As I awaken, I slink from the room with greater care than before. Luke’s suspicions proved annoying, so I will exercise greater caution in the future in order to prevent his questioning.
As I pace out of the dorm, I dodge around the guards before I dash towards the forest. Aether’s perspective interests me. Such an old, powerful creature must understand far more of eternity then I. He may even ally himself for my cause, but it matters little. I will simply evolve until I can stomp this world under my heel.
Well, besides Jack. He proves exceptionally useful in a variety of circumstances, and even though he holds back my mutations, I enjoy tinkering with various chemicals and polymers for densifying our frame without deforming it. The challenge excites my mind, and Jack’s earlier display on the roof entertained me beyond what I believed possible.
Luke’s plight also speaks of my greater purpose. He would never have suffered had I consolidated them both, though her death may have spurred his own ambitions. After grieving with Jack, Luke’s vitality expanded by epochs of power. It’s difficult discerning the exact morality of her death after I dwell on it.
The concept leaves so many questions for my answering. On one hand, the living suffer at the death of the ones they care for. This suffering overwhelms many as it exposes the greatest fear of sentience - loneliness.
This loneliness engulfs the weak, but those who persevere evolve from the experience. Jack embodies this ideal. The death of his parents granted him a will vast and deep. Neither Gaia nor I may stop him alone. Instead of wallowing in his suffering, he rises above the obstacle even using it as a driving agent for his progress.
These thoughts plague me as I near the edge of the forest where Aether rests. Alastair covered his tracks with an experienced care, but he left a signal for my following.
Aether owns no scent, but this lack of smell leaves him reeking of nothing as few substances have no smell. The diamonds I’ve smelt in the past owned no scent. Souls have no scent. Whatever substance Aether’s made of, it has no scent.
The only relation between diamonds and Aether remains their ridiculous hardness, so I hypothesize Aether’s density prevents him from leaking any of the molecules that give other materials odor.
As I’ve experienced many scents since my inception, all I do to find him is just follow the trail of odorless air. After passing several miles of forest, I spot his hulking frame sitting on the edge of a cliff overlooking a valley with a familiar pale girl spotted with freckles.
As my feet crush leaves, Sophia peers backwards spotting me. The pale moon accentuates the cream complexion of her skin while the glowing blue of Aether bathes the scene in a bright turquoise. The shade he emits during the day converts into a brilliant radiance at night.The effect pleases my eyes.
The trees even give off smooth shadows due to the angle of his glow granting the area the appearance of an aquamarine campfire. Since the light never changes in volume, the shadows never move either granting them a tranquility similar to the sun’s shadows.
As I soak in the scene, Aether peers behind with Sophia saying, “Who is this? Ah, it is good to see you. You were right Jack, the star’s shine fills me with gentle memories. I enjoy bathing in their gentle splendor.”
Sophia stares at me with absolute wonder at his declaration, so I say stomping the confusion before it begins, “I am not Jack. I am his friend, Deluge.”
Sophia raises an eyebrow as she says, “What?”
Aether says ringing his metallic baritone, “He is more than one, just as I am more than one.”
She glances between us in confusion, so I elaborate on Aether’s concise explanation, “Remember how I was different during our first meeting?”
Her small eyebrows scrunch up on her face as she says, “Yeah. I didn’t like you very much.”
I smirk as I sit between them both saying, “the feeling’s mutual. I’m that persona you saw that day. The Jack you know is someone else.”
She nods as she says, “So it’s like you have two souls?”
My grin broadens as I say, “Hah, hah, hah. I carry far more than two mere souls in my wake.”
Sophia says, “What? How many souls can you hold?”
I say as a breeze brushes the limbs around us, “All the souls to have ever existed, and all the souls that ever will.”
She stares stares at me with her eyes glistening with wonder as she says, “That’s...incredible.”
I lean towards her saying, “Enough questioning me. Allow me the opportunity to satiate my own curiosity. Why do you not sleep?”
She averts her gaze as she leans down kicking her feet through the air at the edge of the cliff saying, “Uh...Ever since my change, I haven’t been able to sleep...I can’t rest knowing I have two lives to live...I would think anyway.”
