When we got back to the base, I needed some time alone, so I took my platform (which we had made earlier out of the wood of the ship we got here in) and went just outside of the base, floating on the water.
Just two days before I left my home town I had actually disliked Mitilda, and she had disliked me too. How much things had changed in those two days... I was a totally different person now. A true rebel instead of a submissive boy barely even interested in magic. We had grown so much closer so quickly. And now the one person who had been in on magic with me from the beginning, who had kept my interest going for four years... was just gone. Martyred for her courage.
And I knew my parents were going to be arrested too for not turning her in. But I barely even cared about them anymore. They had been disappointed when they found out about the Greywoods being practicioners. They weren't rebels at all. They felt nothing for the cause of freedom. How could I feel any sympathy for someone like that?
And yet, they had practiced a little bit when they were little. But they stopped because of the threat of being arrested combined with it not seeming useful. Both factors were due to the Voren. So in a sense the Voren had taken my parents from me too, by taming them.
My fists clenched. Damn the Voren... and I was so completely helpless to stop them. How long would it be before I could avenge Mitilda and my parents? Years? Decades?
Yildirim came out to talk to me. "I have a story to tell," he said as he emerged from the water.
"I too lost a sister to the Voren. When they invaded, me and my sister Katuri were the last two Sentinels left. We were cornered by several Voren, including their master, who was holding some sort of rainbow orb. I had seen it before. I don't know how she does it, and I have never seen anyone else do it, but she charges this orb of energy and then throws it at her enemies. It seems to explode when it touches a person. And I knew Katuri and I were both going to die. So I pushed her into the rainbow orb while the Voren master was still holding it."
"You murdered your sister? What happened?"
"It exploded, as I expected. It killed all the other Voren around. When you kill someone, you absorb a fraction of their power, so each Voren that died gave me a speed boost as I flew away from the explosion. Somehow, I survived, and all the Voren there counted as being killed by me, which is how I got so powerful. The Voren master also survived, but she must have assumed I died in the explosion. Then I went into hiding."
"So we've both sacrificed our sisters, in a way. Only I had to be forced to."
"Yes. It wouldn't have been so hard for me if I hadn't seen her face just before she touched the orb... the anger. She thought I had betrayed her." Yildirim's voice got much weaker, and his eyes watered. "And now she will never know the truth..."
Wow... that made his story even sadder than mine. And if it was years before I could avenge my sister, it had already been decades for him.
"I'm sorry," I said.
His voice was barely audible now. "Thank you..."
"I want to go practice my magic," I said, suddenly energized and done with my grief. "Let's start working toward being able to avenge our sisters."
"You are right. This is the usefulness of grief, aside from serving the virtue of reverence. It can bring us a renewed passion. Let us go inside."
"Katherine," I said when we entered. "I want you to know I don't hate you."
"Good. You should try your magic. I bet it's a lot stronger."
It was indeed. I was starting to be able to conjure a small amount of neon, and to toss wood platforms around fluidly. I wanted to try sparring with Alistair, but he wanted to sleep, so I drained my mana until tiredness overcame me as well, and then went to sleep.
I was woken in the morning by Alistair. "Hey Jaydin, get up! I thought you wanted to spar last night."
I grunted. "I'm tired, okay? I was up way later than you."
"Whatever. I'll give you a few minutes."
"There are a couple rules of magic we may not have made clear to you yet," Katherine said. "For one, you can never telekinet something that's already being telekineted. Also, the difficulty of any magic scales up with decreasing distance from an enemy's body just like it does with increasing distance from your own."
After a few minutes, I was ready to fight. Yildirim flew us up to the sparring room. "Remember," he said, "the objective here is not to win, but to practice. In a fight against the Voren you won't be using your fists or tackling each other at all, so try to avoid those tactics. You are here to practice your skill with telekinesis and evasion. Now begin."
The room was currently empty, so I started by trying to conjure a couple of small stones to throw. Alistair was working on a single, much larger rock, so I was first to start flinging stones at him.
David was spectating. "Fast and weak versus slow and strong, I see. A classic dichotomy."
