled aside her cousin the Baron von Bauer for warmth against the chilling wind.
Finally it fell on Terjjen’s bloodshot and sleepless face.
Before rising, he took a moment to secure the position of Helzevejn. He clenched his eyes shut, blocking out the sun, and let the petals of his mind bloom. Upon the plains of his consciousness, bright lights appeared, each shimmering with a different twinkle and hue. The city of Helzevejn gave a steady orange glow, situated directly on their course, some distance away. He noted its barely perceptible movement northward before opening his eyes once more.
Well, time for breakfast.
* * *
They woke intermittently – the Contessa first, emerging from sleep with rapt and aloof attention; then Olienna, the young Waymaker, whose first act of the morning was to don the smile she wore during all waking hours; and finally the Baron, and then only reluctantly. By the time all three stirred, Terjjen had lit the morning’s fire and cooked a breakfast stew.
The Contessa padded over and served herself. “What news of Helzevejn?”
Terjjen shrugged. “Didn’t move too much over the night. We got lucky.”
“Excellent,” the Baron said, joining them. “We may well leave this dreary forest yet.”
“But?” the Contessa asked, her eyes affixed on Terjjen. She had the irksome habit of noticing what he’d left unsaid.
“But it’s drifting northward,” Terjjen said, offering a bowl to Olienna. “If it crosses behind the mountains it’ll be an extra eighth’s detour.”
“An eighth?!” the Baron said, in a voice quite unsuitable for mornings.
In answer, Terjjen turned his back to them and faced Olienna. “We never finished our conversation from last night,” he said.
She smiled, eyes bright with an innocence that vexed Terjjen. How could she, as a fellow Waymaker, be so… carefree? “What do you want to ask?” she said.
“Where are you from?”
“Vetyn,” she said, her eyes clouding with memories. “It has been my home for as long as I’ve known.”
Vetyn…. “Isn’t that the trackless district?”
“Yes,” the Contessa Aurevieu corrected.
“Yes,” Olienna repeated, her smile faltering for a moment.
“How did you manage to live there for – what, twenty years? Without being noticed as a Waymaker?”
She chuckled. “I had the good fortune of not being aware of my gift until just recently.”
Terjjen sat up. “Beg pardon?”
“Not all districts encourage the awakening process. In Vetyn, I was too busy stretching the capacity of my mind with mathematics and sciences to stretch it in other ways.”
Terjjen nodded, draining his bowl. “So what happened?”
“I became a mathematician – one of the district’s best. They asked me to relocate to the capital city, but we got lost en route. We had a guide – they’re glorified trackers to replace Waymakers – but ours was ineffective.
“Apparently starvation is enough of an incentive for awakening, because I suddenly knew the locations of all the districts. I led my group out of the mires and was promptly exiled from home as my reward.”
Olienna shrugged. “They certainly hate our kind. Anyway, I made my way to Trastor, where I knew my father had friends.” She smiled at the Contessa and Baron. “And here we all are now.”
Terjjen shook his head and returned to his stew.
“Wait just a moment,” she said, beckoning with a finger. “You think I share my story without expecting recompense?”
He gave a snort of half-exasperation. “What do you want to know?”
“Let’s start with where you hail from.”
He grimaced. “Kval.”
“Oh.” Olienna bit her lip. “Were you… taken there?”
“You mean abducted? No, I was born there. Never known anything else.”
“Is it as bad as they say?”
“Oh.” And then: “How?”
He swiped one finger around the edge of his bowl, scooping up the last of the stew. “How do you mean, how?”
“What can be worse than torture?”
He sighed. “Olienna, you seem sweet enough. I don’t want to ruin your conceptions of the glamorous life of a Waymaker.”
“You shouldn’t patronize someone you barely know,” she said, folding her arms across her chest.
He smiled without mirth. “Fine. What can be worse than torture? Torture implies interest. To torture someone, you must have an investment in their pain, develop a bond with them. I had my share of torture when I was in Kval, and I learned to prefer it.”
His attempt at vehemence failed him, and the word came from his throat like the cry of a wounded animal.
“I – ” Olienna began.