Her thoughts remind me of Jack’s, except he lives for three lives not including my own. I say, “You and Jack are similar in that regard.”
She taps her fingers against the ground as she says, “Uh...could you tell me about him?”
I open a palm with curled fingers towards her as I say, “So you want to know of your love interest?”
She reddens while I laugh at her reaction. I say, “Let’s start an exchange. I answer one of your questions, so you’ll answer mine. Tell me what you know of the fragments of Gaia. I will tell you about Jack afterwards.”
After several seconds of intense mental debate and struggle, she sighs before murmuring with a rapid pronunciation,
“The Remnants of Gaia are slabs of alexandrite that contain portions of Gaia’s soul. While the gems are priceless in their own right, the near endless amount of souls each harbours allow an experienced gemchainer to tear through entire armies of normal soldiers if Gaia would allow it.”
She raises her head meeting my gaze as she says, “No gemchainers have ever survived attempting this, but many have tried. I don’t know about the exact precision of that statement however. I recall Alistair telling me of an apparent demon stealing a fragment’s souls and even the remnant of Gaia lying within. Would you happen to know anything about that?”
I raise an eyebrow as I say, “More questions you know the answers to I see. Yes, I engulfed the souls and the portion of Gaia as well. My biological abilities allowed me to do so.”
She nods as she says, “Well, at least I can’t discount your honesty. I don’t really care since no one could use the souls inside anyway, but the gemchainers are going crazy over it since they worship Gaia. Be careful.”
I frown as I say, “Enough with warnings. Finish answering my question.”
She stares forward sighing before she says, “I’m remembering why I hated you before.”
I smirk as I say, “So you're forgetful as well?”
She meets my gaze for a moment before she frowns saying, “I think I'll call you Jackass from now on. Anyway, the only other thing I know about the remnants is how one’s at the top of the tallest mountain in the world, Mount Altiant. They say literal storms of iron and ice plague the higher stretches of its peaks.”
She looks forward as she says, “Who knows. It doesn’t matter to me.”
I stare forward in silence before she says, “Are you going to answer my question?”
I smirk as I say, “I answered the question about the remnant didn’t I?”
She stares at me as her eyes permeate fury and her hands clench at her sides. I raise an eyebrow as I say, “You aren’t accustomed to humor I see. Calm yourself. I shall answer your honesty with my own.”
I recite our tale, and I choose using Jack’s own words for describing his parent’s death as they describe his emotions with an absolute clarity. Afterwards, I narrate the story as I understand it, and tears fall from Sophia’s cheeks long before I finish.
Once I end at our need to collect the Remnants of Gaia, Aether says interrupting his serene quiet as he says in in his deep voice,
“The relationship you two share. It is wonderful. I remember the humans who worshipped me from before. They would offer sacrifices of other mammals enriching the soil around me. I would offer them shelter in turn.”
I raise an eyebrow as I say, “Hah, I pray Jack never seals me in a block of stone for all eternity out of ignorance and stupidity.”
Aether leans closer towards me saying, “Why do you lash out like that?”
I squint my eyes as I say, “How am I lashing out? You compared Jack and I’s friendship with a cult of easily manipulated idiots, so I pointed out a key flaw in the comparison.”
Aether looks away from me. He hunches cracking the stone underneath him. His motions mimic the motions of a sad person ,but I neglect addressing his plight. Overlooking Aether’s misery, I peer towards Sophia as she buries her gaze on her legs. As she wipes the tears from her eyes, I say,
“Why did you cry?”
She sniffles as she chokes out her reply, “I don’t know...Jack just seems so happy now...I can’t understand it.”
I raise an eyebrow as I say, “Do you believe happiness is dictated by what occurs to you? Jack should offer a compelling counterexample, though you may lack the comprehension to see that.”
She stares at me squinting her teary eyes as she says, “Why is everything you say laced with so much venom?”
I smirk as I say, “Communication often bores me. I find fighting a battle of words as I discuss matters more enthralling.”
She wipes her eyes saying, “Sounds like a waste of time and mental energy.”
I tap the side of my head as I say, “Only for those with little intellect to spare.”
She punches my shoulder as she says, “Me and Aether were having a great conversation before you ran up spewing your hate filled nonsense.”