The first stone hit him. After that he started to dodge some of them. I wanted to re-pick-up the ones that missed and keep throwing them so I wouldn't have to conjure more, but I couldn't really pick them up from so far away, at least not when they were also so close to Alistair, so I ran toward him to make it easier.
Soon Alistair's rock was finished. "Better dodge that Jaydin," David said. I didn't need to be told that, of course. I did dodge it. After that I started throwing the little rocks at him again. Then he realized - as did I - that there was nothing stopping him from just picking up the pebbles I threw at him and throwing them back, so he forgot about his big rock and started doing that.
"I was wondering when you would realize it," David said.
We threw pebbles at each other for a while, prompting David to say, "This fight is boring." Then Alistair conjured a swarm of sand particles and sent them at my face. I instinctively tried to fight his telekinesis, but this didn't work at all, so I got sand in my eyes. Then he hit me in the back of the head with the big rock while my vision was impaired. I gave a cry of pain followed by a yield as I continued trying to clear my eyes.
"That easily?" Alistair said. "I only got one good hit."
"Well it wasn't like I could stop you from hitting me again. That sand attack was devastating." Finally I finished clearing my eyes out.
"You can't be losing to simple tricks like that when you go to the fight the Voren," Katherine said. "The sand blast is a very basic technique. Luckily we have all the time in the world."
"So new recruits," Elijah said. "What do y'all think about the origin of the world?"
"The origin of the world?" I said.
"Yeah. How did it get here?"
"I dunno," Beatrice said. "I wasn't there and I don't know anyone who was."
"There seems to be a plothole, doesn't there?" Elijah said. "How the world came to exist is an interesting question, but regardless of the answer, what was there before that? Something must have created the world. And what created that being?"
"Who says the world must have been created?" Alistair said. "Maybe it was just always here."
"But then the present is defined recursively," Elijah said. Alistair gave him a blank look.
"I don't think he knows what you mean," Katherine said. "Neither did I or anyone else in this room the first time you talked to us about it, which says something about your choice of terminology."
"Okay, look. The world is the way it is right now because it was a certain other way a moment ago. Right?"
"Combined with the choices of its inhabitants," David said. "You gotta remember that the people in this world have free will, so the present isn't the only factor that determines the future."
"True, but you get my point. Anyway. I was gonna say, but it was only that way because of the way it was a moment before that. The point is, each moment in time can't exist without the moment before it. So there can't just be an infinite past with no beginning. But there also can't have been a first moment in time. It seems like the only thing that's possible is for nothing to exist."
David rolled his eyes. "This is why nothing good ever comes of listening to Elijah."
"I think it's a very interesting conudrum," Katherine said, "and you just can't appreciate it because you haven't your brother's intellect."
"I have an idea," I said. "You know how the same thing applies to morality?" Elijah nodded, Alistair shook his head.
"So we all agree that some things are good and some things are bad," I explained. "But there's usually a reason. For example, stealing is bad because it deprives someone else of their property. And you can think of another level of explanation: depriving someone else of their property is bad because it's cruel. But eventually you run out of reasons. Someone can ask why being cruel is bad, and there isn't really an answer. It just is. Morality has to start somewhere. So maybe causation is just like that: there's allowed to be a first moment in time simply because there has to be."
"That's a good thought," Elijah said. "But then shouldn't the world have been in some non-arbitrary state at the beginning of time? Morality isn't arbitrary; there are patterns to what actions are good and what actions are bad. All of the virtues make sense: they come in pairs of opposites, there's two for each energy, et cetera."
"Correction," David said immediately. "No two virtues are opposites. The opposite of any virtue has to be a vice. You meant to say 'they come in pairs of complements."
"I stand corrected. Anyway, so you'd think the world's original state would've been the same way: logical. But it doesn't seem like there is a possible starting state that's logical."
"So it was a random one," Beatrice said. "I don't see what your problem is."
"I insist that randomness cannot exist. Randomness would mean something being created from nothing."
"Didn't we just decide the world was created from nothing?" I said.
