It was Ileniel’s birthday, and despite the persnickity scholar’s wishes, both Namiss and Antian had insisted on trying to prepare a grand meal for him. Namiss because she was Namiss, and she did such things, and Antian because against all odds, he and Ileniel had become something like friends in the preceding month. When Lorin and Sifani walked in to the nook – little bigger than a closet – that served as the tower’s kitchen, Namiss and Antian were arguing over the presence of onions in the stew they were concocting.
Lorin solved the problem by picking up the entire onion in question and throwing it into the pot without preface. Namiss’ short black hair swung as she turned round, outraged, and Antian scratched his wispy beard in confusion, the dim lantern in the corner illumining the crest of his bald head like a stand lamp.
Sifani placed her hand on Namiss’ arm before the girl could release the string of curses she reserved just for Lorin, for special occasions. “Sorry. That’s his way of calling an important meeting.”
Namiss huffed under her breath. “Great. Now what have you two gone and done? We were actually having a bit of peace and quiet around here, if you choose to ignore Lorin’s flapping tongue every day, like I do.” However she complained, she hurriedly cleaned her hands and gestured for Antian – who was still staring disconsolately at the whole onion bobbing in the stew – to follow.
Both Jatan and Ileniel were reading books in their respective rooms when the others fetched and assembled them around the long table in the central chamber, the circular, all-purpose space that resembed a dungeon on its best days where the band had spent so much of its time. Once they were all seated, looking none too enthused about the idea of a meeting in the sleepiest part of the afternoon, Sifani stood and clapped her hands together by way of introduction.
“Looks like we have a decision to make, everyone.”
Jatan gazed at her thoughtfully, his chin resting on folded hands. Sifani paused, wondering if she had offended the band’s leader by calling a meeting he knew nothing about. However, he simply nodded his head as if to ease her mind. She held his tired eyes a moment longer – he looked tireder than usual, these days – and proceeded with her speech.
The biggest challenge was fumbling through an explanation of what had happened that very morning. It would certainly seem as if she had made a rash decision, but Sifani had thought about it long and hard. If the action was sudden, it was only sudden to those who weren’t her closest confidantes – which, it was true, meant everyone but Lorin…
Upon Sifani’s recounting her meeting with Donis, the response was about what she expected.
Ileniel, who appeared to be growing out his ponytail again, snorted derisively. “A young fool, that’s what you are! I feel as if ‘it’s a wonder you’re not dead!’ is all I ever say to you!”
“That’s because that is all you ever say to me, Len,” Sifani flashed him a smile fit to make a candymonger sick.
Namiss had her small hands to her face in disbelief. “Donis? By the gods, Sif! You should have at least told us what you were going to do!”
“Lorin had my back. I wasn’t worried.”
“Like you ever are!”
“In any case,” Sifani plowed ahead, “I’m sure you’re curious as to what he told me. This, my friends, is where our decision comes in.” She paused for effect, too late realizing she had picked up some of Lorin’s flair for the theatrical. “Brace yourselves.”
She told them of Donis’ true reason for rescuing her from Nume a month earlier – of his desire to leave flux and live as a regular mortal under the band’s protection.
Her friends’ reaction was immediate and vociferous.
“It’s official – she’s lost her mind. We should all back away from this mess while we still can!”
“Quiet!” Lorin stood up, his voice a thunderclap in the chamber. Silence fell as the echo died. His expression shifted from stern to grinning in an eyeblink. “Thank you, kind sirs and ladies. Before you throw this chance aside, how about we listen to the rest of Sifani’s story? You might find that the research opportunity that goes along with Donis’ flight is too good to pass up.”
Sifani nodded her agreement as eyes turned back onto her. “That’s right. Research opportunity.” Unsurprising, that this would be her trump card. “I haven’t yet told you the reason Donis wants to leave – it’s not because of his fellow Deities at all. He claims there is something new in flux, a presence that presents too much of a risk for him to stay. He hasn’t investigated the origin or nature of the presence, but claims he knows it is dangerous. It could be something that our great and not-so-wise Creators created…or it could be something else.” She inhaled deeply as the nervousness tickled her consciousness again. “Anyhow, we’ll never find out for sure unless we investigate ourselves.”