I turn towards Aether as I say, “Did I not speak the truth?”
Aether looks towards me as he says, “I am new to full sentience. All I know is I am sad now after your comments.”
He looks away from me as I squint my eyes saying, “Hmmm...Jack has spoken with me of my bluntness before. He compared it to using a hammer to move a glass statue.”
I stare towards the center of the valley below as I say, “I may have broken your glass statues with my hammer. I am sorry for that.”
Sophia busts into laughter at my apology, so I say, “I was serious with my declaration. Why are you laughing?”
Sophia says, “I...I didn’t expect it was all.”
Aether turns towards me with his silent movements, so I say, “Do apologies offend you as well?”
He says, “Ah...no. You seem like someone who would never apologize. It surprised me.”
I shake my head as I say, “What do you both believe me? Some sort of murdering monster?”
Sophia scratches her head as Aether says lifting his hand towards me, “Yes, at least partially.”
I raise an eyebrow as I say, “Every person I killed died after inflicting wounds that would’ve killed Jack if not for my tampering. They never truly died either. Their souls waft in consolidation for all eternity...Or at least till my death.”
Sophia leans on hand as she says, “What is consolidation?”
I open my palms as I say, “It is a collective of souls I harbor. Each entity within the collective understands the others completely, and through that understanding, they achieve both purpose and fulfillment. It is a perfect solution for all life, and I am the enactor of its change.”
She raises an eyebrow as she says, “So Jack could talk to Morne and Kless?”
I wrinkle my chin as I frown saying, “Why would he speak with the people who allowed the villagers to murder him? He was betrayed by his new family. He still owns scars from it.”
Aether says, “But you can heal perfectly. How does he own scars?”
I turn towards him saying, “Ah, you remind me of when I first assimilated with Jack. I struggled to understand their language as well, but there is a beauty in its complexity. I meant he received a mental wound that healed, but caused consequences.”
Aether nods as he says, “So like a tree that held through a mighty storm, but the timber now grows crooked?”
I raise both my eyebrows as I say, “Precisely. You’re not as naive as you seem.”
He turns away from me grating his words as he says them, “Just as you are no imbecile, neither am I.”
I wince at his words as I stare at my legs for a moment. Both of their anger’s are justified as I spoke without tact earlier. I should suffer for it. I say, “I want you both to understand something...I am very...ignorant when speaking with others.”
I scratch my head as I fumble my words, “I am callous...I know little of eloquence or charm...I lack the grace of Jack. I know this, but...I just wish to speak with someone. I am sorry if it is unpleasant.”
Aether straightens his physique as he turns towards me becoming a foot and a half taller than I even when he’s sitting down. He says,
“You speak with a fire in your words. They heat the minds of those around you. I think your wit causes your problems. It snaps like a whip. Try slowing your words. That may ease their sting.”
I instantly think of the reply, “Of course a tree suggests slowing down,” but I swallow my words as I stare forward. Any being that lives for longer than a century must have at least some wisdom right? So I follow his words as I stare at the valley below.
Nightingales sing in the trees opposite of us while the wind blows in zephyrs that tap the leaves of trees against one another. The cool of night molds against me with a comforting blanket of chill. The soft earth offers a smooth, easy resting place.
As I breath deep, the smell of wood, earth, and flowers fills my lungs. The young grass beneath us reflects portions of Aether’s light giving the ocean of green a sea of cerulean. Aether says after several minutes of silence,
“‘Those who move swiftly experience no more than those who move slowly.’ One of my followers from many years ago recited this beside me. I believe in the wisdom of his words.”
As he finishes his words, Sophia lays on her back as she uses her hands as a pillow behind her head. After several minutes, I do the same sounding a dull thud as I land against the earth. My sight shifts as stars gleam. The endless abyss of space ignites with the light of endless solar anomalies, and after several minutes, Aether leans back as well.
As he reaches the ground, a boom shoots through the earth vibrating both Sophia and I. After the leaves settle from his explosion, I stare at Sophia’s face. Her hair raises from the explosion while she stares at me with the same curious expression.
Aether says in a low alloy of embarrassment and bluntness, “I am sorry. I am not used to moving yet. It is strange.”
