Matter, Form, and Privation

Story by Domenika Marzione | Art by Anna Luna

Four

Sometimes it was as easy as getting to the Ring of the Ancestors first. Most of the time it wasn't.

If she had grown grudgingly used to an itinerant life among strangers, she was completely unprepared for an existence with the Wraith as her only companions. Calpain had never truly gone silent, not even in the dead of night, and the quiet of isolated worlds had made her nervous at first. Now she no longer started at innocent breezes or animals more scared of her than she of them, but instead grew to know them so that she could tell when the innocuous sounds she heard were anything but.

It seemed like most of the sounds she heard were of approaching Wraith. They would come alone at first, a single hunter for single prey. They were quicker than she was, stronger and better-trained and her only chance was to not get caught; they healed themselves of her shallower knife wounds and it would take little effort for them to snap her neck. On Charow, she had picked up an energy weapon more potent than the Wraith stunner, but her shooting was still erratic, especially when she was scared, and she needed distance and time to aim it well.

Despite the imbalances, however, she survived. There were many empty worlds -- those that had never been settled and those that had been settled and then destroyed by the Wraith -- and she stayed as long as she dared on each before moving on. Sometimes weeks, usually just days until her fear outgrew her comfort.

Ailinthe by Anna Luna

With time, her instincts improved and her skills sharpened. And yet she could feel herself wearing down nonetheless. Ill rest and insufficient food could not provide the energy required to be a permanent fugitive. It was hard to subsist by guessing which wild fruits she could eat and by using her mediocre shooting skills to try for fresh meat. Even when she found a planet where there was safety and provision, she couldn't enjoy it, struggling under the weight of knowing that it was temporary, that the Wraith would eventually find her and she'd have to flee once again.

Sometimes she was surprised when she entered a new world and encountered people. Usually they were hunters or, in the case of destroyed worlds, salvagers picking through rubble. She tended to leave worlds that were used as grazing or hunting ground, but she stayed on the ruined ones, figuring that anyone picking through the belongings of the dead deserved to be caught by the Wraith. She would go through ruins herself when she came upon them, but she was already damned. Many times over.

Once, she fell asleep in the bed of a half-collapsed house only to be woken by a trio of leering scavengers intent on taking from her that which she was not prepared to give. They were no match for her and when it was all over, she didn't meditate on the irony of killing men when her self-imposed exile was meant to save them, but instead went through their possessions to take what she needed.

All in all, she rather thought that she was going mad.

The first time simply existing got to be too much of an effort, she tried to treat herself to a day of normalcy. Rationalizing that the Wraith already knew about the big markets, she'd done her best to make herself look like everyone else and gone to swim in the sea of humanity.

She felt like she was drowning. Bustling crowds where she was jostled and couldn't see everything around her terrified. Even in the relative quiet of a tavern, she felt like her true identity was writ large across her face and those around her could see through her pretense. Subsequent trips, made with no aspirations to pass as just another marketer, were no better. The too-rare proper meal would taste like sawdust and be choked down because she needed the sustenance and she would invariably be forced to attend to her business -- trade a bauble for new boots, exchange three raw pelts for one treated one -- and then flee in tears.

She hadn't been to a market in what felt like a year but had probably been only months. Or maybe it had been years. Time was both impossible to judge -- short days on one world and long ones on the next, crossing from day to night and back again -- and completely irrelevant. She would run until she could no longer evade her pursuers and then the Wraith would kill her.

Not that she hadn't given consideration to letting herself be caught. There had been a time when, stumbling with exhaustion and crying tears she'd thought she'd finished with forever, she had stayed where she'd fallen, dropping into wretched doze. She'd been woken by her hunter with a swift kick to the ribs. Unable to muster the energy to get up, she'd curled in on herself and waited for it to be over. The Wraith had simply hissed in disgust and left her. She'd been too drained to even register the reprieve as anything more than a chance to sleep. It had been the only such gift.

