Chapter Five: Displaced

He had a restful night, despite the days leading up to it he truly rested. He had no memory of a dream. For a brief, fleeting moment Mat had thought the whole thing had been a long and complicated dream. Exentir, the stalking, Alkir and the Door – whose name he couldn’t seem to recollect, he was sure it started with an N – none of it may have happened. He might be a fairly damaged, but otherwise a normal human boy. His nose ached slightly and he could feel the sunshine on his eyelids, casting a ruddy hue just behind his shut eyes. If he was a normal boy of twelve, he had no reason to fear opening his eyes and seeing the world before him, but he wasn’t sure. He had hoped he was normal; he had spent long enough in the shadows and out of the light that he preferred it that way. He didn’t want to suddenly be some freakish, magical thing that everybody would know about. He wanted his anonymity. He ached for it so badly that for a brief period he believed the last night was a bad dream brought on by whatever it was he drank in the ceremony. And so he foolishly opened his eyes, bringing about a stinging pain to his eyes and a room filled with people.

Alkir was there at his bedside, arms folded and chin resting on his chest, fast asleep. Several robed men and women in dusty reds, burnt umber and shades of gray were milling about, examining everything in the room and talking to themselves, though Mat could hear nothing from them. It was as if they were shadows, he could see them but hearing them was impossible. He looked down at his unlaced shirt, and sure enough he was greeted by the Mark of Exentir. He had remembered liking it, and it did seem to oddly belong on some level of his mind. But he didn’t want it anymore, he didn’t want this attention and he definitely did not want to be poked and prodded because of some black marking he had no say in receiving.

With the sight of the Mark and the claustrophobic atmosphere of his room, he knew whatever hopes and delusions he had about the last night being a dream had faded away just the same as his anonymity. He sighed audibly, which apparently was enough to draw the attention of every single Elder in the room, and such rousing stirred Alkir from his sleep. As the cloaked men and women crowded around the bed, Alkir pushed through them to stand ahead. Mat didn’t quite understand, as he knew Alkir was much loser in the Order than anybody in the cloaks with their fancy symbols, gem encrusted accessories, gold, silver or emerald embroidered cloaks and piercing eyes. Yet they relented to him, allowing him to push them aside as if he were their better. Alkir wore a stony mask of impassiveness but Mat could see the protectiveness and care reflected in his dark eyes. Mat looked at him hopelessly, knowing that Alkir could only offer so much protection.

“How are you feeling Mat? Do you know where you are?” Alkir asked as calm as he could, with a slight edge to his voice that trembled.

“Yes, I think so. I’m still in my room in the Order, in my bed and it appears to be…morning?” he asked quizzically. He hoped it was morning, the light was bright but he hadn’t slept in the room yet and he couldn’t easily distinguish between morning and midday.

Alkir shook his head and placed a gentle hand on Mat’s shoulder, “It’s a little after midday, a full day after your ceremony. You slept for an entire day Mat. Do you know why?”

“No, not really. Should I?”

“Do you remember how you got back to your room, or how you got into bed?”

Mat thought for a moment. That was an awfully silly question to ask, he walked back to his room. What other choice did he have? Only, he didn’t remember walking back. He remembered darkness flinging around him like a thousand black whips striking across his vision, lashing onto him and encircling him in darkness. Then he remembered a jerking feeling in the pit of his stomach, a deep unsettling sickness and an overpowering weakness as he was thrown to the floor of his room, the darkness suddenly gone. He didn’t remember how he did it, or what it was, only that somehow he had displaced himself from the entrance to the Library all the way back to his room. His stomach did a little flip at the thought of it: the weakness running down his arms and the shivering cold, like somebody had injected ice water into his veins. He shivered reflexively and curled his shoulders forward, wrapping his arms around himself. But he hadn’t remembered going to bed, the last he remembered was trying to get off the carpet that dominated the center of the room.

“I…do but I don’t know how I did it,” he admitted with a sharp frown, “I don’t remember getting into bed either, but I suppose somebody picked me off the floor where I must have passed out?”

“Yes, that’s precisely it Mat. Now, do you have any memory of exactly what happened to you, what you were thinking or doing at the time you were brought back to your room?”

Mat shifted and tried to sit up in bed, using the pillow to prop himself up against the headboard of the bed. He tried to think hard about where he was in his frame of mind, but it was all a blurry haze of fatigue and something else, something dark he couldn’t illuminate. It was there, just out of reach, and grasp as he might it eluded him every time.

“I remember darkness, like shadows clinging to me and blocking my vision…and then they were gone. As if they were never there to begin with. And I was back in my room, but something was wrong. I’m not sure what but it was like when you jump from a high place and just before you land, you know you made a mistake. Something just isn’t right and as you land you twist your ankle or land wrong and hurt yourself some way. It was like that, I knew I had done something wrong but I didn’t know what and I was knocked to the ground. I was suddenly so weak and tired. It had felt like somebody had kept me awake for days by repeatedly dunking me in ice water. And, that’s the last I remember of it,” Mat said.

Alkir gave him a considering look. “What about what you were thinking about, or the topic myself and Mesaphis were discussing with you?”

Mat thought back. “We were talking about my Mark, and what it meant and how I should know how to use some magical powers but I didn’t. And-and then I remember getting so tired and how far away my room was from where we were. I didn’t want to walk back, and the thought of my bed all warm and inviting was too alluring to pass up. I wished, I wanted and craved with all my might that I was back in my room, just about to lie down in bed for the night and get some rest. That’s when it happened.”

Several of the Elders around nodded and moved their mouths in wordless discussions, judging from Alkir’s lack of reaction, Mat assumed he couldn’t hear them either. But maybe he could read their lips better than Mat if he would turn around.

“I see, so that had to have something to do with it. After I found you and made sure you were okay, I looked up what would possibly be the cause of your little trip. There’s only a few scant mentions of it, like we said last night there’s only a smattering of knowledge left from the Calamity that marked the end of the last age and the beginning of ours. But what we do have suggests that the power you used is something called ‘Displacement’ and it is basically a teleportation magic. With it, you can apparently – as you proved – move through solid matter, or perhaps simply avoid it altogether. We’re not sure, and the Elders and Scholars would love to test it if and when you ever feel up to doing it. Any understanding we can glean from it can only help you to better grasp what you can do and in turn help the Order and allow us to document the study of magic in ways that could only be dreamed of before.

“Displacement as we discovered is the act of displacing yourself in space with any other substance,” he said as he took out a simple mug from his jacket and a rough looking red orb from his pocket. “What that means is you essentially switch places,” he swapped hands the cup and orb were in, “with whatever is at the location you decide to displace to. You don’t simply teleport there, which could potentially harm you if you teleported inside of a wall, instead you would displace a chunk of the wall and where you were, would then have a piece of the wall you displaced and you would be out of harm’s way. That is of course if you didn’t displace a load bearing wall, making the ceiling crash in on you. There is however, no information on how this takes place, or where the energy comes from to do this – though we have our guesses – or even how far you can go. I don’t suppose you could repeat that performance from that night?”

Mat shook his head. “I’m still not sure how I did it, even though I remember it now.”

Alkir raised a hand to pause Mat from continuing. “I thought as much. For now just rest and recover your strength. When you feel able we’d like to try it, perhaps a smaller displacement so you don’t get lost or hurt yourself, or somebody else. I can’t even begin to explain how beneficial having something like this would be. If you were to properly harness this ability Mat, you would be able to go almost anywhere without notice, there are places that even Sweepers cannot get into without detection because we can’t just displace through a wall or around automated defenses.”

Mat sank back down in his bed, with so many people watching him he didn’t feel comfortable enough to move around. He wished they’d all just go away and he thought that, just maybe, if he lay still enough and was just the right amount of boring they’d go away. He waited and waited, staying exceedingly still while they discussed his future or his powers or whatever it was they were discussing amongst themselves but they never left or gave any hint that they were growing impatient. He supposed that people such as the Sweepers were probably highly trained to be resistant to boredom and impatience.

Alkir turned his head to the Elders, then turned his gaze back to Mat, giving him a sincere look. “You want to leave right?” he asked.

