Fair warning - it, and the ones above, discuss a blood ritual, past violence, death, and some sort of messed up aether workings.
It's not a FINISH, per se, but it's more of the story.
There were many places Kalaket would rather be, and yet at the same time, this place - this was history being unmade, remade, pulled apart like a fraying rug and re-woven. It was fascinating!
The fact that it involved several things that Kalaket did not want to think about or be too near, well, that was a small price that Kalaket was not only willing to pay but had very little choice in paying. Not if he wanted to continue his internship with Aetherist Ovanobina and Anthropologist Lerileron, and he definitely did. It was his best chance, since his grades hadn't been good enough for one of the big Academies and his family wasn't rich enough to let him dither around, and it let him learn all the secrets of the world that people preferred to keep quiet.
"I didn't - I didn't think history involved so many bones." He held up a hand before he could be laughed at. "That is, obviously there are many people who died, that is history. Wars, famine, plague, people die. I understand that. But this-"
He was sitting with Uzhnar, the second intern, and with Tekemuzh, who appeared to read the stories in the aether - an amazing skill, and one Kalaket both envied and, right now, didn't - while they watched a couple miners carefully pick their way through the next wall.
They were sitting out of the way, because mining was not their profession and the miners knew what they were doing, and they were being quiet for the same reason - and because the skeletons laid out on the ground seemed to command some respect.
"Most things in our era don't involve this many bones." Tekemuzh was very quiet. Of course, he'd had to see what Kalaket had just had to write down. "Even most things involving the era of the wars don't involve - this. You find the gravesites, of course. Well, I've heard - I can't really tell you, as this is your trade and not mine."
"Anthropology." Kalaket tasted the word. It had gone sour in his mouth. "I wanted to look at old books and find secrets hidden in old libraries. To find - to find the towns that have vanished. To talk to people who remember stories their grandparents told them that their grandparents told them."
"Well," Tekemuzh spoke slowly. "I imagine there will be a lot of that, won't there?"
"I just spent two years looking through old records in an abandoned town." Uzhnar was nearly whispering. "I thought - I thought I wanted something like this. I'm not sure I don't. This is-"
"It's monumental," Kalaket agreed. "It's this thing that might change everything. These people-"
"They're not our people and they're not the Bitrani." Tekemuzh murmured. "There was - there are so many theories on why - on why when the Bitrani and the Calenyen came here, why it was empty. What if it wasn't?"
"All these years, though." Uzhnar shook his head. "How? How do you do that? Why?"
The miners shouted. All three scholars jumped to their feet.
"We might be about to find out," Tekemuzh breathed. There was light coming through - shining through - from the wall the miners had been working on.
The light grew brighter. Kalaket grabbed the arms of the other two men and yanked them backwards. That wasn't sunlight. It was -
He pulled hard and they tumbled backwards into a pile as the light expanded into a glowing ball of fire.
Kalaket woke with someone’s braid in his mouth and an elbow in his gut. He hadn’t woken up like this since… “Ugh,” he muttered. It was black in here and there was a rock sticking into his backside. “I—“. His head cleared slowly. There’d been — He pushed himself up, or tried to, fell back down, and considered the bodies on top of him.
Bodies. For a heartbeat, he froze. Bodies. He heard a groan from somewhere near his ear. Oh, thank the Three. The glowing light, the heat— He tapped along himself until he found a shoulder, and then another, and carefully moved the owner of the shoulders.
He knew you weren’t supposed to move the head and neck of people who might have been injured, but they would have to be moved one way or another, so he acted like he was holding a very small child — one hand on the top of the spine, one hand on the back of the head — as he got the braids out of his mouth and moved one of the people pressing down on him until they were flat on the stone floor.
He’d been heading for the entrance, hadn’t he? There were both aether-lights and safety lanterns down here, but now there was nothing at all, not even a trickle of sunlight.
He heard another groan from father away. He thought that might be a good sign, but first, he had to be able to move. There was still someone on his legs; thy’d moved their elbow so now it was in his groin instead of his gut, which he didn’t consider much of an improvement.
“Please be alive,” he murmured. He tapped downwards until he found shoulders and repeated the move; he was rewarded with a loud groan.
His hand was sticky as he pulled it away from this second body — hard to tell in pitch blackness if it was Tekemuzh, Uzhnar, or someone else. That wasn’t good. Sticky and — he sniffed his hand — coppery.
He used his clean hand to pull a handkerchief from his pocket and tapped along the second person there, seeking a wound. He found it when he was greeted with a sharp gasp — a rock shard sticking out of mid-arm.
He apologized twenty or a thousand times in the next minute as he examined the wound and surrounding area by touch alone, eliciting a number of groans and gasps, followed by a dazed-sounding “whuh?”