At some point, she couldn't say when, she realized that the hunters were coming for her more frequently and in greater numbers. There had been a pattern to the macabre routine -- the Wraith needed time to find her again after each escape, that or they understood that she couldn't run forever -- but it had changed. The respites were fewer and further apart and the chase more unrelenting, her pursuers relying more heavily on their stun weapons while they continued to press their physical advantages. She wore down faster and yet the barrage continued.

More Wraith and less success escaping them left her with no chance to replenish her material stores as well as her emotional ones -- her boots were in desperate need of resoling and she'd run out of food long ago, living on whatever she could catch and eat. She lost most of what she could trade and had no time to acquire new things to barter nor to get the breathing room needed to risk going to a market to beg or steal.

Exhaustion made her both more reckless and less able to manage the risks. She wrenched her knee and battered her side going over a waterfall and still had had to run until she'd collapsed on the buckled joint. She'd even tried fighting back instead of running, but all that got her was bruises and scars -- the Wraith couldn't drain her life, but they could still cause her pain.

Every time she tried to go to ground, they'd come for her all the harder. Her safe worlds, the ones where no humans had ever lived, were no longer safe enough. She had to go between them more quickly, varying her too-usual empty haunts with those planets that simply didn't have a permanent settlement. She stopped caring about the hunters and shepherds who would take their flocks to uninhabited worlds to graze, staying on and hiding even though she knew the Wraith would follow her. Everyone took risks, everyone was at risk, and she just didn't have the energy to be so considerate any more or to bury her bitterness. She resented that she was a beacon for the Wraith while others got to live in a peace and quiet where the Wraith were constant threats but not omnipresent.

Eventually, she reached the end of her endurance. She could run no more. Her boots were gone so she'd been running barefoot and the fruits she'd foraged had made her so sick that she hadn't been able to stand for days. The last Wraith hunter she'd encountered had smashed her face-first into a tree and she kept opening up the wound on her forehead crashing into branches while running through forests. She kept going because the alternative was untenable -- the Wraith didn't want to kill their toy, so they'd just made surrender impossible. She'd collapse and they'd prop her up and torture her until she ran again by sheer instinct.

She'd known what she was doing when she stumbled onto Vergaine, a world with a small village on a coast near the Ring of the Ancestors and a far-flung network of villages on islands in their seas. The main village was small and Vergaine, being mostly water, had a population too disparate to herd or cull easily. If the Wraith came for her, most of the world would probably survive. The Wraith hunted her on foot and they would need their flying ships to cross the Seas of Vergaine. And so she staggered from the Ring toward the village, falling quickly and not rising.

She woke in a soft bed, unfamiliar sounds and smells surrounding her. She'd been asleep for three days, they told her, and she looked like it had been thrice that since she'd eaten. They gave her as much food as she could eat, clean clothes, and asked no questions about who -- or what -- she had been running from. The answer was seemingly obvious, but she did nothing to correct the impression that she had fled the destruction of her home.

The Wraith came on the fourth day. They came in force and they brought their flying ships that screamed as they flew out over the water. In the end, there was no one to lay the blame at her feet for the slaughter of Vergaine. There was no one left, at least not in the main village. When it was all over, the Wraith guards found her and dragged her before their commander, who in turn wordlessly signaled that she should be let go. The lesson of Charow hadn't been lost.

She stayed on Vergaine after the Wraith left, sleeping in the soft bed and eating the food left behind. She found new boots, strong fishermen's knives, and enough supplies to be ready when the Wraith decided that she'd been rewarded enough for her gift to them. With rest and comfort came remorse, but not as much as when she realized that she'd accidentally doomed Gaedras. Her compassion had been worn away, burned for fuel so that she could continue. As much as there were times when she wished she could die, when she considered sacrificing herself so that she could never put others at risk, she knew that it wasn't really what she wanted. She wanted to live.

The Wraith came again on the tenth day, this time for her. She ran.