A smile cracks on my face before I chuckle while sophia smiles at Aether. I lift myself turning towards him as I say, “I remember my first time moving a body. I shambled like a walking corpse.”
He places his hands on his stomach as he says, “I can control my movements, but it feel like I should support myself without effort. If I ever cease focusing, my body collapses so suddenly. It is strange.”
Sophia says voicing her growing concern with a worried tone, “Is it hard to hold yourself?”
Tapping his index finger against his chest, Aether says exposing a hint of melancholy in his voice, “It is more like I operate in a world of sand. Everything crumbles at even the slightest of force. Supporting this body is effortless besides maintaining my focus for it.”
I ask as I squint my eyes, “How strong are you?”
He turns his blank face towards me as he says, “do you notice the difference between stone and air?”
I raise an eyebrow saying, “Of course.”
He says harbinging his power behind him, “I struggle to distinguish the two.”
My stomach sinks before I rasp, “How do you not break what’s around you?”
He stares back at the sky as he says, “I do not know. I may be able to control it due to the souls binding my strength to this device. That is my only guess.”
He turns towards me as he says, “You are strong as well. How do you avoid destroying what’s around you?”
I blink a few times a I tilt my head. How do I avoid breaking things? I say, “I don’t really understand it myself.”
Sophia rolls her eyes as she says, “You’re both strange.”
Turning towards her, I say, “I am a symbiotic parasite from a meteorite. Aether is a tree golem. Did we really defy your expectations?”
She places her left index finger on her chin for a moment before she says, “I suppose not.”
After several minutes of laying in a lull of comfortable silence, I ask Aether, “Do you sleep?”
He says, “I can no longer do so...I used to sleep when the wind turned cold and the sun no longer shined. My lower leaves would shed, but my upper leaves maintained their splendor regardless of how cold it became since I pierced all clouds with my height. There, it is always cold.”
Sophia says with a childish wonder, “What do clouds feel like?”
Aether says with a lower voice, “Cold and wet.”
She replies as though she tasted spoiled fruit, “Oh...ok.”
Aether lifts his arm towards the sky as he says, “If you’d like...I can speak of the sun. Perhaps that will reinvigorate your spirits.”
She frowns saying, “I see it everyday, so you probably can’t tell me much more than I already know.”
Aether says with a tone of longing greater than the yearning of lost lovers, “The sun is so much more. Below the clouds, it provides a lingering warmth and an omen of summer and spring. But...it is above the clouds where it truly shines.”
Aether raises his other hand upwards as he says, “Every moment I wish to go back there. The light crashed against me radiating a splendor beyond what this earth may yield. I felt a luster rather than the faint sheen we experience here on the ground.”
Aether grips his hand into a fist with a controlled slowness as he says, “And those days were stolen from me...”
His voice alters till it sounds like ripping steel as he says, “By that rotten magician!”
Right before he slams his arm into the ground, I grab Sophia covering her. The next moment a shockwave shatters through the forest echoing a concussion of sound. My eardrums burst as I guard Sophia’s, and we fly through the air whipping from the violence of his fist’s impact.
My back slams into a tree, but I absorb the force before I land on my feet wobbling. I shove Sophia from my grasp before I fall forward thudding on the ground. My jarred perception teeters while my ears ring. After several minutes of nausea and mind numbing vibration, I regain my bearings enough to heal my injuries.
The disorientation disintegrates as I regenerate my broken eardrums and restructure the organization of several of my synapses. Shaking my head, I lift myself by pushing with my arms. Cracks creep from Aether’s fist while all forest debri from the nearest 30 feet scattered away from the center of the force. Aether stares around himself glancing around his as though perplexed by his own strength.
Ignoring his confusion, I jog towards Sophia finding her dazed but uninjured. Despite her alarm towards my approach, I wrap my fingers around her neck sensing her pulse. She reddens at my grip, and she even tries pushing me away nudging with her weak arms. The reaction confuses me. I raise myself from her as after checking her health as she slaps me across my cheek.
No pain registers from the attack, so I ignore her assault as I pace towards Aether saying, “You meant what you said with rock being like air then?”
Aether lifts himself from the crater as he leans towards his feet. He stares at his limbs for a moment before saying, “I’ll need to...restrain myself more thoroughly from now on. I am sorry Deluge...Is Sophia alright?”