Mat’s eyes widened in shock. “N-No! I want to stay here, I wouldn’t dream of wanting to leave!” he objected in panic.

Alkir shook his head before saying, “No, that’s not what I meant. You don’t want to be in this room at this moment. You want to go to a different room or different, less populated room, don’t you?”

It took Mat a few extra moments before his sluggish brain caught onto what Alkir was saying. “Yes, very much so.”

Alkir smiled and spread his arms. “Then all you need to do is Displace and you’ll have your wish!”

Mat’s shoulders sunk at that. While he didn’t think Alkir was manipulating him, he sure wasn’t helping him achieve the privacy and quiet he had so deeply wanted at that moment. But he was however providing him what Mat’s mother would have called ‘proper motivating force’. The intense and burgeoning desire for peace and quiet had Mat thinking back to the library door. He could stand to go there, libraries were supposed to be quiet after all. The waves of anxiety that Mat had been pressing down until that moment erupted and flowed across him with gathering strength, he rode atop them using them and his intense desire for peace and quiet to think of the doorway in front of the library and to go there. As he focused on materializing that place around him his mind interjected. At the last moment it thought of the only place he had known true peace.

Shadows whipped about Mat’s vision and before Mat could realize what just went wrong, his vision was shrouded in darkness; this time for longer than the last. He gasped for air but none came, he was growing cold and numb all the while his lungs were slowly being compressed like a great python was wrapped about his chest, squeezing him tighter and tighter. Just before he thought he’d pass out, the light flooded his vision and he was cast hard to the side with a raucous crash into a tall golden oak. The tree shivered and shook, casting autumn leaves in a flurry around Mat.

Meanwhile, Mat had curled up the shock and sudden stop had taken all his breath away and it was a fierce battle to do anything but breathe for the span of several minutes. His back ached and all his muscles felt drained of their warmth. His blood felt cold as ice and he shivered uncontrollably. The cool breeze did nothing to help his shivering as he curled up tighter to reserve what little warmth he could produce. Every blink of his eyes came with the warning of impending sleep and the threat of never waking. He had heard the stories of people caught out in the cold that had fallen asleep, never to wake again.

It took all the strength he had, but he rolled onto his stomach and pushed himself up to his hands and knees. Every inch felt as long as two leagues, and he was already gasping for air. By the time he had shakily gotten to his feet his whole body was racked by waves of violent tremors that threatened to buckle his knees and undo all his hard work. He knew if he succumbed to them he would never be able to stand again. If he couldn’t stand he’d freeze, if he froze he’d die and he wouldn’t let death claim him on anything less than his own terms. Not after everything he had been through.

He cast his gaze around the small clearing he was near, immediately he recognized it. Weeds had not overgrown the area; the same beautiful flowers grew more than they had when he was younger. He was back with his mother in a hidden clearing just to the north of King’s Valley. He had her buried out there, but hadn’t dared return since her death. And yet, it certainly seemed somebody had. As he walked with his arms wrapped tight around himself and legs barely functional he noticed the grass and flowers were well tended to. They wouldn’t normally be so lively this time of year, it was growing cold and the flowers should be wilted and the grass turning brown for the long freeze. But that was far from the case. The Headstone though simple was still in pristine condition two years after it was set and the mound his mother had been buried in was a bouquet of the most beautiful wildflowers Mat had ever seen, a deep red that slowly became a soft lilac the color the further from the center the petals were. Those were hardly plentiful when she was placed there.

Mat wondered who would have done this. Clearly none of the villagers but then who? Mat knew of nobody, and even if there had been somebody who knew his mother and cared enough to do this, why hadn’t they come for Mat? Why would they leave him to eke out a life, barely alive and starving more than half the time? The questions rattled in his head like the scant coins in a beggar’s cup.

He staggered over to a tree and leaned against it for support and considered himself lucky for not having eaten yet, he surely would have been sick at this point if he had. Mat made a mental note that Displacement incurs a severe nausea as well appears to be useless for stealthy entries. He wasn’t entirely sure on the last bit, mainly because both times he had Displaced he did not arrive where he was by pure intention. Mat rested his head against the soft bark of the golden oak tree and sighed. He had no idea how he’d get back to the Sweeper’s headquarters, and that was even if he knew where they were. He had been unconscious the whole time and he had no idea exactly how long it took them to take him there.

To add insult to injury there’s no reason anybody in the Order would think Mat would be so far out here and even worse after they weren’t able to find him for a while they might think he had a change of heart and decided to flee. The upshot is they’d send out Sweepers to find him, however they’d probably kill him for fleeing and breaking his oaths. Besides, who would believe him that he managed to Displace himself so very far away? By the time they’re done searching and they send teams out to find him, several days will likely have passed. If that were to be the case, then surely they would think he’d have had enough time to get as far as he was.

He started to slide down the polished, smooth bark and quickly righted himself. He rubbed his eyes tiredly. There was no way he would be able to Displace himself back, even if he knew exactly how to trigger it, he was too weak and tired. Whatever Displacement did to him it severely drained and tired him to the point of nearly passing out. The peace, calm and serene beauty of this most sacred place stood as a counterpoint to the eventuality of his brutal death by the hands of the Sweepers who would think he was a traitor. There was no reason to act rashly, or even panic. It’d be a couple days to even a week before they found him. He could go back to the manor if it wasn’t burned down. He had some food stashed away for emergencies. For now he was well fed, clothed better than he had been in years and though incredibly cold, he was relatively fit and healthy.

The thoughts and possibilities went off in his head without a thought given to them. He could hike through the woods to the other side of the valley, though he’d never done much hiking he didn’t imagine it would be that hard, but finding fresh water and food along the way would be and he had no knowledge to distinguish poisonous food from that which would kill him.

Perhaps, he thought, a death from a poisonous berry would be preferable to the dishonor of being tracked and killed by a Sweeper.

As he was beginning to find that more agreeable, he remembered hearing tales of people sick for weeks and in agonizing pain before finally succumbing to the poison. He’d want it to be quick and as painless as possible. And once again found himself without the requisite knowledge to see his designs come to fruition. He cursed his lack of learning and wished he had just Displaced to the library as he had intended, then he could be reading about poisonous plants instead of entertaining the thought of suicide by way of one.

Feeling the strength and warmth return in his limbs he shambled towards the small spring fed pond some thirty feet from his mother’s grave. As he did he felt better. It was almost like his mother was there with him, helping him move with gentle guidance. Mat knew better but the thought was comforting nonetheless and he could not easily explain the sudden revitalization he was feeling. By the time he reached the stony shoreline he could walk without too much pain or stiffness and he didn’t trip on things as inconsequential as blades of grass. He knelt by the water’s edge, his knees hard pressed against the cold stone, he could feel it leeching out what little warmth his body managed to retain. Dipping cupped hands into the water’s pristine surface he gathered up what cool water he could and drank.

Every gulp helped him to return to normal, to feel right again. The water washed away the clinging cobwebs of his mind and afforded him clarity of mind. He splashed his face and though the chilled water made him shiver it woke him from a lingering slumber and he no longer felt sluggish and weak as he had just minutes ago. He pushed himself to his feet and did the one thing he had avoided these past years. He turned around to face his mother’s gravestone. He had buried her with the tombstone facing away from the villagers but towards the pond, where she would spend lazy days with him watching the rippling, burbling water.

Every step tore at his heart and his soul. His breathing grew raspy and labored, his heart thumped loudly against the inside of his chest so loudly he was sure if any soul was near they could hear it too. His palms grew slick with anxiety and he forced himself to shake his hands out, flexing them into fists and relaxing them. He struggled to walk to her grave, in the short years of his life there was nothing harder than what he was forcing himself through. He whispered under his breath, eyes stinging with tears that fell for every word that drew life from his lips.

“I am Matren Kurnal, my mother was Selese Kurnal,” he struggled to speak, his throat closed off and he fought against it with all he had inside. He had said these lines a thousand, thousand times, but it was so much more real to him in that moment, “She died three years ago and I am alone. I am alive, but I will always be alone. The world may have forgotten me, but the Order will not forgive my transgression, they will remember me until I am dead. My name is Matren Kurnal, and for a short while yet, I still exist.”