Once off Vergaine, the cycle began again -- the Wraith chased her from world to world until she dropped, until she was starving and ragged and too bleary to aim her weapon with even her modest ability to hit a target. They caught her, made her pay for her weakness, and then set her free again to try once more until there was nothing left for her to give. It took longer to hit the end point the next time, in part because she was getting better at evading and mostly because there were more emptied worlds to hide on and replenish her supplies. There were more Wraith chasing her, but there had to be more Wraith cullings everywhere. There had always been refugees and abandoned villages, but never in this quantity. Even living apart, she overheard the stories of destruction and terror.

The last time she'd dared visit a town, she'd heard that Prala had been culled. But when she got there, she could see that it hadn't been -- that, or the culling had been far enough back that resettlement had already occurred. It had been a long time since she'd heard the tale and there was no saying how old the news had been then.

She'd come from spending three endless nights on Sidona, trekking through knee-deep snow in shin-high boots. She couldn't feel her feet, the crusted blood oozing from the gash in her right hand had started to freeze, and she'd eaten only snow the entire time. She was so cold -- sweat and Wraith blood had frozen her meager clothes stiff and unyielding -- and so tired and she'd gotten confused constantly as she'd stumbled back toward the Ring so that it had taken almost a day to make a trip that should have only been a fraction of that.

It had been a series of promises made and broken -- one more world, one more night, one last chance to evade her pursuers before she gave in -- that had let her survive Sidona. But now she had done so and she had nothing left with which to bargain. And so when she saw that Prala was very much alive, she didn't fight the impetus to press on, didn't even consider going back or somewhere else. She would have probably been safe on Sidona for a day or two, but only from the Wraith. The cold would have killed her first.

Prala had a small town dominated by an old edifice that dated back to the Ancestors and was surrounded by vineyards and fruit groves. No matter how often it got culled, it would be re-settled because the land was so fertile. She stayed beyond the fields, hidden from sight rather than accept hospitality. It wasn't fair, none of this was, but it was something the balance the ledger.

The Wraith came on the second day, their assault waking her up from the sleep she'd dropped into almost the moment she'd collapsed to the ground. It was over quickly and she hoped that the Wraith would leave her be, but they didn't. Once again, she was dragged before the commander.

"We cannot be bought off by such insufficient fare," he said, annoyance clear. He stalked over to where she was pinned between two faceless guards and ran a clawed fingertip down her cheek, cutting it. "You are a valuable tool. It will take more than this to buy your idleness."

The guards behind her opened fire. Three stunner blasts to the back. She woke hours later, still immobilized. It was a long time before she could drag herself up to standing and find a house with a bed. Knowing that the Wraith would return much sooner than last time, she packed quickly and stayed only a couple of days before moving on.

The Wraith were growing still more ravenous. For the first time, she escaped from her pursuers only to find herself in the middle of a culling. What made it even more odd was that attacking Wraith had no idea who or what she was and tried to feed off of her. She fought them off, using the energy rush from the attempted feeding to kill her attackers and escape into the surrounding forests. After they'd gone, she stayed until the first scavengers came.

The journey from Prala to Selangor took months. She knew it had been at least two before she'd broken her arm (in a fall on a world with no name and only an escarpment near the Ring to make it memorable) and at least that long for her not to need to tie it to her body. The broken arm had cost her dearly; acquiring food was very difficult and her weapon's recoil made one-handed shooting painful and slow. She was getting caught more easily, getting punished for her ineptitude more severely, and it was only a matter of time before she was ready to do anything for surcease.

She did not know of many worlds that would be sufficient to satisfy the Wraith and yet still small enough so that she didn't feel a traitor to her own kind. Most of the likely candidates had either already been culled or had strong ties to Calpain and she couldn't bring herself to doom them. It was not until she found the shards of a green glass vase on a ruined world that she remembered Selangor.