Antian’s eye practially twitched at that. Sifani watched as he scanned each face around the table, stopping at Jatan’s. Then, he wholly surprised her.
“That…doesn’t sound like enough information to build any kind of decent investigation on.”
Lorin raised his eyebrows at the man. “I must’ve misheard you, Antian. You’re turning down an opportunity to learn something new?” He looked to the sky, interrogating the heavens. “What are we coming to?”
Ileniel, of course, spoke harsh truth without hesitation. “Maybe you two reprobates hadn’t noticed, but the last time we stepped in over our heads, people almost died.” He eyes shifted to Namiss involuntarily. “Not all of us feel the same way you do about life-threatening situations. That is, we don’t get our highs from them!”
The implication made the blood flame in Sifani’s cheeks. She swallowed her initial outburst, but let it burn down to a steady fire in her chest before approaching Ileniel slowly.
“How dare you,” she growled. “How dare you imply that I put friends in danger just to get my share of excitement out of life! By your friendship with my father, you should be ashamed of your own disloyal thoughts! I would never, as long I draw breath, level such an accusation at you, Ileniel, though some might say you warrant worse!” Trying to keep her voice level, Sifani turned away, quivering treacherously. She had learned the price of letting her anger get out of control. “We are the only ones – the only ones – who are gathering the information that our ancestors left behind about the power of the Reehlers. The world they lived in might as well have been an entirely different one from ours. Reehlers walked from day to day beside non-Reehlers, and weren’t feared or deified. They knew things about the world, wonderful things, I’ll wager, that we will never again know if we curtail our research just because of opposition. I don’t know about you, but this is my life’s work. I will always hold that life spent recovering this knowledge is a worthy one! And I refuse to come to the end of my days and wish that I had done more!”
Lorin began a slow clap. Sifani wanted to punch him.
Jatan cleared his throat. “I think you all may be missing the most salient point. What was one of the first principles we established when we began our research?” He jabbed a finger into the air for emphasis. “Anything we do in the epheria has an effect on the real world, whether we can see it or not. We started our research with humility, knowing it would be folly to assume we knew every nuance of the power we were dealing with. If the epheria affects the world any time it’s manipulated, I imagine that flux does even more so. If whatever it is that Donis is afraid of exists, then chances are it’s only a matter of time before it becomes our concern, too.”
Sifani nodded. That, too. she thought, a bit chagrined. That point was an easy one to forget, she had to admit, in the midst of her own noble, self-declared goals of recovering her ancestors’ knowledge…and sating her own curiosity.
Namiss had listened attentively to Jatan – he was the only person she ever really listened to. “So you think we should take advantage of this early opportunity,” she repeated, “Find out what we’re up against before it begins to cause problems for us, and all that.”
Jatan nodded. “And it will be dangerous.” He kept his eyes from Ileniel so intentionally that it was obvious the man was the addressee. “That is, and always has been, the nature of our work.”
Ileniel grunted something under his breath.
Antian had removed a notebook from his coat and his already-moving pen scritched in the proceeding silence. “Well, then, the first order of business is to get more information from Donis.” The last word was spoken uncomfortably – the straight-laced man had never grown comfortable with the Deities’ un-deification. “Do you think you could summon him again, Sifani?”
“Summon” wasn’t really the word – Donis had attempted to make that, if nothing else, abundantly clear – but she overlooked the mistake. “I know I can. If he wants to make a deal with all of us, he’ll have to deal directly with all of us.”
“Wonderful! That’s all settled then.” Lorin drummed his hands on the table in the carefree manner that was all his. “Tomorrow, we meet with the king of the gods, make a decision about whether or not to act as his protectors, then hunt down a threat we know pretty much nothing about in the deadly netherworld of flux. My kind of a day!”
Sifani moved down the hallway that evening, eyes on the floor, when a familiar voice startled her from her reverie.