Mat had arrived at the foot of his mother’s grave, his eyes bleary, vision streaked with tears that fell too readily. His legs gave out and he stayed on his knees at his mother’s feet. He looked upon the beautiful flowers that made a colorful blanket over a bed that she would never again rise from. Deep sobs racked his body as he held himself tighter than any mother to their swaddled child. In this place he could feel her presence, her touch of love and light upon every little thing. He shut his eyes and wiped away his tears to read the childish scrawlings from the slab of rough granite.

‘Here lies Selese Kurnal, beloved mother, she will be missed but never forgotten.’

Mat had deeply underscored the word ‘never’ and he recalled his hands shaking and bleeding from the effort of carving into the stone. It looked better than he remembered, like somebody had come around and cleaned up his shaky writing with clean smoothly carved lines. He placed his hands on his thighs, gripping past the pain that crept up into his throat, a pain that he had been forced to push down ever since her death. Alone as he was in this clearing and considering his impending demise he let out a keening wail. A sound of pure pain and anguish echoed among the forest, stretching his pain and grief as far as the wind would carry it in all directions. The sound that returned in Mat’s ears was scarcely familiar, he had heard the sound once in a dying animal but his mind failed to make the necessary connection that it was his voice.

Mat fell over, lying next to his mother some six feet below. He curled into a ball and let the pain and grief he had kept at bay the past three years flood over him and spill out. The once quiet and peaceful forest was filled with the blasphemous shouts of an angry, scared and grieving child. Every curse under the sun was soaked up by the trees and every ounce of his pain spilled out into the forest. It wasn’t until many hours later that, throat raw and hoarse, his crying and screaming had finally ceased. For the remaining hours of light he lay there crying quietly until his tears ran dry and all his sadness was wrung from his soul like a sodden washcloth. He felt strained, tight and dry.

All concept of time and progression fled from Mat as he laid there awaiting his death. If he was to die, he would prefer to be buried next to his mother. Maybe, he thought, Alkir could pull some strings and let his final request be granted. The sky twinkled with starlight one moment and the next the sun shone cold and clear signifying early morning. The forest was cast in deep shadow and dew had frosted the grass and all the flowers were closed into tight little buds.

At some point between when the stars came out again and the sky turned a beautiful lilac, the same color of the flowers that surrounded Mat, the forest grew dangerously quiet. After the screaming had subsided little more than a day ago, the forest’s natural cadence had returned. The quiet was a sign of unnatural presence, and though every survival instinct in Mat screamed at him to get up, to run and flee for his life, he remained where he lay. He couldn’t bear to get up, to leave his mother or even die as a coward. He wouldn’t move, he wouldn’t flee and he would die with grace, staring his executioners in the eyes. They would remember Matren Kurnal the son of Selese Kurnal. The death of a child who graciously accepted it would not be a display easy to forget.

The soft footfalls of a careful gait approached from behind. Tears came unbidden to his eyes but he dared not wipe them away. As his killer approached his back, he turned and spoke, “I am Matren Kurnal, and I will not be forgotten.”

Mat’s eyes went wide at what he saw. Alkir was there alone. There was nobody else. So that was it then. Alkir would kill his pupil, Mat supposed it was poetic. A logical responsibility of the Sosen but Mat wouldn’t let him off so easily. He rose to his feet and stared hard at Alkir, whose face was an unreadable mask.

“Bury me with my mother,” he nearly shouted as tears trailed rivulets across his cheeks, “I don’t want to be alone in death. Please, Alkir,” he pleaded, voice cracking.

Alkir approached him mercilessly, his cloak sweeping back and forth making a slight whisk-whisk sound like that of a broom delicately sweeping. So this is the last thing most people see and hear when they meet a Sweeper. Mat realized. He stared hard at Alkir, his umber eyes were hard chips of resolve. He wouldn’t look away, Mat wanted to see his death coming and he wanted Alkir to see the life fade from his eyes. He wanted to be remembered. He had to be remembered.

Mat nearly flinched as Alkir swung his cloak out and around Mat for the killing blow. The cloak folded around him and two strong arms encircled him a strong hand pressing Mat’s head to Alkir’s midsection. He smelled strongly of cold mountain fog and his warmth permeated deep into Mat’s body. The tension melted out of Mat and he felt the soft raindrops of a threatening storm above fall onto his head and shoulders. No killing blow came, no fatal strike, just holding. For a moment Mat entertained the idea that Alkir had been so quick and painless that he was somehow already dead, stuck reliving the last moments of his life until his body finally gave out.

He hazarded a look upwards and was speechless at what he saw. Alkir’s smooth, handsome face was stricken with grief, contorted into sorrow that dripped from his chin. That wasn’t rain he felt, but Alkir’s tears. He stared at him then quickly tucked his head back down, wrapping his arms around Alkir and squeezing as tightly as his desiccated body would permit. A hand stroked against his hair softly and they stood together in silence and time seemed to stand still. For a time Mat had no worries or expectations, no fear and no anger to speak of.

Alkir’s voice shattered the veiled silence that had surrounded them, “Mat, I’m not here to hurt you. I’m here to bring you back…why would you think I was here to kill you? What on earth would give you that impression?” his voice was still soaked with pain and a hint of betrayal, clearly he was shocked that Mat thought he would kill him. Obviously Alkir did not know Mat as well as he thought he did. For as much as he liked Alkir, he did not put him above killing him, especially if it was requested. Mat had such little value in himself that he always assumed he would be little more than a liability.

“I thought, perhaps that you were sent to kill me. From the Elders. For fleeing and breaking my oaths,” he said still expecting the knife at any moment, but he quickly added, “But I didn’t! I just… I appeared here Alkir, like when I Displaced before. This place suddenly popped into my mind, I used to come here with my mother when I was little and she used to sit with me and watch the water quietly. It was the most comforting and peaceful place I could imagine and it popped into my head at the last moment. I hadn’t…I hadn’t been here since I buried her. I figured the Order would think I fled and send somebody to find and kill me for being an Oath-breaker. But after staying here I,” he stared up at Alkir with desperate eyes, “I couldn’t leave her Alkir. I couldn’t. And so I figured if I was going to die anyways, I would die by her side and be buried beside her, that way neither of us will be alone anymore, see?”

Alkir placed a hand to his nose and mouth, hiding his reaction to Mat’s words but his eyes betrayed him and showed just how horrified and hurt he was for Mat. “I would never hurt you intentionally Mat. You have my solemn vow that even if the Elder’s ordered me to kill you outright – which they wouldn’t, you’re far too valuable alive than dead – I would find a way to save you, even if it cost me my own life. Know this for truth Mat. I will never harm you or lie to you. My bond to you as Sosen is sacred, while others may not take it as seriously as I do, you need to understand that I take my role very seriously. I will protect you in all ways that I can, and barring that I will lie down my life for you. Do not ever doubt that. Never think otherwise.”

Mat felt a blush of shame bloom across his cheeks and he stepped back bowing his head in reverence. “I’m sorry Alkir, I didn’t know.”

Alkir waved his worries away with one hand, while wiping away the signs of an emotional reunion with the other. “It’s okay Mat, the important thing is that you know now. First thing’s first, you don’t look like you’ve eaten or had anything to drink. Do you know how long you’ve been out here?”

Mat shook his head before replying, “It’s more of a blur than anything. I’d guess about a day?”

“No. Try three. It took me a while to figure out where you were. I immediately knew something was wrong and that you weren’t within the compound anymore. However afterwards, finding you took time but even had I known where you were, it would have taken me at least half a day to get to you with the fastest means of transportation available. Did you even know you could Displace that far away? I can’t fathom that you went this far in the blink of an eye. When you were on the ground next to your mother’s grave, I thought you would be out cold like last time,” Alkir answered.

“I didn’t mean to. It just sort of… happened. I was trying to focus on the library as a place of calm and peace, so I could get away from all those Elders and their piercing stares. But instead of the library it was this place that came to mind at the last moment, and that’s when I went. When I arrived I was weak and tired yet I still knew somehow that I hadn’t the strength to make it back, even if I knew how,” he said.