Selangor was a mystery to almost everyone in the galaxy -- nobody went there; if you traded with Selangor, they came to you. She doubted that the Wraith knew where it was, which made it all the more valuable even if it was too small. She knew the symbols for the Ring to get there, but legend had it that such information didn't do any good -- many had gone to Selangor and none had ever found the village there.

She arrived on Selangor in full darkness, with not even a moon to light the way. She hadn't been followed directly, so the Wraith would have to find her and that would give her enough time to find the village. She uncovered a place to hide and waited; it was not long after dawn that the Ring of the Ancestors opened again and others came. They were of the Selangor and she followed them as best she could from a distance, hiding in the trees along the path.

The path went on for as long as the horizon allowed it to be seen and she expected a long day's work, but was surprised to feel a prickle along her skin and to be faced with a busy town that had seemingly appeared out of nowhere. The Wraith could make you see things that were not there, but how could the Selangor make you not see things that were?

It was not long until she was found out and she didn't know what to expect from the Selangor for her trespassing. They valued their secret above all else -- it was the only way to protect themselves from the Wraith, after all. But instead of punishment or imprisonment, they offered her sanctuary. She was given food, clothing, and a place to stay. The generosity was not without price -- once she was healthier, they said, she would be given a daily task.

She found out about the nature of the magical dissembling in part through her bewildered questions and in part through the chatty young woman who brought her meals. It did not take much to convince Beresth to bring her to the machine of the Ancestors -- everyone on Selangor knew and if she were to become one of them, then it was her right, too.

Selangor posted no guards on the streets at night and she had gotten very good at moving silently in far quieter environments. The machine of the Ancestors was beyond her understanding, but it was beyond everyone else's understanding as well. It would be easy to sabotage the device; the question was whether she wanted to. Once the Wraith came to the planet, they would know where she was even if they couldn't see her. She did not doubt that they would come, even if she didn't know when. Would they accept her offering if they had to destroy it first?

She went back to her room without doing anything. But she spent the next day nervous and distracted, afraid the Wraith would come and that she wouldn't be given credit for her gift. That night, she exchanged parts that looked alike, an arbitrary process with an experimental tug here and a too-strong shove there. It looked the same as it had when she'd approached, but the hum that forever rang in the town was gone. She slipped back to her room and slept deeply, relieved.

The failure of the mirage was noticed before noon. She was worried that they'd be suspicious of her, but they were suspicious of nobody. The device shut itself down once every few years to renew itself and while this was not an expected time, it must have been necessary and they could only pray to the Ancestors that the Wraith did not come before it was restored.

Their prayers went unanswered. The Wraith came before dark, first hunters on the ground and then flying machines both big and small. This was not to be a culling, then. It was to be a razing. She ran with Beresth and the others into the mines, but the Wraith followed them. She was stunned and dragged back into daylight, dimly aware that she had been deposited near a still-burning building.

After the Wraith left and she had regained the ability to move, she picked through the charred and still-hot rubble for items she could use. Weaponry on Selangor wasn't advanced, but what they had was of fine quality and she exchanged her dulling blades for sharper ones that shone brilliantly in the sun.

On the fourth day after the Wraith had come and gone, she heard the Ring activating. Four days wasn't much time considering that she'd delivered an untouchable world to them, but she'd been prepared and withdrew to the forest to await a chance to escape to the Ring. From a distance, however, she could see that the arrivals were not Wraith. Were in fact humans dressed in unfamiliar clothes and carrying weapons that looked powerful for all of their sleekness. They were too clean and too relaxed to be scavengers, but they picked through the rubble all the same. When she lost sight of them, she waited a while and then set off for the Ring so that if the Wraith did come, they would find the scavengers and not her.

She heard footsteps approaching before she saw who was following. She could run or she could let herself be caught; running might bring the others but she was sure she could overcome just the one should it prove necessary.

"Please stop!" a woman's voice called out. "We do not mean to hurt you."

She stopped. At worst, perhaps she could get one of their weapons. Or a new address to give to the Wraith.


Prologue | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6/Epilogue
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21 August, 2006