“Have you ever starved because your master had so forgotten your existence that she couldn’t be bothered to remind a servant to bring you food?” He turned to her, affixing her with a stare that finally made her avert her gaze. “Have you ever been hitched to the front of a wagon with the horses and ran alongside them? Been whipped with them? Ate where they did? Have you ever had to cross the endless stone wasteland with no sleep for an eighth, running barefoot on blistered heels, because your master didn’t see you as a creature that needed rest?
“When you cease to be even a resource, Olienna,” he said, “when you are regarded as a fact of existence and nothing more, you will know what is worse than torture. And when the rest of the world turns its back on your plight, then you will know hell.”
Before Olienna could respond, he stood. “Come on – let’s get moving.”
Day Two, LateNight
Terjjen surfaced from tumultuous dreams to find a new light in his mind. A deep, shimmering azure shade, the color of clarity. The color of an oasis in a desert.
He sat up, eyes still closed, observing the light soundlessly. There was something different about it – other than the fact that it was new. He watched it for some time, trying to determine what it was. It was only when Irridia crossed it that he finally realized –
It was not moving.
He waited several long moments, his posture rigid, breathing slow and calm. The oasis refused to move, even slightly, from where it lay.
A powerful sensation of tranquility washed over Terjjen, accompanied by several thoughts. Whatever this city was, it contained human life, else he would not be able to sense it. Its recent appearance suggested it had just been constructed. And the shameless grace with which it stood still amidst the drifting of the other districts told him something else.
This oasis had almost assuredly been built by Waymakers.
Terjjen wasn’t the kind to trust in children’s stories and folklore. He’d never believed that Waymakers were what caused the districts to drift, that they could halt the movement of a district just as easily. Now, in the face of this startling reality, he questioned the preposterousness of those folktales.
Either way, his mind was set. The oasis called to him; he needed to move to it immediately.
Terjjen opened his eyes to sudden dim firelight. Olienna sat at the fire, heedless to his gaze, bent over some kind of notebook. Her pen scribbled furiously across the page, filling it with symbols. She startled slightly when he tapped her on the shoulder.
“What are you doing up?” she whispered, her eyes sliding to where the Baron and Contessa lay prone in the throes of slumber.
“Same as you,” he said. “You felt it, didn’t you?”
He frowned, feeling the errant threads of the past few days weaving together into something resembling an unpleasant truth.
“Where is Weijrne?” he asked, his voice carefully devoid of emotion.
Olienna’s brow furled. “I’m sorry?”
“Right now. What bearing is it on?”
She half-shrugged. “I don’t – why does that matter?”
“Just tell me. Close your eyes and see it.”
She bit her lip, hesitated. Her eyes flicked for the merest moment toward the notebook still clutched in her hand.
It was over in a flash. Terjjen held the notebook, dangling it in close proximity to an astonished Olienna’s face. She reached out but hesitated when he wiggled it meaningfully over the fire.
“What are you?” he asked.
“I – ”
“You are no Waymaker.”
She gave a jerk of a nod.
“So what are you?”
“I’m… a mathematician.”
Terjjen scanned the book from his periphery. It did appear filled with numbers, not that he knew them particularly well. Teaching himself to read had been difficult enough. “What is the meaning of this?” he asked, brandishing the book at arm’s length.
“It’s formulae,” she said, her voice pitchy. “They predict the movement of the districts.”
Predict the…. “What does that mean?”
“It’s what a Waymaker does with their gift, only with math. I can use it to predict where the districts and cities will be located in the future.”
“That’s not possible.” Terjjen took an unconscious half-step back.
“It is,” she said.
A deafening whirlwind of thoughts howled in Terjjen’s mind, and all that came to mind was the oasis. He could still feel it on the verge of his consciousness, a tide pulling him inexorably toward the light.
He shook his head slowly, spat sideways into the flames. Sizzling filled the air as he tossed the notebook back to Olienna.
“Doesn’t matter to me. You can lead the noble pain-in-the-asses to Helzevejn on your own with your formulae.”
He turned back toward his crumpled sleeping roll.
“Wait, you’re leaving us? Just because of… this?”
He snorted. “You couldn’t make me leave a job. I just… need to go. There’s a calling. Your kind wouldn’t understand it.”
She exhaled a bark of sardonic laughter. “Why don’t you try me, Waymaker?”
He knelt by his roll, listening to the padding of her footsteps as she advanced on him. “There’s an oasis,” he said. “I need to – ”
“What did you just say?”