“It’s okay Mat, we can go back through traditional means. If you’d rather stay the day here, you can. It’ll be light soon,” Alkir said carefully.

“I think I’m fine – as fine as I can be that is. I’m good to go now if you want, I just… Can I have a few moments alone with my mom?” Mat asked cautiously.

“Sure thing, kiddo. I’ll be past that line of trees when you’re ready,” Alkir said.

Mat plucked a few of the flowers at their base, closest to the ground and wove them together in his hands. Cold and numb as they were and despite being out of practice for so his fingers still remembered the complex weaving pattern his mom had taught him. In and out, around and through over and over his fingers worked the stems together into a wreath of green and lilac. He had made it small on purpose so that it could be worn like a crown and with a trembling heart and shaking hands, he placed the wreath atop the gravestone and knelt beside it. Wrapping both arms so tightly around the stone that its edges dug painfully into his arms he whispered, “I love you mom, I won’t leave you alone again. I’ll be back. I promise…”

Mat stood, wiped his tears on his sleeve and strode off towards the line of trees Alkir had mentioned. As he approached them he felt a sense of peace wash over him, the sort of calm only a mother can afford her child in times of duress. He smiled as he looked back, knowing he would return and spend more time with her. Even if she couldn’t directly speak to him, the place was sacred to him and it reminded him of her more than anywhere else. He made a vow with himself to learn to control his Displacement and he would return here often for the succor it provided. With one last look he passed through the line of trees, his eyes adjusting to the darkness as he cast his gaze about looking for Alkir. His long cloak fluttered in a dawn wind that wove its way through the forest, giving away Alkir’s position.

Mat walked up to him slowly before saying, “I’m ready to go now.”

Alkir nodded and broke out some bread, cheese, dried berries and a silvery flask. “Not before you have something to eat and drink. It just wouldn’t do if you passed out from dehydration or starvation while I was taking you back to the Order now would it?”

Now that he thought about it, his stomach did feel a little light and his throat was quite scratchy. It wasn’t until he had begun eating in earnest did he feel the full-on cramping and gnawing of his stomach and a mummified feeling from his lack of drink. In hindsight, just a few hours ago he had thought he’d be killed, so drinking and eating was of little consequence. But with death no longer a lingering threat hanging over his head like an executioner’s axe poised at high noon, the pains of the living were flooding back to him. His body hurt down to the very bones. His muscles were knotted and tight from not moving and he felt weak from exposure.

“A few more days and you very well might have died without any external aid.”

Mat shivered, and Alkir swung a smaller cloak around Mat’s shoulders, clasping it closed in the front just under his neck. The cloak was light and prone to billowing in large, grandiose ripples that Mat imagined made him look dashingly regal and a touch dangerous. He walked with his head held higher, chest out and back straight without realizing. Alkir smirked to himself as he cast a wary gaze towards Mat. They walked as Mat and Alkir both ate from their respective satchels of food. Mat quickly emptied the rather large bag of dried fruit, bread and hard cheeses, chasing it down with the never-ending supply of water from the tiny silver flask. Mat tried to ration it at first, thinking it would quickly be spent, but after several minutes of constant drinking the flask never failed to empty or grow lighter. Alkir’s response was unreadable save for the slight smirk to the edge of his lips, but he remained forward-facing so that Mat couldn’t easily tell if he was responding to something ahead or what Mat was doing.

Mat hid the flask inside one of the many pockets of his newfound cloak, but just as he was placing it away Alkir looked at him judgmentally. “And just what do you think you’re doing with my flask?” he asked.

“Safe keeping,” Mat replied nonchalantly.

“Mmm-hmm, sure,” replied Alkir sarcastically.

Mat rolled his eyes at Alkir, but knew he’d never ask for it back. Which was a good thing, because Mat had no intention of giving up such a magical and highly useful trinket; no matter where he went he’d have water to drink and maybe one day Alkir or an Elder would explain how it worked. Then he’d make one for Alkir to replace the one he ‘lost’. Mat thought Alkir would like that.

They had been walking long enough that the sun had nearly reached its zenith. It was hard to see through the snatches of open air peeking out through the thick emerald canopy above their heads, but it was enough to see the deep blues of the late morning sky. Golden shafts of light pierced into the darkness of the forest floor, scattering the shadows with their dappled luminescence. The damp, cool air hung about them, rebuffing the warming beams of light and the wind that swayed the tops of the trees overhead. Roots grew thick and haphazardly with dense carpets of slick dewy moss rolling over the forest floor. Alkir pointed out the best ways to walk on such challenging ground, outlining how to place Mat’s weight when he stepped such that if he slipped he wouldn’t fall or twist his ankle. Mat took to Alkir’s advisement with religious commitment, it only took him one slip or mistake to correct himself and he never made the same mistake twice. It wasn’t far into their forest excursion that Alkir had run out of advice for Mat, who was making his way through the closely sprouted trees, slick carpets of moss and rolling roots that seemed poised to trip unprepared travellers.

“You’re quite the natural at this. Why is it you never left your village? You would have had better chances of being taken in at the small town up ahead. They’re good people. It wouldn’t have been more than a few hours walk for you even if you didn’t know how to traverse the forest. You had to know they were here, they’re nearly a stone’s throw away,” Alkir said.

“I was afraid of leaving. I hated it but I knew it and I had eventually worked out how I could survive. Maybe somebody else would have taken me in, maybe not. I only had enough food day to day to barely keep from starving. A trip to this village and then back might have killed me. Something in the woods could have attacked me, I might get lost. Any number of things could have happened. So I stayed where I was familiar.”

“’Better the Devil you know,’ is what my Father used to say.”

“What’s that mean?”

“It means, despite your situation being bad it’s preferable to one that you don’t know. Like you said your outlook could have gotten much worse. You knew how to handle yourself enough to survive. You would have had no idea if you could survive anything else, and so you did the only logical thing. You stayed and carved out a tiny life for yourself. I don’t think it’s wrong to say that you had lost all hope things could be better somewhere else. It’s no wonder you fought against us as soon as you saw us.”

Mat thought back to that night, the fear he felt and worry that things had finally gotten worse enough that he had decided to leave into the forest. The very forest he had feared almost all his life and the one barrier between him and a potential future. But that wasn’t all. He remembered being frozen with fear, unable to move a muscle. It was something that he was now certain wasn’t normal in the least. The fear that was injected into him still made his hands shake and his heart skip a beat. He had hardly a thought of his own in his head at that time. All he could think of was that death by their hands would be preferable, better somehow. But he hadn’t thought that, it was like he was reciting a phrase he had heard, it felt foreign and wrong when he remembered it. Yet, at the time it felt as organic as breathing.

“Alkir,” Mat said with apprehension creeping into his voice, “What happened to me when that Sweeper looked at me? I felt rooted to the ground and filled with so much fear every muscle in my body grew so tense I had felt I was made of stone.”

Alkir missed a step and quickly righted himself so fast that if he hadn’t taught Mat that very same move he wouldn’t have noticed anything had happened. Alkir cleared his throat, making several noncommittal noises before finally finding his voice. “That was,” he said, motioning his hands in an attempt to conjure the words into the air, “not what was supposed to happen. Menkir didn’t expect you to come out when you did. He panicked and used his Gaze to paralyze you.”

“Gaze? Since when can a look paralyze somebody from any movement!” Mat demanded.

“Calm yourself Matren and let me explain. Do you remember that creature that gifted you with that mark on your chest?” he asked.

“Of course, how could I forget? I’ve never seen anything with black eyes before, and I don’t think I’ll ever get his face out of my head. Sometimes I swear I can see him watching me, just on the edge of my vision but there’s nothing when I turn to look.”

“Well, it’s assumed that something in the ritual allows us to enter a meditative state that brings us in range of this thing’s influence. But it’s very slight, usually enough to impart some sort of gift of some sort. Menkir’s is that he can paralyze by concentrating his gaze on somebody. It’s different than looking. He has to willingly conjure the will to root them in place. All of us have had it inflicted on us so we could understand what it was like to the people he used it on. The effect ranges from the muscles tensing to the point that they lock up any movement, to complete paralysis from the neck down resulting in collapse. Some people are fearful while others are not. You were so used to fear ruling your life that it was no wonder that his Gaze triggered your fear to paralyze you.