"Well I meant information being created from nothing. As far as I've seen, the world is deterministic except for beings with free will. There's no such thing as randomness, and I'm not willing to simply add that to my ontology."
I didn't know what ontology was, but I could sort of infer it from the context. "Well I can't help you anymore. Sorry."
"Jaydin, Alistair," Yildirim said. "I think you are ready to start fighting edge guardians for practice."
I remembered the wolf that had nearly killed me when I escaped from the seventh pillar (I had learned the creature's name when we were all telling stories the evening after I arrived). I had grown a lot since then. But I assumed I would be fighting without a dagger this time. "I'm not sure I'm powerful enough to beat one of those wolves without getting badly injured again. Are there edge guardians weaker than that?"
"Your pillar has the second weakest. But you and Alistair will be fighting together, so I believe you can handle it."
"Don't get intimidated now, Jaydin," Alistair said. "I'm worth two of you in a fight, so we'll be fine."
"Tonight we should see if Gabriel or Nayomi is willing to go inform your loved ones," I said. "Gabriel almost certainly is."
Hunting wolves went well. Alistair and I were able to take down one together quite easily by remembering the sand blast and convincing Yildirim that we should be allowed to use my dagger and Alistair's sword because otherwise we would've just conjured rock weapons before the fight. We even took down two at once.
Gabriel and Nayomi both wanted to be the one to inform Alistair's loved ones, but Nayomi convinced him that it was her turn to go on a mission that would bolster her magic strength. Katherine was the one to fly her to the sixth pillar and back.
"Alistair," Nayomi said over the telepathy channel when she was done. "You lied about your loved ones being practicioners."
"I was trying to get Jaydin to go do it earlier, so I made it sound like they were more important than they were."
"Fair enough," Katherine said. "I would've done the same."
"Did I hear you right?" I said, greatly offended by this hypocrisy. "You would've lied to your allies to infect them with your personal biases so they would do something they wouldn't do otherwise? I could've lied about Mitilda's importance, you know!"
"Going to rescue Mitilda would've been a strategic mistake. Informing Alistair's loved ones wasn't. Alistair lied to make you behave more objectively, not less."
I guessed that made sense. But it was still frustrating.
The king flew down to Mitilda and Hobart's cell with a second bed trailing behind him, which he then telekinesed into place. "I've brought you a bed, as promised. Say, I forgot to ask your name."
"Why should I tell you?"
"Hey, I'm giving you an enormous cell with a comfortable bed, three meals a day and a fellow prisoner to talk to. The least you could do is not be a pain."
"The least you could do is stop being an evil monster and let us out of here, kill all your guards and quit pretending you own this pillar."
"How rude," the king said. "Look, I know I'm evil. I don't deny that. I just think that when I treat you far kinder than I treat most prisoners, I'm owed a little bit of courtesy in return."
"It's not 'kindness' to put us in this dank pit in the ground we can't get out of and electrocute me when I try to follow you out. You're a snotball, and I owe you nothing. Besides, you haven't told me your name."
"Zerik. Now reciprocate, please."
"I don't know what that means."
"It means to do the same."
"No." She looked away from him, and tried to drool.
"Fine," Zerik said. "Anyway, I wanted to play some zo with you. I assume you're not up for that?"
She got a respectable amount of saliva to come out, and caught it with magic. Then she telekinesed it at Zerik's face.
It got him. "What the - gross!" He telekinesed his wood platform and bashed her with it.
She tried to get her own telekinesis locked on it to fight his, but it had no effect, and it hit her in the head. "Ow! Why won't it do?"
"You can't telekinet something that's already being telekineted by someone else, no matter how powerful you are."
Mitilda wondered if she could use that somehow, but she couldn't stand hearing him say that word wrong. "The word is telekinese, you blockhead. And no, of course I'm not going to play zo with you."
"Neither of you? Really?"
"Never," Hobart said.
"Fine. Then I'll just go back up and you two can continue to sit in your cell." He stepped onto his platform.
That gave Mitilda an idea. "Wait! I'll play, but you have to let me out of the cell."