Her tone gave him pause to swing back about and face her. Her whole body had gone still, her white-knuckled fingers clutching the notebook to her chest.
“I said there’s an oasis,” he said.
“Why do you use that exact word?”
He shrugged, turning back to his sleeping roll.
“Terjjen, listen to me.” Olienna sighed when he did not turn. “Despite what most think, the movements of the districts aren’t random. They’re tectonic patterns – they have to do with the surface of the earth shifting around. Those patterns can be deduced through mathematics. In Vetyn, I was the leader of the team attempting to make those deductions.”
Terjjen turned, ignoring a rising feeling of unease.
“One night I was working late and I stumbled upon something – an overlooked variable that fit into the equation and balanced it. I had actually solved the riddle of terrestrial motion.” Her eyes shone with pride. “I was so excited, I had to talk to somebody. So I went wandering throughout the Vetyn research center, looking for anyone who was still working, and I stumbled into a room for a project coded Oasis.”
She inhaled deeply. “Terjjen, Oasis is a gnat-lamp for Waymakers. The Vetyna government created it with the goal of attracting all the Waymakers to one location for a massacre. They planned to reveal it contingent upon my team’s discovery of a mathematical alternative to Waymakers.”
It took a moment for the full meaning to sink in.
“You wanted to destroy us and replace us with formulae.” Terjjen’s voice emerged hoarse from his throat.
“You have to understand how they think in Vetyn,” Olienna said. “They loathe what they cannot explain with science. For the longest time, the only thing that stood between them and complete progress was a dependence on your people.”
“You were going to kill us all. You were going to slaughter us just because – because what? Because we can see where the districts move?” Terjjen clawed at the skin of his forehead, scoring gouges above his eye. “You think I wouldn’t in a heartbeat give up this ‘gift’ to live free of torture and neglect? And you were going to kill us?!”
His enraged shout fell upon the wretched trees.
“Not me,” Olienna said in a small voice. “As soon as I found out what they were doing, I left, and I took my formulae with me.” She gazed at him through eyes laced with tears. “But don’t you see, Terjjen? We can do something to stop it! We can – ”
“No,” he said, his voice trembling with rage.
“But we – ”
“No. Do not speak. Just leave me, please.”
The tears finally fell from her eyes, drawing trails down her cheeks.
“As you wish.”
She withdrew, her footsteps beating a steady path back to her own sleeping space. Terjjen crawled into his sleeping roll and lay still until the soft sounds of sleep filled the clearing.
Then he sat up.
Crept over to where Olienna lay snoring, facing away from him.
Extricated the notebook from where it lived in her satchel.
Returned to the fire and fed the pages to the coals.
Secured his belongings atop his mare.
Day 3, MidAfternoon
The next day, as the sun reached its zenith, the outer wall of the oasis appeared on the horizon. The Torn Forest had given way to a prairie of waist-high grass, through which it became obvious that Olienna was tracking him.
He stopped until she caught up, out of breath and still smiling inanely.
“You track well,” he said.
She panted for several seconds before answering. “I thought you were going to ride your horse, but you walked instead.”
“The Baron and Contessa will be dead because of you,” Terjjen said.
Olienna shook her head. “It was the strangest thing. I told them you’d left, and the Contessa just smiled and told me to follow you. She said they would find their way back to Trastor somehow. And then she told me that I was her precious cargo.” Olienna wrinkled her nose. “What do you think that was about?”
“What will you do after this?” Olienna asked.
“I’ll enter the oasis and see whether you’re telling the truth.”
“You know I am.”
He sighed. “I guess I do.”
“You’ll be throwing your life away for nothing.”
He watched her, noting the care with which she watched him back. “Olienna, I have never had a life,” he said.
She said nothing. There was nothing to be said.
* * *
They approached the oasis together, the outer wall rising from the ground in front of them like a monument to the sun. As they drew closer, Terjjen began to pick out a portcullis, several windows, and a lowered drawbridge. The tension in his gut refused to abate, and though he knew better, he still found himself hoping that this might be a haven for Waymakers.
“How does it not move?” he wondered aloud.
“Steel cables,” Olienna said, pointing to a vague silhouette along the outer wall. “As thick as a man’s trunk and hundreds of feet long. They had to halt production of major technologies in Vetyn for nearly a year to create them. No one knew what they were for. They must be driven straight into the earth.”