“But there was something off about it. Nobody, and I mean literally not a single person has resisted him. I’ve seen Menkir hold an entire squadron of oncoming soldiers in place, but you seemed to not only resist him but fully rebuff his attempts. How?”

Mat thought back to that day. Most, if not all of him was ready to lie down and die. But there was a spark, a tiny part of himself that refused to quit, to submit like a faithful animal. But the larger part of him was too strong, and so in one last act of rebellion he at least wanted to die with his mother’s pendant resting against his heart. That was it, wasn’t it? The pendant is what let me resist, after I touched it my muscles worked again! Mat hadn’t thought of it since then, and he self-consciously touched the cool metal pendant resting against his skin. He couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps that is what was causing interference with his own powers. If it could disrupt another’s magic, why not his very own?

Alkir cleared his throat. While Mat had been stuck in his memories they had come to the edge of the forest where the trees thinned and gave way to patches of sunny, knee-high grass. Mat looked at him in shock. He hadn’t remembered arriving there as concentrated on his memories as he was. He tightened a fist around the pendant and felt its familiar weight and coolness in his hand.

“Mat?” Alkir asked tentatively.

It took Mat a moment to gather his thoughts. “I was just thinking. Sorry. I think it was my Mom’s pendant,” he unfurled his fingers to reveal a smooth silvery pendant, a thin rectangle of metal, “this is what I had struggled to put on. I wanted to be wearing it when I died,” Mat looked down in shame, “so I would be closer to my mother. But when I put it on my muscles were freed and I could move on my own accord. I think that startled Menkir and that’s probably what allowed me to get as far as I did.”

Alkir stared hard at the necklace. If there was anything his sagacious eyes could pick up he didn’t let on. “It looks pretty normal to me. A piece of silver that was scheduled to be inscribed but never was perhaps. I can’t see anything unique about it at least,” he said stroking his chin with a black gloved hand, “I don’t suppose you’d want the Elder’s looking into it?”

Mat balled his fist around the pendant and spoke with a hard, angry tone, “No. Alkir, I want nobody to know of this pendant. This is all I have left of my mother, it’s mine.”

Alkir raised his hands in surrender. “I won’t say a word, consider it our little secret. But it may be worth analyzing. If that thing can negate Menkir’s powers, perhaps it’s causing interference in your own, making them go berserk?”

“That was my thought too, I’d like you to hold onto it when I try to Displace next time. Maybe something will happen, maybe it won’t but at least I’ll know.”

Alkir gave a curt nod as he led Mat out of the forest and across a grassy field with low stone walls at the far ends. A dirt road bordered the west of the field and lead straight into a small town filled with tall metallic monstrosities. They made two offset loud metal clanks, of a hammer hitting a solid piece of iron like a mechanical heartbeat. Large iron pipes dominated the skyline of the village while tall closely built houses of stone made up the bulk of the town. It was larger than King’s Valley, whose village center would be walked across in less than a minute. This place on the other hand had several streets and avenues crisscrossing everywhere with tall stone buildings and slate roofs the standard rather than a luxury given to the people of means.

“They’re pumping cerelune, a blue liquid that’s highly volatile,” Alkir said while they trekked through the field, the full force of the high-noon sun bearing down on their shoulders like hot weights, the cloaks offered some protection but they seemed mostly to protect against the chilling cold than the beating sun. While Mat wasn’t as hot as he knew he’d be if he had no cloak, he couldn’t help but think that the cloaks should protect against both hot and cold weather. “It’s used in everything from firearms to powering the trains and railcars of the bigger cities. The interior of the mountain is full of the stuff. Those big machines act like a massive well pump, powered by the very stuff they’re extracting. They used to mine for crystallized cerelune but it was dangerous and the yields were less. One wrong axe swing and the whole tunnel would blow and subsequently collapse. If the explosion didn’t kill the miners then the collapsing tunnel would. Now they can pump it out and put it into containers or pump it straight to refining sites. Like the one down the side of the mountain at the mouth of the valley. You’ve probably smelled the sickly sweet fumes from there when the winds blew east towards King’s Valley.

“From there they usually have an underground pipeline that feeds straight into one of the big cities. But this place is far enough away and reliable enough that it is rarely visited by anybody but neighboring towns,” said Alkir.

“Why wouldn’t people come out here?” asked Mat.

“Have you ever heard the phrase, ‘The squeaky wheel gets the grease’? It basically means that the most troublesome places get the most attention. Usually the phrase is meant to be directed towards somebody or some group of persons who are vocal about their complaints and because of that are sometimes placated by those in power. Leaving the more content people who don’t wish to cause a ruckus no better off and sometimes worse. In this case it means that the operations are so smooth and trouble free that the Kingdom doesn’t bother to check too much. They have enough to worry about and limited time and money to check out a refinery that produces above target and always on time. There’s a saying that goes, ‘Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,’ which means if you’re given something good, don’t go examining it,” answered Alkir, before continuing where he had left off, “It also still has a gondola system that goes up to the summit where the old mines are. They’re closed off now of course and the gondolas are supposed to be decommissioned,” said Alkir with a wink.

“Supposed to be? You mean they work?”

“Yes, the Sweepers use the gondolas as a means of getting to the summit, where our compound is located. We have an agreement with the villagers here. We keep them safe and prosperous, and they keep up the façade of a sleepy town diligently doing its role in the Kingdom’s production machine. It’s also one of the reasons the Sweepers have never been directly attacked, even if you knew where our home was, how would you even get to it? The only way up is scaling a sheer face, through confusing booby-trapped tunnels or through a gondola that is monitored around the clock. Once through they’d have to find the right mine shaft and follow its labyrinthine passages until it comes out into a large field at the base of the compound. The Field is under constant watch and the shaft leading there is so small only a handful of people would ever be able to get through. The Order is superbly placed to repel any attack and has enough supplies and means to outlast any siege possible.”

Mat grinned. “Because if somebody tried to siege the Sweepers, they’d have to take over the town and stop production of cerelune. Which would hurt the Kingdom wouldn’t it?”

“You’ve got the right of it Mat. Celan is the main producer of raw cerelune for the southern quadrant of Grachyr. Sabotaging the pumps and wells would be the first reprisal the Order would commit to. Without their precious cerelune the Kingdom would suffer, most heavily the southern lands. Grachyr is currently fighting a war on three fronts, two in the south, and the other lies to the north. Without their cerelune to fuel their war efforts they’d quickly lose ground to the Interis Empire to the east and the Aldmeir Dominion to the west. They cannot afford any weakness. But should one of those two invade these lands, the cerelune may not be enough to deter an attack, should they find the Order.”

Mat couldn’t fathom the war coming to the peaceful, boring southlands. Nothing exciting happened there, it was just a lot of farms and production lines for various goods the Kingdom needed. “Do the Sweepers have any particular allegiance?” Mat asked.

“No, the Sweepers are dedicated to preserving balance between all entities. A different lord and ruler wouldn’t change the way the Sweepers operate. If they upset the balance we would aim to remove them.”

Mat made a soft noncommittal sound of understanding. The both of them were nearly through the field and just about at the dirt road that led to the town. The pounding was louder than ever as they passed the large machines that littered the fields surrounding the town nearest the mountain, whose peak towered over the small town below. The people in the town were well dressed, the streets paved and well maintained with sewer hatches and run-off gutters so the streets wouldn’t flood during the heavier rainy season. People waved and offered their friendliest greetings to the two of them as they walked down the center of the street. Mat noticed the people always walked on the sides in opposite directions, leaving the center always open. Though they were kind and friendly there was an oppressive respect given towards the two of them that went unsaid. They never approached, nor attempted to slow them down as many kindly folks might.

It was a quick walk through the main street through the center of Celan to reach the abandoned gondola station. The street rose into a steep curve just before, like a tsunami of pavement rising up ahead of them threatening to crash upon the town below. There was only a single man at the gate to the station. He was wizened with a wide brimmed hat atop a white, wrinkly bald head that gleamed whenever he took off the hat to fan himself or wipe his brow. He had a large bristling mustache of snow white and soft blue eyes like the sky above. His clothes were simple, a brown set of overalls and a faded yellow shirt below with turned-down boots. On his hip he had a jingling set of keys attached to an oversized ring.