Zerik smiled. "Fair enough. We'll play in my room. Come on."
They flew up to his room, and determined a random mirrored start position to play from. Mitilda tried to draw out the game a little just to maximize her time outside of the cell. She also tried to memorize the layout of everything to help formulate an escape plan. Presumably they would be flying out through the shaft once they got powerful enough and sneaking out while the king was asleep, but she had to be able to unlock the trapdoor from the other side, and that meant no looking.
Zerik won the game by a landslide. "Not really a surprise," he said. "I've been playing ever since I arrived in this land, which was some eighty years ago."
"You never did tell me anything about the land you came from."
"I don't remember any of it. I had to give up my memories to fuel the lifespan extension magic I mentioned."
"So there's a price for immortality... neat."
"Yes. In addition to an enormous mana cost."
"But surely you wrote down a summary of your memories before you gave them up."
"You can't. If you remember the memory you sacrificed, the magic is undone. I'd die immediately if someone were to remind me of my past."
Mitilda took mental note of that too. If there was a way to find out what his past was, she could kill him by telling him about it.
"Can we play again?" she said. "I think I can do better this time."
"Of course." Zerik won again, but not by quite as much. "You should practice with Hobart some. He refuses to play with me, but maybe he can teach you a thing or two so I can play him indirectly."
"Did you have zo in the land you came from?"
"I don't think so. I must have given up my memory of learning to play, but I do remember being a novice after I came to this land."
"Wait, I have a better question. Did you have to learn our language when you came here?"
"Yes. It didn't take long to get it to a passable level though. It's surprisingly easy to learn a language when you have nothing better to do with your time then practice it with native speakers all day. Anyway, ready to go back to your cell?"
"Why do you keep up this pretense? You know you're going to have to force me no matter how long we wait."
"Very well." Zerik got up from his chair.
Mitilda figured this was her last chance to try this idea. She didn't know how this was going to turn out, but she knew the king didn't want word getting out, and that meant she did want it. So she ran to the door and yelled, "Servants come in here there's a problem!"
"No!" Zerik said immediately as he slid the table telekinetically to block her from getting out. "Do not come in! I have the situation under control!"
Mitilda telekinesed the chair in the room and bashed him with it, although he was fast enough to turn around and block it with an arm. "The king's name is Zerik and he's an all-powerful mage!" she said to the servants.
"Noo!" Zerik yelled. He couldn't just electrocute her because the servants would hear that and know something was up. So he grabbed the chair, which cut off Mitilda's telekinesis, and tried to whack her with it, but she dodged it and started telekinesing the silverware from the table at him.
Zerik picked up the couch and slammed it into her, knocking her to the ground. "Don't listen to her she's lying and I've got this!"
Mitilda telekinesed the doors open (they opened outward). This would prove to the servants that either the king had done it, which meant he was a powerful mage, or she had done it, which meant there was a powerful mage in the room who was fighting the king and thus the king was in danger unless he was himself a powerful mage.
"Drat!" Zerik said, and stopped attacking Mitilda temporarily. "Servants come in here, all of you!"
Mitilda tried desperately to warn them. "It's a trap he's going to kill you to stop word from getting out!"
It worked. At least one of the servants was running away. Zerik ran out of his room, shooting a hail of fireballs at them. Murdering a bunch of his own servants just to keep his secret... disgusting. Mitilda ran out after him. Now was her chance to escape.
But Zerik was already done killing all the servants who had seen. He turned to her immediately, telekinesing a bunch of the dead bodies into her to knock her down.
"Damn you!" he said. "You will regret this!" She tried to get up and flee some more, but the lightning hit her next.
Zerik nearly killed her with the lightning. When he was done, she could barely move, and the pain was far worse than Nemesis's sword wound. "If you resist any more..." Zerik said, "I, will, murder you." His voice sounded monstrous, not like the jovial old man she had just played zo with.
Mitilda wondered if death would be preferable to letting this level of pain go on. But she knew she still had a chance of escaping, which meant she couldn't throw her life away. So she didn't resist as Zerik flew her back down to the cell.