“Hold still, okay? How do you feel?”
“Hurts… ugh. Head hurts. And you’re jamming needles into me.”
“Actually pulling one out. Here we go.” He yanked the stone shard out and pressed the handkerchief against the wound in one quick move, held it there while he did his best to pull the sleeve away from the injury, and then tied it around the arm and sleeve. “That should hold, but if you feel lightheaded, tell me immediately.” He reached up and patted through the hair, feeling no new wounds. “I’m going — I’m going to see what there is to see. Err, find, I suppose.” He levered himself to his feet and picked a direction more or less at random.
“You — you’re Kalaket?”
“Yes. Tekemuzh, Scholar Tekemuzh,” he more or less guessed. “The miners hit something, and it—“
“Angry,” the aetherist whispered. “No, ah. No, protective. It didn’t want us in there. It was — it was the aether. It was worked into the rock so deep, for so long.. they made it a person.”
It was hard to tell but Kalaket thought the scholar sounded sick. Kalaket couldn’t really blame him.
“They… they took all these people and they hurt — tortured — killed them, sacrificed them here, and they made some sort of personality that they locked into the rock? Long enough ago that it’s at the edge of our written history here? Long enough ago that no Tabersi or Ideztozhyuh that we’ve ever read of knew there were people here? There’s…” Kalaket swallowed. “I don’t… I can’t.”
"I don't blame you. Before this, before this I thought that the aether was beautiful. Sometimes it told me sad things, or things that I'd rather not know, but it's never - it's never showed me something horrible before." There was the sound of Tekemuzh wiping his mouth. "This is - this is an abomination, and yet, if you listen to it, it believes that it was a fine and noble work of art."
"That's almost worse." Kalaket was shuffling along the ground, trying not to run into anything, hands out in front of him. He slapped his hand into a cold stone wall, suppressed a yelp, and muttered instead. "I found a wall. Now I just have to find a direction."
He was aided by moaning coming from somewhere ahead of him. He moved slowly, carefully, towards the noises, keeping one hand on the wall.
"Kalaket - Kalaket, be careful, please." Tekemuzh's voice was thready. Kalaket was worried about the scholar, but he was also worried about the miners. They had been right there when the - when the light had exploded. "The aether in there is very powerful. I don't know what it might do to you, what it might do to them."
The last words were punctuated by a brief flash of light from directly in front of Kalaket. It illuminated three bodies sprawled on the floor - three? Hadn't there been four miners? - before flickering away. A moment later, it began again, much fainter, emanating from Kalaket's hand and from three pools of blood on the ground.
Kalaket felt something wrapping around him, a warmth, like a blanket.
The question echoed in his head, not in words but in some sort of feeling.
"What? What?" He looked at his hand, at the blood glowing there. "Not mine," he muttered. "That's the Scholar's."
Give it to me.
"Kalaket? What are you, who are you talking to?" Tekemuzh grunted in pain. It sounded like he was getting to his feet. Kalaket didn't turn around. "Kalaket? Young one, listen to me. Is the aether-creation, the entity, is it talking to you?"
"It wants - it wants the blood. Freely given, it says. But it's not mine, Scholar, it's yours. It's your blood on my hands."
"Yes," Tekemuzh grunted, and then repeated again, louder. "Yes. Yes, Freely Given. Kalaket, this might get you through the aether-creation. Understand? Yes, I give of myself that blood on you. It is given freely and without bounds."
"Scholar, Scholar I don't think that's a good idea." He thought about the things that Tekemuzh had recited. The way they'd - and who was they? They barely knew any of it, just that there were so many of them, that Tekemuzh had seen so many more than the twelve here.
They pinned them to the ground here, see the way her wrists are, her ankles? And they let them die.
He could almost feel those pins - looking at the bones, you could see the places iron had rusted away over the centuries - he could almost feel them through his own bones.
And the light was getting brighter.
"I think that we're out of good ideas, young one. I think that unwilling was part of the pain, part of the problem. They needed so many. They needed-" The Scholar's voice broke. “They needed.”
It made the light flash twice.
“They needed,” Kalaket repeated. “And this — this you’re giving to me?”
“I am. Freely given, even if it was accidentally drawn.”
The light seemed to grow, and grow, and grow, but never seeming as overwhelming as it had when it first exploded. In front of Kalaket, the three miners were sprawled out inelegantly. They were still alive, although one of them was bleeding far too much. Kalaket looked between the miners, the Scholar, and the wall that seemed to be pulling at him.
Tekemuzh hold himself to his feet. "I know basic medicine as well," he assured Kalaket. "I'll take care of them. You- you follow the aether."
Follow me the being inside of the stone agreed. Follow me and I will protect you.
