Return 4

Half a world away, a small woman with russet hair, who had spent more nights walking this rooftop garden than the youthfulness of face and body would suggest, gazed out over a nocturnal landscape that, to her eyes, was entirely clear but had a yellow tinge.

The land was too flat, too rocky, to feel right. Somewhere deep in her heart, home created an image of thickly forested hills, where the flora and fauna alike were very different from anything to be found here, and of a humble dwelling that was little more than a cave, though made by her own hands and skill and with the loving help of friends. There should be people with long green hair who moved through the forest like fish through water.

Many years ago, she’d been found at the doorstep here, naked and unable to speak the local language and remembering nothing save her name. It had taken time to learn all over again about everyday things, and to learn the language, but the healers had cared for her with patience and compassion. They thought her mad, though harmlessly so, for the peculiar things she said and did and took for granted, though she’d learned to adjust to a degree that pleased them. Though she had no past, they had worked out ways to test her skills, and found her highly literate—the scripts used here had been unfamiliar, but she had learned them swiftly, especially under Talir’s bright glow. They’d found her a job, copying old texts, and she’d worked her way up over the years through the other jobs here in the archives: binding, evaluating, preserving, restoring, filing. It became clear that she did not age, that she was bound to no aspect of time other than Talir’s cycle, but here where little changed from day to day, no one found it more than a curiosity.

The healers had tried to help her regain her past, but as they returned, her memories were so disjointed they seemed not to belong to the same person: life with a craftsman family, life in a library of sorts, life in the wilderness. The strongest memories came in her sleep, and the healers finally concluded that they were all dreams, an attempt at filling in holes, all part of her rather inoffensive madness that did not interfere with her current everyday life.

Neoma had sometimes believed the healers on that score during the day, but never at night, with Talir’s light rushing over her like water, filling and feeding her. So she’d begun to write down the memories, on loose sheets so she could shuffle them at need, struggling to put everything into order.

She’d spent her youth in her parents’ home, her father a farmer, her mother dividing her time between running the household and the weaving that supplemented their income, both typical roles for that culture. They’d been baffled by their daughter who was more interested in questioning how and why things worked, how they’d come to work that way and whether they could work in different ways, than in simply learning practical skills and applying them. Tempted by the offer of a life spent learning, unhampered by considerations of finances or time or health, a bright and curious and bored young woman had been easy prey.

The bait had been a lie. The initiation had been more like a nightmare. She knew, though, however often they told her she was unworthy, she knew she’d felt Talir’s love and welcome in those first moments. They’d told her that the moons demanded her unquestioning obedience to those above her who were more blessed and more worthy. They’d told her that it was blasphemy to seek to talk to Talir herself, or to have doubts about the rightness of their path as dictated to her. They gave her laws to follow that were impossible to keep. Transgressions were punished harshly, but accusing someone else of transgression meant praise. She’d watched those around her living in constant fear: of each other, of those above, of the moons, of the other gods, of their own forbidden thoughts and feelings. She’d watched as people chosen because they were gifted—the creative, the compassionate, the clever, the charismatic—were beaten down into a dull existence that lacked any passion or joy or hope, numbly obeying because the alternative was a death worse than the initiation. Explanations of the purpose behind orders were never offered. One was simply to obey and accept what one was told. She’d watched some try to escape, and be captured, and cringed at their deaths.

Finally, preferring even death but with a thin thread of hope for life, she’d taken advantage of an opening and fled. She’d run far, far away, Talir supporting her and feeding her. Valeyan had offered her sanctuary, and she’d been happy there, with Hickory and the others. And, for a scant handful of years, with a rescued amarog cub who had become her son and her constant companion and her joy—and her old enemies had used a threat to him to force her to surrender.

One important piece was missing.

How had she gone from being in Valeyan’s domain and being tortured to death, to being here?

She had no idea where Valeyan’s domain was or how to reach it. She had searched all the works on geography, looking for anything that might give her a place to start, but found nothing, not on the large island that housed the scholastic community, not on the nearest mainland. It would have made her begin to doubt herself, but… the moons were somewhere through the day, and it was unlikely their pace changed. In what sky were they visible when they dropped out of sight here?

Neoma.

Startled, she looked up, but there was no one else on the roof with her.

Neoma, Kieran and his bloodline are in great danger. I need you to help them.

“Talir?” Neoma whispered. She couldn’t recall consciously hearing that voice before, but on some deep level, she had no doubt who it was.

Yes, brave daughter. You’ve been safe here, and you needed time to heal. But if Kieran and his bloodline die, it will be a terrible thing. And many others will die, as well.

“But… Kieran’s been dead a long time. I’ve been here much longer than an amarog lifespan.”

You fled, and were pursued, and found safety with Valeyan. He has my gratitude for that. Our children who strayed from the path, they found you again, and one of them hurt you, very badly. I could not bear to heal you to endure more. But Valeyan loves you, as does his creature Hickory. He gave you a gift, and we consented. Nothing born of earth can do lasting harm to you or your bloodline. At death, I gather you to me, and when next I rise full, I can return you to the world unharmed. I was frightened and angry and hurt for you, and I kept you with me much longer than a month before I brought you here. That may not have been best for you. I believe that is at least a part of why your memories were disrupted. That is why I let you be, but I’ve been watching over you. You have been safe with an ocean between you and the lands you know, but I have regretted at times bringing you so far away.

Valeyan, in his grief, refused your blood. Hickory used it to change Kieran. I broke the rules and chose him as mine. You will be very proud of your son, brave daughter. And of the rest of your bloodline. My sisters and I are proud of them. They are few but they are far more true to what we created our children to be than the other bloodline has been in several centuries. But they are in great danger. Kieran and his family will fight those on the wrong path, because they abhor what has been done to an earthborn and his people, and wish to make it right. As do we. We will do our best to protect them as we have once before, but we do not know whether we can. It would be very easy for all to die truly and forever. We need you to go. You can intervene more directly than we. They fear you greatly, brave daughter, our children on the wrong path, and because of that, they call your bloodline heretics and blasphemers. They claim I choose no more of them because I am angry they did not stop you, which is precisely the opposite of the truth. I will be with you, always. A soft laugh, a sense of amusement. I cannot be otherwise, with my own substance in your veins. I love you and I will do my best to keep you safe.

Neoma digested that. Kieran still alive, with Talir’s bright blood keeping him that way, and with others who bore her blood through him? And though Talir described them as few, they were willing to tackle the behemoth that was the cult she’d tried to escape from?

Who were still trying to destroy lives.

Including Kieran and those he loved.

“How do I get there?”

I am sorry, brave daughter. For me to take you there, you must die. I wish there were a less frightening way, but I can do nothing while you are alive.

“I need to find a way to suicide.”

By earth. Not by water or fire. If you die by anything of earth, Valeyan’s gift protects you.

Neoma heaved a sigh. It would have been too much to ask, that it be something easy. “I suppose I should write a farewell note or something, while I try to figure out how.” Since knowledge was revered here beyond all else, she could at least leave them her written memories: the history of a woman who had lived some four separate lives already, and had been called away to begin a fifth.

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