A tether for a city. So simple, it was absurd.
They drew closer to the entryway, close enough to see a figure or two atop the walls, pacing back and forth. The tension spread and grew until it felt as though Terjjen’s chest was imploding.
“Terjjen,” Olienna whispered. “When we enter, don’t tell them that you’re a Waymaker, not immediately.”
He nodded, mouth too dry to respond. They entered the shadow of the portcullis, and it was now that Terjjen could clearly see the thick steel chains snaking from the outer wall into the ground at regular intervals, like the stakes and ropes of a massive tent.
“Those don’t look stable,” he whispered.
“They’re not,” she said as they passed under the wall. “The weight is distributed perfectly in all directions. If you could throw the switch on even one of them, the whole thing would collapse.”
He glanced at her, trying to decipher the edge in her voice. Before he could, a voice spoke from just inside the oasis.
The voice belonged to a bearded man who held a strange machine – the length of an arm, it looked to be a metallic tube, with an open hollow at one end. Apparently a frightening weapon, because Olienna shrank back from it.
“How did you find this place?” the man said in a thick Vetyn accent, leveling the tool at them.
“Our guide – he -” Olienna began.
Terjjen moved faster than she could finish her sentence. His broadstaff came down upon the man’s skull with a sickening crack. Before his body had fallen, Olienna was dashing to the left, tugging Terjjen by the hand. Several angry yells came from behind them, along with thunderous booms and zipping noises and rocks that pelted at their feet and past their heads. The Vetynae carried some sort of super-slingshots.
A last boom rang out and Olienna pitched forward, her hand catching on the door of a small shack. She thrust it open and beckoned Terjjen inside.
The moment the door was shut, Terjjen grabbed the nearest heavy object – a half-full bookcase – and pushed it over the threshold. A moment later, a furious rattle sounded from outside as at least five Vetynae tried to shove the door open. Terjjen put his whole weight against the bookcase.
“Olienna, help,” he said, glancing to the side. And then again, this time taking in the whole scene.
The bloody streak across her hand. The pale, clammy quality of her face and skin. The weak smile she offered him as she slumped down to the floor.
“See if you can do better,” she said in a pained whisper.
The world shrank to just the two of them. Even the curses of the Vetynae outside faded.
“What?” he said.
She spoke slowly, each breath a labor. “We’re in… the control room… for one of the cables.” She pointed with a shaky hand to a desk upon which several buttons and levers stood in neat order. “The western piton, I think.”
“What are you saying?” How could a slingshot have done so much damage to Olienna? She was bleeding so liberally.
“The others… don’t have any record of my breakthrough,” she said. “They won’t be able to figure it out, maybe for years. That’s as much as a head start as I can give you.”
“Shut up, Terjjen,” she wheezed. “All you have to do… is go over to that panel… and find a button marked emergency release. You press it, and this city will rip itself limb… from limb.”
Slow realization began to dawn on Terjjen.
“You gather your people,” Olienna said with surprising vigor. “You rally non-Waymakers to your cause. You obliterate Kval and stop the Vetynae in their tracks. And when it’s all done, you’ll be… you’ll be the ones in power.”
He opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out.
“And when you’re sitting on some throne, commanding the whole world, you’d better look back and ask yourself something.”
She was quiet for a long moment, so quiet that Terjjen thought she might be dead. Then, in a raspy gurgle, she said:
“What happens when the tortured become the torturers?”
Her head sank into her chest, and a final breath rattled from her lungs. The world came back into sharp focus, and several loud bangs shook the bookcase. A hole or two opened up in the wood, letting in streaming daylight.
Across the room, there was a large blue button. The text underneath, as far as Terjjen could tell, read Emergency Release. He glanced down at Olienna’s body. Back at the bookcase, now mostly riddled with holes.
Then he dashed forward and slammed his palm down on the button.
“General Terjjen, born a slave with no name, has lived to incite the Waymaker rebellion, the consequences of which have given birth to this great Nation of New Trastor. He is unequivocally the most courageous man I have ever met, and I fully expect his success in putting down the Irridian insurgents in the West.”
-Grand Empress Aurevieu,
in her commendation speech to General Terjjen of the Waymaker Corps