I raise an eyebrow as I say, “She is, but only because I saved her. The shockwave from your attack would have likely liquified her insides if not for my guarding her. That and the sound destroying her eardrums or the shrapnel piercing into her flesh.”
Aether says with a light tone as his shoulders droop, “I think I will stay here for a while. My moving is...dangerous.”
I shrug my shoulders as I turn around. Aether’s act ended the conversation prematurely, so I’ll just harvest and read for the rest of the night, though Sophia will need help returning to her dorm. She still writhes on the ground bewildered by her surroundings. With rest, she’ll be fine.
I walk over as she moves her arms mumbling incoherent strings of words. Her eyes glazed over after the explosion, so she must be unconscious despite her eyes staying open. Based on her blood pressure, heart rate, and the dilation of her pupils, her vitals operate like normal. She suffered a concussion then.
I walk over picking her up from her stupor, but her fighting multiplies as I place my arms under her shoulders and knee joints. She pushes and scratches at my face, but her hands will crumble before injuries occur on my head. I paid extra attention when I altered Jack's skull as it attracts the greatest punishment. The effort reimburses me during moments like these.
As I run towards Mareovosa, she mumbles words in sporadic bursts throughout the journey, “Stop it...I don’t want this...leave...please...I deserve this...She never had chance...I’m not alive.” Her words stem from her experiences. She has suffered much in her short life. Perhaps more than Jack. It doesn’t matter to me regardless.
Tears streak her face as I reach her dorm, or at least the room she lives in. I used her scent to find the location, and the school gave her a room on the second floor of The Hearth’s basement that Sophia crafted to her specific needs. The damp, musty air skims my skin as I enter through a tidy doorway saturated in her scent.
A small mattress with a desk holding a glowing piece of opal lays beside her desk, and the semi translucent stone looks like frozen air with a nebula in it. Aether’s alexandrite outweighs the beauty of the stone, but no other crystals I’ve seen compare with its elegance.
The charts lining her room’s walls stick using a thick putty, and the smell of paper and metal reminds me of the library; I enjoy it. As I set her on the bed, she ceases her contortions with the soft bed guiding her to slumber. She relaxes as she lays on the bed without moving besides the gentle up and down of her chest.
Before I leave, I move her legs and arms into the correct anatomical position for sleeping, and I spot two unlevel legs on her bed frame that leave her rest unlevel. After slicing squares of paper from blank parchment in her desk, I place these squares under each of the irregular legs. 17 squares for the left side and 12 for the right.
The cold of the room also defeats her ability to metabolize through the chill, so I throw Jack’s cloak over her sheets as a precautionary measure against her freezing. The mess of her room leaves me uncomfortable, so I organize her bookshelves, runes, metal plates, gem collection, and I devour the numerous spots of mold in her room. Mmmm. Delicious.
After fixing the qualms in front of me, I watch her breathing on the bed, and an unusual feeling strikes me. Not lust, but comparable. The sensation reminds me of my feelings for Jack. I want her protected. I want her to be happy.
I shake my head as I rip my gaze from her. I will ask Jack about the feeling tomorrow. Perhaps he will understand.
After absorbing several minerals from The Hearth, I ingest several solutions from the hospital for my tampering. They produce interesting chemicals for healing humans. Many of them may prove valuable as blueprints for my alterations.
After rejoicing over the work ahead of me, I peel through two books in the library. They hold information about the world’s religions which may prove useful in our journey later on, but I doubt the information’s current usefulness.
As I start on my third book, Jack awakens from slumber. I lift my head scouring my surroundings in a rush to hide myself. I lost myself in the words on the page. Surprising. After I crawl from the building through the vent, Jack asks, “So how was your reading?”
I crawl across the stones by wedging my claws between bricks as I say, “Enlightening. I found nothing of use, but it entertained me regardless.”
After we reach his dorm, I say, “I left your cloak with Sophia. She’ll return it to you when you meet next time. I need your help with something however.”
He says, “What is it?”
I say frowning, “you need to speak with Aether.”
Jack spouts, "Dammit Deluge, why didn't you head my warning?"
I shrug my shoulders as I say, "I tried. "