The old man quickly shuffled towards the large, sturdy iron wrought gate. It was the first major thing that Mat had noticed was off. The gate was too sturdy, too large and locked with far too many chains and bolts to be reasonable. He jingled his keys about and took his sweet time unlocking each heavy lock and pulling down the accompanying chain. Twelve total locks and attached chains Mat counted before a final, internal lock on the other side of the gate itself, making thirteen in all. The chains rattled as they collapsed to the ground in neat piles, the lock falling atop them like a cherry atop a sundae. The gate split in two and slid to the right and left making a gap just large enough for Mat and Alkir to pass through.

Wordlessly they passed and the old man wasted no time rolling the hulking gate back into place and locking it. The two of them were nearly at the gondola lines when Mat could still hear the rattling of chains and the clinking of locks being snapped shut. The grounds were simple and unremarkable in that there was nothing here one wouldn’t expect. A few low lying buildings littered the paved area. There were several gondola lines but only one gondola appeared parked at the base of the mountain some twenty paces ahead of them. The other spaces were empty, while no less clean and well cared for than any other port. The gondola was a red, smoothly curved box with gold stripes ringing the top and bottom. Windows ringed the entire thing giving a clear line of sight in all directions and making it nearly impossible for anybody to hide within one. A large black metal arm with several wheels and attachments stuck out from the roof and was attached to a thick corded cable sandwiched between two massive metal wheels.

“Is this going to take a long time?” Mat asked.

“It takes half an hour to go up, going down takes about half the time. All five lines can be used at once, but as you can see it still presents a major bottleneck for moving troops. And the Sweepers currently hold the monopoly on small, highly trained groups of soldiers. Any that our enemies could send our way wouldn’t stand much of a chance against the full might of the Sweepers,” Alkir replied matter-of-factly.

The door had a recessed flat handle like an oversized belt buckle. Alkir reached his hand into the depression and pulled the door open and let Mat go first. Inside was covered in white seating which ringed the floor. It had cushions made of white stitched leather that was soft and supple to the touch. Tired of walking, Mat sat down with a sharp sigh of relief. Alkir shut the door and opened a small central panel beneath a cushion and the gondola lurched forward almost silently, the only sound was the gathering wind. They swung back and forth, released by the port the gondola had been resting in. Mat dug his fingers into the soft leather cushions and clamped his teeth down in a nervous fit. The gondola was swaying as it rose higher and higher through the air. An errant breeze started it swaying in an altogether different direction and the incessant rocking was beginning to make Mat queasy. He shut his eyes so the room would stop swaying but it did nothing for his uneasy stomach.

Alkir stood effortlessly, his perfect form resisting any influence the swinging gondola could make. He watched Mat for a few minutes. “You’re looking pretty green around the gills Mat. Open your eyes and look at me. There you go, that’s it. Now just focus on me and nothing else, yes, good. The room won’t seem so bad if you focus on me,” said Alkir.

Mat tried as best as he could to focus on Alkir’s rooted figure, his hands gripping to the leathered seat of the bench. The slosh-like sway of the gondola was a stomach-churning slow and sickening back and forth wobble like a wide ceramic plate clattering to the floor. The deep greens of trees and clumps of mountainous rocks fell away beneath the gondola by the edges of his vision and around the solid footed Alkir, who somehow managed to remain perfectly upright. Mat felt like he was rolling up one side of a bowl, down, up the other, and then down all over again. Try as he did to focus on Alkir it made little difference to his queasiness and jagged, raw nerves.

Mat spoke up through gritted teeth, “Am I going to be in trouble when we get back Alkir?”

Mat had wanted to ask that since Alkir had given him the cloak. It hadn’t escaped Mat that no other Sweepers came along. It was likely that nobody else knew where Mat was and that Alkir had left the compound to find him without expressly telling the Elders. At the very least he imagined they’d be cross with Mat for going so far. He couldn’t imagine what sort of punishments they would inflict to the youngest member of the Order, but whatever it was they were planning couldn’t be good.

“Not once I explain what happened. They might not like it, but they’ll accept it. In either case, you’ll know how to get back to the compound after we arrive. So if you manage to Displace yourself in the neighboring area, you should be able to find your way back. Instead of waiting for someone to come and kill you. If you knew how to get back you’d have been back already by the time I had narrowed down where you were,” teased Alkir.

Mat folded his arms and frowned since he didn’t find it very funny. “Why didn’t I ever get to see the outside of the compound? I didn’t know it was so close to King’s Valley. Seems kind of embarrassing for you. My mother settled right under your noses and none of you knew where she was,” jabbed Mat. He thought to be bitter about it, to be angry, but his mother was a Sweeper and she would know where they were likely to search and where she could get away with hiding. It wasn’t so much a problem with the Sweepers, but that his mother was simply too good at hiding.

Now it was Alkir’s turn to frown and cross his arms. “It’s not like any of us thought she’d be in King’s Valley. She could have gone anywhere and done anything. Besides the last we had heard she was in the court of Grachyr around fourteen years ago. That would’ve been about a year after she left the Order. Did she ever talk about that to you?”

“No, she didn’t like to talk about her past much. She always told me, ‘when you’re older Mat, then I’ll tell you everything,’ but that never came. I still wish I could find out what she had wanted to tell me,” said Mat, following with a weary sigh.

Alkir could see he had touched a raw nerve and quickly changed the subject. “Once we’re back, we’ll be starting your training in earnest. You’ve already wasted a few days with this little holiday of yours. I hope you know you’ll have to make up for those days with extra training Mat.”

Mat kept his eyes down but couldn’t help but to smile a little. “Do I get a preview of what I’ll be undertaking?” he asked with thinly veiled interest.

“Footwork and strength training,” Alkir said mechanically, “it’s no secret that you’re awkward on your feet, have little in the way of balance and your muscles are weak. Don’t look at me like that Mat! You know what I’m saying is true. You’re a fast learner but your body has suffered volumes of torture the past few years of your life. You need a steady and solid foundation if you’re going to be a Sweeper and we’ll start with your largest shortcomings. It’ll be boring and hard but there’s nothing to be done about it.”

Mat sank deeper into his seat and watched Alkir’s shiny black boots to keep his focus, the tossing of the gondola weighed on him less. I’m not that weak am I? I cut one of the Sweepers enough to hurt him didn’t I? But I do get tired frequently, I suppose. Deep down Mat knew he was right. Mat was small for his age and even for his height he was scrawny with barely enough strength to stand up to a hike through the woods that wasn’t much longer than a couple of hours. He flexed his hands and balled them up tight into fists. He most definitely did not feel weak, but Mat knew Alkir wouldn’t suggest something if it wasn’t necessary.

“So what, I’m going to be lifting weights or something?” asked Mat.

Alkir only grinned.

“Come on, tell me! You don’t get to be quiet after all this,” snapped Mat.

Alkir’s shoulders raised and he rolled his eyes. “We’re almost there, you might want to stretch your legs out, we’ve got more walking and I’m not going to carry you back.”

Mat frowned and kicked out both legs, flexing the heel of his foot outwards so it’d catch on the metal flooring and stretch out his calves. The shift in Alkir’s mood was palpable. The closer they got to the Order the more professional and quiet he got. Mat was beginning to think that it wasn’t Mat that would be in trouble, but Alkir. He had half a mind to directly approach Alkir about it, but he sincerely doubted he’d tell him. Though Alkir had promised to always tell him the truth, telling him nothing wouldn’t be a breach of that oath. He lifted his legs and bent forward to touch them, stretching some more. With a quick bounce he rose to his feet, ready to leave. A quick sideways glance out the window made Mat’s knees weak. The town below was covered beneath a thin haze of low-lying clouds, but even still it looked like a set of miniaturized toys for children. He couldn’t fathom how far up they were but it was definitely higher than he had ever been dozens of times over.