"What did ye do to her?!" Hobart said when they reached the bottom. "Ye monster!"
"She forced me to kill a bunch of my loyal servants. Now make sure she doesn't die." Zerik flew back up the shaft.
Hobart immediately came and cast darkness magic on her lightning burns, which seemed to give her a small relief. "What ever did ye do this time..."
"Why darkness?" Mitilda managed to say between her cries of pain.
"Lightning is to light like fire is to heat," Hobart said. "Zerik telled me that."
"Neat..." she groaned. "I just wish I could fall asleep right now..."
Mitilda couldn't sleep at all that night. She couldn't even be quiet, which kept Hobart awake too. It was the most miserable night she had ever had, and probably his too.
The next morning, Zerik came down. "What do ye want now?" Hobart said immediately.
"To help her. I figured she's suffered enough now." He was carrying a cup and some cloths, which he telekinesed over to them. "Soak a cloth with this liquid and put it on the lightning burn. That will heal it."
"Why should we trust ye?"
"Because if I wanted to hurt her further, there are simpler ways I could do that."
"He has a point," Mitilda said. "Let's try it." They did.
"Also," Zerik said, "I thought I'd let you know how that little event yesterday worked out. I managed to cover it up by saying the prisoner I was interrogating used her magic to slaughter a bunch of my servants and was about to kill me, but then she accidentally killed herself because magic is dangerous and volatile."
"Drat..." Mitilda said. "Well, I'll have you know I don't regret what I did, and I won't no matter much you torture me."
"That isn't true. I could make you regret easily if I wanted to. But I'm not going to. Unless you do that again, in which case I will kill you without hesitation. Anyway, goodbye. Maybe we'll play some more when you're feeling better." He flew back up the shaft.
"So have you thought about an escape plan at all yet?" Mitilda asked Hobart.
"No, because I know escape ain't possible."
"Come on Hobart, you can't do this! You're a revolutionary and the cause needs you! You don't have the right to despair!"
Hobart sighed. "I don't see ye doing anything to help the cause."
"Look, how about flying out through the shaft he uses? It's the obvious plan, but I don't see what's wrong with it."
"Try it. See how far ye gets."
"I'll need a platform." She tried to conjure a wood platform like Zerik's, but nothing happened even after several seconds. She double-checked that she could conjure rock, but wood wouldn't work. "I can't make wood."
"Wood's an organic substance. It can't be directly conjured."
"Then how do we make it?"
"I don't know and I don't think ye is going to figure it out."
"I'll ask Zerik the next time I play with him. But for now let's try with a rock platform."
"Ye shouldn't play with him," Hobart said as he watched her conjure. "He doesn't deserve no enjoyment."
"But neither do we deserve to be stuck down here all day. You should come with me next time. I'm sure he'd let us both go up to play a consultation game."
"I'm doing the selfless thing by hurting myself to hurt him. Ye would be a better person if ye did the same."
"Says the guy who hasn't helped annoy him at all."
In a minute, Mitilda had conjured a slab of rock big enough to stand on. In a few hours when she was feeling better, she took it over to the shaft, stood on it, and tried to levitate. With her eyes closed for focus, she started to ascend.
"Whoa..." Hobart said. "Ye's actually doing it..."
Mitilda opened her eyes to check her progress. She was a few feet in the air after about ten seconds. Then she closed them again to focus. "I'm gonna do this!"
After a minute, though, she started to feel low on mana. She had been low when she started from putting darkness on her burns all night. She knew there was no way she could make it all the way to top with this much mana, so she started to go down. "Don't have enough mana..."
"Even if ye did, what's ye's plan for getting out? Ye can't open the door without looking at the lock mechanism."
"I paid attention to it while I was up there. I'm pretty sure I can unlock it without looking."
"I bet ye can't. And I also bet ye's entire full mana reserve ain't enough to get all the way up that shaft."
"Maybe not, but I'll keep practicing. I'll keep pushing it to extend it. And you'll do the same. And eventually we'll be able to get us both out of here."