“Watch yourself, lady.”
She looked up, stopping herself just in time from barreling straight into Lorin. She made a noise of mock scoffing. “For such a big lummox, you move surprisingly quietly.” She made to move past him, but he stepped in the same direction she did, blocking her path.
“Lorin,” she quirked her lips at him, “what are you doing?”
His grin was all mischief. “Since we’ve been talking about the things that happened a month ago, I was just thinking…” He put his face enticingly close to hers, forcing her to look him in the eye. “That ‘conversation’ we had before you entered flux for the first time? I’m thinking it’s long past time we rehashed that ‘conversation,’ Sifani.”
“Lorin!” To her dismay, she felt her cheeks heat. After their passionate kiss that day, Sifani had kept the topic of them at arms length. There were just too many other things to deal with and think about – plus, the thrill of battle led people to do things that made a lot less sense in retrospect.
“We haven’t really gotten much privacy lately,” Lorin said, continuing to block Sifani’s attempts at moving as if it were accidental. Noticing her resistance, though, he abruptly straightened both body and face. “Are you okay?”
“I…just thinking. You know me.”
As quickly as he had initiated his flirtation, he grew serious and moved from in front of her to beside her, matching her step as she resumed walking. “Okay, tell me what’s going on.”
His thoughtfulness warmed her, and on a whim she took his arm, like she might a close friend. Well, maybe a bit tighter than that. “I’m trying to work out what might be the origin of an object in flux, based on what I know about the epheria, Deities, and transposition.”
“Tsk. Same petty topics as usual. You disappoint me, Sifani.” He flinched, blocking Sifani’s feigned punch. “So what have you concluded so far?”
“Concluded? Nothing at all, though I’ve guessed at a great deal. When I was in flux with Donis, he was able to create objects there, like a bench, for example. Except, the bench wasn’t permanent – it was just a reflection, a figment of our imagination, just like our bodies while we were in that state.”
“Therefore, I don’t think that anything the Deities could’ve created would pose a serious threat. If, for example, they created something like the dog-creatures in flux rather than in the epheria, they creatures couldn’t last, because they would only be imagined things. They would need the solid ground of either the real world or the epheria to survive in.”
“You don’t think this ‘thing’ that Donis spoke of was created, then.”
Lorin always had been good at following her reasoning. Sifani shook her head appreciatively. “Exactly. I think it was already in flux. Though that state is nothing like our world, it’s still composed of something. And within that something might be life that we can’t conceive of in our limited paradigms.”
Lorin considered that, at the same time grasping for an explanation that was a little less abstract. “Well, couldn’t it be something or someone besides the Deities that managed to enter flux, or something that the Deities created outside of flux that found a way to get inside?”
“It could be another human, I suppose, though it seems unlikely Donis would be so scared and reticent about just another mortal. As for a some-thing rather than a some-one getting in, keep in mind that the only way humans can get into flux is by re-making themselves, and there is no other conscious being that has a complex enough mind to do that. So if it were a beast of some sort, it would have to be a mighty intelligent one. Possible, I suppose. Possible and terrifying.”
Lorin laughed at that, drawing a glare from Sifani. “Don’t pretend you’re afraid, Sifani. It doesn’t suit you.”
Her pleasure at the compliment turned into snark, as it often did. “I’m never afraid for myself, Lorin. I’m always concerned, on the other hand, that your own flimsy and easily-botched plans will get us into deeper trouble than we’re already in.” As if he didn’t go along with what she wanted most of the time, extricating her from danger as often as not. Not that she would ever admit that.
He shrugged ingenuously, and Sifani slipped her hand from off his arm as he did. “Well, I’m off to learn a new board-and-pieces game from Jatan – something he picked up during his time off from the band. Also, Namiss may or may not have promised me a new pipe to smoke, since she bartered my last one.” He rolled his eyes playfully and moved to leave, then glanced over his shoulder, expression softening ever so slightly. “Care to join us?”
“I’d never give up the chance to irritate Ileniel with you, partner,” she winked, and followed him out of the corridor.