Alkir turned away from Mat and widened his stance as the gondola docked and came to an abrupt stop. Mat’s already wobbly legs gave out and forced him to sit down, harder than he would have liked, on the white cushions behind him. Alkir swung the door out and motioned for Mat to go ahead.

“After you,” he said.

Mat grumbled, pushing his hands hard against the cushion to propel him upright and he hastily stalked out and onto dry, rocky land. Mat was appalled that there wasn’t the slightest semblance of safety here. Where there had been railings and gates to protect people from accidentally falling or crossing into dangerous territory, there was nothing at the summit. The rocky ground quickly turned to a sheer drop that would kill anybody cursed enough to fall. Alkir yanked on Mat’s cloak to pull him from the edge, the jolt made his heart skip a beat and for a moment he flailed like a child.

“Don’t go near the edge Mat, they can give way,” he warned gravely.

Mat shrugged his cloak back onto his shoulders and pulled to straighten it out. He followed behind Alkir, staring at his back wondering what Alkir was thinking. The summit was a windy place with gusts of wind interspersing the westerly flows. Mat pulled the cloak tightly around him to ward off the chill of the mountain air. His eyes stung from the harsh blustering. The summit was little more than a wide path carved into the mountain with several rusted and broken tracks that led into boarded up mine shafts. Most of them had worn-out signs warning of dangerous fumes and collapsed tunnels, complete with the Grachyr seal - a songbird perched on the tip of a sword.

Alkir paused for a moment looking for something. “The tunnels change every so often. There are brothers and sisters of the Order who routinely collapse and open up new tunnels, each of which is only connected to one path. They always leave a subtle sign to other members so we can find our way. I had gone through that one, on the far left when I came to find you, but it looks like it’s been changed.”

“What would happen if you picked the wrong one?” asked Mat.

“Most likely nothing. We’d just get lost and lose a lot of time. But there’s always the possibility that the shaft could collapse on us, or some crystallized cerelune could be rigged as a trap. It’s always best to find the right path first even if it means looking for an especially – aha, here we are,” he blurted out, tapping poignantly on a broken board, “Ativrin, always with the subtle hints. I’m going to get even for this, I’ve told him before he needs to learn how to leave a better tell.”

Mat looked at the board but couldn’t tell anything was off with it. “What’s different about the board?” he asked.

Alkir motioned Mat over and drew his finger across the board. “The grain runs straight from left to right see? But the board it was broken from runs at a slight angle, if you were to join the two together you’d see that the grain changes ever so slightly from left to right. Like I said, Ativrin is too subtle. He thinks people view every little detail like he does. It’s a problem you might have as your perception and awareness increases, we call it Sweeper’s Dilemma. You begin to think that people can spot your habits and track you when even the most trained soldiers outside of the compound wouldn’t have the slightest clue. It causes a unique sort of paranoia and makes it hard for us to integrate with others who aren’t of the Order. To them it’s like we’re operating on an entirely different level and speaking some foreign language. It tips them off that there’s something odd about us, and that is dangerous.”

Mat could understand that. If he was supposed to blend in on an assignment and began exhibiting signs he was above whatever station he was masquerading as, it would raise a lot of questions he couldn’t answer. “Does that happen often?”

“More often than you’d expect. It’s hard to adjust to the life of a Sweeper but it’s even harder to pretend like you’re a normal person after you’ve changed everything about yourself. We have to emulate feelings and reactions we no longer have but only possess the faintest memories of. It’s like a whole other life you need to take on, it’s for that reason that the youngest members are selected for intelligence gathering and infiltration. They’re young enough to easily slide back into an old lifestyle and way of being normal. While the older Sweepers are reserved for assignments that are tailored to their expertise.”

“Am I going to get a lot of intelligence and infiltration missions?” asked Mat.

“That’s most likely, I’m still able to pass for normal but just barely. It’s gotten harder the older I get. More than anything I’ll be your backup in the shadows while you infiltrate on your own. I’ll execute on the intel as you gather it for me. Sweepers generally work in teams of two or more, very rarely do we work alone. A Sweeper never goes in alone without their partner, remember that Mat.”

“So,” Mat said squeezing himself between two dusty boards following Alkir into the mine shaft, “does that mean I’m your partner?”

Alkir kept his eyes forward as he spoke, there was barely enough light for him to see, but Mat had no trouble with seeing the sturdy beams holding up the shaft or the sway of the disused mining tracks. “Yes, and no. I’m your Sosen, it’s my duty to protect and teach you in the ways of the Order. The Elders may give orders but it’s my role to interpret them for you in a way that not only you’ll understand, but be able to act on with efficiency.”

“Wait,” Mat said, quickening his pace to catch up, already his legs were growing stiff and beginning to burn, “are you saying you can change the orders the Elders provide if you think it’d better suit me?”

“Perhaps not so direct as that, but yes I do have that authority. It should go without saying that the Elders don’t appreciate that and depending on how the assignment is resolved may not let the transgression stand.”

“They’d punish you for doing what was best for me? That seems a bit harsh.”

“It’s a case-to-case basis. If I give you different orders to protect you and you’re able to better fulfill the objective at hand then there’s no reason to think the Elders would punish for that.”

Mat stumbled, his head spun and he had to force himself to walk straight. His legs burned as if his blood had been replaced with acid, the pain was making them numb and heavy. It was all he could do to keep his feet from dragging. It felt like he couldn’t get enough air into his lungs, every breath felt empty and hollow. His head pounded and he was beginning to fall behind.

It didn’t take long for Alkir to notice something amiss and he turned to Mat, walking back to him and trying to look at him through the darkness. He took something long and thin out of his pocket and cracked it over his knee with one hand, shaking it vigorously. Bright neon green flooded into the tube he held and illuminated the tunnel around them. He held it aloft above Mat’s head so it cast light upon his head and shoulders most of all. With his free hand he checked Mat’s vitals and quickly reached into his cloak, pulling free a folded white cloth.

“Take this, Mat. Mat, stay with me, you have to focus. Take this,” he urged, putting the cloth into Mat’s weak hands.

Mat could barely feel his fingers, his vision had grown hazy and there were three Alkir’s in front of him competing for his attention. He squeezed as hard as he could on the cloth but it was so feeble that the slightest breeze would have blown it out of his hand. While Mat focused on staying awake, upright and holding onto the cloth Alkir produced another silver flask of water and drenched the cloth in Mat’s hand. He quickly took it from him and wrapped it around Mat’s mouth and nose, tying it in the back. It was hard to breathe through so Mat tried to remove it. Alkir constantly smacked Mat’s hands away while moving his mouth like he was shouting, but Mat couldn’t hear anything. After a few more anemic and struggling attempts Mat stopped trying to remove the cloth and focused on breathing, letting his hands fall limp.

Every breath was laboriously strenuous but he found the strength to continue somehow. Each lungful of moist, cottony air felt thicker and richer. His head slowly cleared and his arms and legs began to regain their senses, replacing their numbing weight with a buoyant prickling sensation that both tickled and hurt. The prickling was made worse by even the slightest movement, prompting Mat to stand ramrod straight and still. It crept up from his feet and hands approaching his shoulders and slowly abating. Mat’s vision cleared and while he still couldn’t make out what Alkir was saying, he could hear a dull ringing.

Alkir hadn’t moved a muscle since Mat stopped resisting like a child. He watched the clarity return to his eyes and saw the telltale signs of tingling that would return after the numbness had passed. He waited patiently, breathing in the same air that had been making Mat delirious. “Mat, can you hear me?” he asked tentatively.

Mat could do little but nod in response.

“Good, now listen to me. There’s a cerelune leak somewhere below us. It’s slight but it’s enough that the fumes are affecting you. I cannot express this enough. Keep that cloth tight to your nose and mouth. It’s filtering out the fumes, in a few moments you should feel good enough to get moving. We’ve still got quite a bit of walking ahead and we need to get you out of the tunnel as soon as possible, nod if you understand what I just said.”

Mat paused for a moment. He had heard him but he wanted to ask why Alkir wasn’t affected. If it was poisonous for him wouldn’t it also be poisonous for Alkir? But before Mat could say anything Alkir shook him violently and yelled, “If you understood what I said shake your damn head!”