This could, he realized, mean his death. It could mean an awful death - everything Scholar Tekemuzh had said, everything he'd seen. It could mean not just dying and going back to the Three, not moving on to another facet of the Triangle, maybe, maybe staying here forever, part of this being. It could also mean knowledge beyond that with anyone had found, knowledge which could change the understanding of the world itself, and Kalaket had not been willing to spend so much time digging into tombs and studying dead people was because it led to more knowledge.
"Go," Tekemuzh urged.
Follow me, the stone cajoled.
What could he say to that? Kalaket placed his bloody hand on the stone. "Freely given," he murmured. "Freely given for knowledge. "
The world went white.
Kalaket blinked, but it remained white, unrelenting and complete.
It wasn't painful; it wasn't even unpleasant. It was simply the lack of anything there to see.
That was followed by a feeling as if he was moving through snow which encompassed him from head to toe, a thick, slow movement, but not at all cold.
And then - then there was stone.
Only the glow provided by the remnants of blood on his hands illuminated the passageway. And it was a passageway; it was arched; it was made of cut stone, and the floor under his feet was smooth and tiled. He walked forward, wondering exactly how much of a bad idea this was going to turn out to be - and how much he could learn. He took a few breaths and kept walking.
He could feel the being in the stone all around him, whispering in his ear, urging him forward. It's been so long, the voice whispered. Nobody has visited for ages. It's been all alone here.
There followed a word that wasn't a word, the way it felt like the being in the stone was sending thoughts directly into Kalaket instead of speaking to him
The feeling of the word was something like me, something like us, something like the thing that is speaking. All it told him was that the voice was talking about the being who was speaking, or rather not-speaking.
We- Kalaket decided that the best translation was we - we have been all alone here. We were frightened. We didn't know why, but we were sad.
"What about those who died here?" Kalaket wasn't sure he ought to ask that, but it was thing on the front of his mind, and he couldn't help it.
The bones are just bones. They have no blood anymore. They are not beings, they are not us, they are not company.
There was something almost petulant about the mental voice. It made Kalaket worry. This wasn't - wasn't good. A twisting of aether, so old he could not envision such an age, was sulking. This could be so horribly bad.
He had younger siblings, younger cousins. He had some idea how to deal with sulking.
"There can be company," he carefully assured the being. "Company who will speak to you. But there can't be too much blood. If there's too much bleeding, the people will go away again, and there will be nothing left but bones, again." It was like explaining to a five-year-old that if she wanted to watch how her dolly burn, she wouldn't have her dolly anymore.
"We, there are many of us, that is, that are interested in happening - scholars and archaeologists and aetherists. We'll want to talk to you. We will - we'll want to now what's on the other side of this passage. We have so many questions." He swallowed around a lump in his throat. "Questions which only you might be able to answer. You'll have a great deal of company, if you want is. But there cannot be much more blood."
He had no authority to negotiate with anything, much less a collection of aether and collected memories of something that has been dead longer than his people had been living on this continent, if he had understood Scholar Tekemuzh correctly.
But right now, he was the one who was speaking to the being, and so he did his best to offer things that he thought he could make come true. He repeated himself: "We would like to know this passage leads."
There was a silence so long that he thought the presence was either gone or too weak to answer. He worried that he might have to provide more blood, and what that might do to his word and his authority, such as it was, when he'd been so firm.
We, the voice offered slowly, we are the passage. We are all the passages. We are all of this place. Is what we know. Nothing else.
Kalaket considered this. He wanted to ask if the being could let him out on the other side. But alone? It was not only not his place, he was not prepared.
The being interrupted his musings.
Those who are in the chamber are not a sacrifice? They are not given to us?
"What? Oh, no. No, they do not - nobody meant to give them to you, I'm sorry. It is not willfully given blood! Oh, please-" He took a few steps backwards, turned, and hurried back, although he had no idea how he was going to get through. "No, they're not - please don't let them die like that! They were simply - we like to know more. That, that's what we do, we look for information, we look for more. Please don't let them die, please don't take their blood-"
Peace. The sensation was heavy, as if the being was attempting to push peace onto Kalaket. Peace. If they are not a sacrifice and they are within us, then we must care for them. You must be the hands. You must help care for them. Go. Make them stop bleeding, make them be better. Go. Return again, bring others. Ask questions. Tell stories. Come back again, but first, heal those who bleed where we were born.
With that, the being pushed him out of the tunnel, back into the cave. Someone had relit the lamps, and Scholar Tekemuzh was working on one of the miners, muttering at a leg wound.
Kalaket knelt down beside the scholar and went to work.
Make them stop bleeding. Make them better. Then come back again.
"I think," he murmured to the Scholar, "that things are far more complicated than we thought originally."