Mat nodded dumbly.

“Good, I’d ask you why you didn’t respond right away but I couldn’t understand a word you’d say anyways, so save your words until after we’re out, okay? Nod if you understand.”

Mat gave a curt single nod and motioned ahead, hoping Alkir would lead them out. Alkir turned promptly on the balls of his feet and marched onward in the darkness, keeping the glowing rod of neon green high above his head. Illuminated in this way, Alkir could see better and urged by Mat’s exposure he hurried through the confusingly similar tunnels. Even though Mat’s head had mostly cleared he couldn’t tell what was guiding Alkir. Maybe it was a smell or the feeling of fresh air that Mat was numb to. Either way, it wasn’t more than an hour of walking with the cloth tied about his face before the light of day shone ahead of them.

Mat wanted to tug at the cloth. It was irritating to have it wrapped so tightly around his face. As it dried Mat could breathe easier, but the wooziness was beginning to slowly return. He was about to say something when they turned into an adjacent tunnel and a blinding light pierced through the arid dark that surrounded them. Alkir pocketed the glowing rod of green light, plunging them into a twilight released by the bright point of light ahead. As it filtered down the tunnel the light shrank until the tunnels were barely lit with more than a soft glow. Alkir breathed in deeply several times, the breeze from the mouth of the tunnel brought cool air that rustled Mat’s cloak and hair. Alkir turned his head to look over his shoulder at Mat.

“You can take off that cloth now. The fumes shouldn’t be in this tunnel, even if they are the fresh air should keep them back,” he said.

Mat promptly reached up and angrily attacked the knot behind his head that kept the damnable thing in place. His childish scrabbling did little to undo the knot so he yanked it down to rest around his neck like a scarf. When he bent his head down to look at it, the white was stained a deep cerulean blue. As Mat was busy with his new fashion accessory, two Sweepers had emerged from side tunnels and were quickly closing in on them. Alkir raised a hand in a lazy greeting and stopped. From behind the motion was an immediate command to stop. Mat followed without thinking and stood at attention, the fresh air not more than thirty paces bringing in scent of flowers and the sweet, cool fragrance of fresh water. He breathed in deeply through his nose and lingered in ambrosial bliss.

Closing his eyes he could picture a wide, cool mountain lake surrounded by funeral lilies of the purest white. Their pollen, white as the driven snow would catch onto the swirling mountain breeze and create a whirlwind of opulent white that would flow throughout the rolling fields of funeral lilies. The knee-high grass would ripple in time with the lake down below and the small footpaths would meander lazily throughout the fields until finally coming to rest at a small cottage. The cottage would have stone walls with large and smooth river stones of soft pastels. The pollen would drift about like a flurry of snow, spreading the sweet attar across the mountainside.

It wasn’t until he was shaken that he awoke from his reverie. “Mat, what’s wrong with you?” asked Alkir.

Mat stammered, “N-nothing, why? Where’d the two Sweepers go?”

Alkir’s expression flattened. “You didn’t hear any of that?” Alkir asked incredulously.

Mat gently tossed his head side to side.

Alkir had a hard time composing a straight face, the edges of his lips kept quirking upwards. “You were daydreaming?” he choked out, in between his laughs.

Mat looked him in the eyes. “So what if I did?” he asked defensively.

“It’s the oddest damned time to check out. Of course your mind is probably still cerelunian addled. We should get you out into the open air, just in case. Don’t need you tripping out and trying to catch fairies out in the fields, bare-assed,” teased Alkir, setting off another bout of laughter.

Mat kept his mouth firmly shut, lips pressed into a thin line. It didn’t take them long to get to the mouth of the tunnel. They walked at a brisk pace in complete silence. Mat idly toyed with the silver tassels and silver chain below his hood. Each tassel pulled the rim of the hood tighter so it could close around his head and keep out inclement weather. The silver chain that hung just inside each tassel at the neckline seemed purely aesthetic but Mat liked the way it gleamed and swayed as he walked. The rest of the cloak was split down the middle by a long, wide silver zipper with a deep inversed ‘V’ around the knees to stop the cloak from inhibiting movement of the legs. He plucked at the material. It was thin yet sturdy and didn’t readily blow around when fully zipped up. Mat however hadn’t kept his zipped up so his lived-in, now off-white shirt was visible whenever a slight breeze caught his cloak and opened it up fully.

The sun shone bright enough that Mat had to shield his eyes from its glare. He followed Alkir’s feet to the left, down a path paved in smooth river stones an assortment of pale colors. When his eyes had finally adjusted what he saw laid out below him was breathtaking. The mountainside was almost exactly as Mat had envisioned, with a few exceptions. The path, though meandering was paved with tiny smooth pebbles a wide variety of pale, not pastel, colors. The white funeral lilies dominated the fields where knee-high blades of emerald grass swayed like water, but there was no cottage. The lake was larger than he had thought, and served as a hindrance to the massive castle at the edge of the cliff on a raised plateau. There was no bridge over the lake, only one path near the cliffs on the right and left of the mountain and in clear view of the castle’s turrets and walls.

Mat hurried to walk alongside Alkir, who had relaxed slightly since coming into sight of the compound. Several people were out in teams of two and three among the lilies, dancing and twirling madly, performing such feats of acrobatics that would make the most accomplished circus performer jealous. It took Mat a few moments of watching them before he understood what they were doing. They were dodging the thick motes of pollen that drifted and floated about in a flurry of white. Their black cloaks clung close to them, showing only a few brief blooms of white. They were clearly competing against each other, with an older instructor taking note of when a mote managed to make contact with one of the Sweepers. It hadn’t escaped Mat’s attention that despite the instructor standing relatively still, his cloak was black as a starless night.

They made their way down the meandering path as Mat watched all the accomplished Sweepers training and practicing outside. Several more stood stonily at various points and kept their gazes focused on specific points along the mountainside. When they passed near one of them, a chill passed through Mat. He could feel the Sweeper’s gaze pass right through him as if he wasn’t even there. It filled Mat with a cold and hollow feeling. He shrugged it off the best he could and pulled the cloak tighter around himself to warm up. Alkir’s pace quickened as they reached the lake, where several Sweepers were swimming and diving, staying under for inhumanly long times. Mat couldn’t help wonder if he would ever match up to any of these people. He seemed like little more than a helpless babe compared to these examples of efficiency and excellence.

Mat tried to keep his gaze towards his feet as they walked midway between the lakeshore on the right and the cliff’s edge towards the left. A fell wind blustered up from depths below and Mat made sure to stay on Alkir’s right, as far away from the edge as possible while still walking the path. He looked up towards the castle. The walls were made of sandy colored stones all slightly different colors, giving the massive wall a feeling that it was slightly orienting itself to meet its disciples. There was no gate, just a tall space in the stones enough for three men to walk abreast with ease. Several people clad in black cloaks patrolled the top of the wall, casting their piercing eyes down towards the pair making their way towards the opening. At the edges where the wall met the cliff were tall towers with merlons tall enough to hide a full grown adult. The sight of a Sweeper passing in and out of sight was vaguely unnerving.

“This opening isn’t always here,” said Alkir pointing to it, “The wall is capable of opening and closing at several points. It stays open most of the time but if there’s ever an issue the wall closes up. It’s far safer than having a breach through the wall that can be closed at will rather than a large gate which poses a constant threat. The parade grounds inside are probably the liveliest area outside of the castle. You’ll see what I mean when we get inside.”

The two of them had to walk up a steep switchback to get up onto the raised ground the castle was on and so they walked parallel to the wall for quite some time. Mat gently placed his hand against its warm surface. The stones were smooth to the touch like crushed velvet. Each stone was perfectly square and fit into the next with no gap and a barely perceptible seam. There was no cement or grout that held the stones together that Mat could see, even dragging his hand alongside it he could hardly tell the wall was anything more than a single piece of stone with shifting sandy colors. He let his hand fall as he turned towards the opening where Alkir had just disappeared through. Although Mat was thrilled to see the outside of the Sweeper’s castle up close, he couldn’t seem to dislodge the heavy weight that had settled into the pit of his stomach.

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