They wanted to flee as far away as they could, but that wasn't far. Nirrti's ankle had been injured even worse by Oouka's treatment, and the daylight only distressed her further. Yuza gallantly tore strips out of his shirt and blindfolded her, and with that covering she seemed to relax a little. The blow to her neck and her near throttling had done no favors, the flesh was turning a deep black color, a mess of bruises and almost-blood.
Oouka was lying back on a dusty bank, draped in a moth-eaten blanket that Yuza found on his initial glances through the houses. She felt cold, but the blanket took away a lot of the bite. Yuza was scouring the village for food and possible transport.
The ground was hard and strewn with rocks and pebbles, but it was neutral, not in any way part of the horrors they'd experienced. That alone was comfort to Oouka's mind.
"Nirrti?" She asked, no more keen on the wailing wind than she had been with the silences between them in the tunnels.
"What happened back there?"
A strange expression crossed Nirrti's face, a smile, but one lacking conviction. "The rune was using Yuza as a power source. He wasn't really its bearer at all. When I took him out of the trance, it broke the link. The rune lost its hold."
"But why didn't she just take it back?"
"I'm not sure she wanted to, or that she was really aware of what was going on. I think Yuza's right when he says she didn't mean it. I suppose he's in a better position to judge than us, anyway."
"I can't make sense of that. How can she not have meant it? We were in her body!"
"Are you aware of the blood in your body? Right now, can you trace the flow of blood from your finger? What about something smaller and even less significant? Can you tell me exactly how one particular ligament in your finger is feeling?" Nirrti asked, rubbing her neck slowly and wincing painfully. "Of course not. But to be honest, it goes even deeper than that."
"A few things added up when you told me about those visions of yours. You remember I said that something changed, but I didn't know what it was?"
"Now I do. I changed."
"You mean… gender?" She nodded. "I don't see how that's significant."
"Simple; we were Arakaan and the rune."
Oouka blinked. It was a little like getting hit in the forehead. She considered this statement, patently ludicrous and yet pernicious, insistent, and slowly linking together a number of things in her mind. Arakaan limping on a broken ankle, guided by his companion, unable to defend himself. Nirrti waking up in the dark, and having to break his ankle to escape in the first place…
"Everything changed after you turned female. But… why?"
"We were reliving, metaphorically, Arakaan's last moments. Minutes. Hours, however long it took. Or that's my best guess. She's in mourning for him, mulling endlessly over the events leading up to his death, unable ever to go beyond them or change the outcome… because that story ended long ago, and runes need their bearers to change at all. Otherwise, they're cyclic. And so is she, endlessly repeating that doomed thought, endlessly killing symbolic pairs in some desperate attempt to think of a way the story could have ended that didn't leave him dead.
"We weren't in her body, Oouka; we were in her mind. That's why the tunnels changed, that's why our traps were so neatly designed. She probably created them unwittingly, fitted them to her most recent thoughts."
"Thoughts?" Oouka asked, rubbing her eyes and casting a suspicious look up the slope. The mine mouth was hidden now, but she could still feel it. "You're saying that we were its thoughts?"
She nodded. "Have you never wondered, Oouka, what it's like when the Gods think? Do they really think like we do, in images and vague impressions? Maybe. Or maybe we live out their thoughts every day, and our lives end when they lose interest. I'm not saying that the rune's divine, nothing like it. But it seems runes are, fundamentally, entities of some sort, and they are entities of a kind that is simply incomprehensible to creatures like us. They're just completely different in every way."
"I suppose you're right. Thinking like the Gods, eh?"
"Thinking like something different," Nirrti replied, moving deeper into the shade of a tree. "I don't pretend to be able to fathom out a rune's… soul, if they have one. But I'll be thinking about what happened down there for a long, long time."
Oouka slowly lay back, looking up at the brilliant sky with a slack, amazed expression. It was as if she saw the sky, really saw it, for the first time. She enjoyed the silence between them for the first time, not because she didn't like what Oouka said, but because the silence didn't mean she was alone anymore. She could see, hear, touch company. She felt fully alive again, and above all else she felt free.
"This sky's amazing," she said, staring into the blue above while imaging the rolling surf and lapping waves of her home. She could almost taste it in her gills, feel it on her skin. She thought for a moment that a cloud looked like Vauin's tail, and a joyous tear crept from Oouka's eye. "I love this sky."
"Any sky is amazing when you're convinced you'll never see one again," Nirrti replied. "Hard to believe that it's so pretty around that mine, though. I'd have expected a wasteland. You say there's trees and flowers, I can hear birdsong… it's like an entirely different world, and it's so close by."
Oouka shuddered, and hugged the blanket closer. The sweat she'd loosed during the journey was dried now, and she could smell it. But that would be gone once she found a river and started heading home.
"How did it come about?" Oouka asked softly, hesitantly. "How did this all happen? You said you had it figured out…"
She turned to Nirrti, and saw the Thorassian still nursing her neck, faintly shielding her eyes. Even the cloth across her face wasn't enough to completely kill the light.
"Not that. I don't think we'll ever know how it really began. I can guess, theorize by how it often goes with runebearers.
"Chances are Arakaan was forced to flee Karr, either because he crossed an unspoken line or because he did something that warranted his death by the law. Maybe he stayed in Inkara for a while, maybe he just drifted. A lot of runebearers are like that, unable to stay in one place for long for no other reason than the rune gives them wanderlust.
"Regardless, somehow, some way, he came to Yatar and heard about the properties of jaad, about how they can strengthen the rune or bearer or somesuch, no two stories are the same.
"So he came and, knowing that the Yatan peasantry aren't famous for their education and tolerance of runic power, kept his powers secret. Eventually, it came out, and the village rose up to strike down the defiled, the unbeliever, the heretic… whatever reason they came up with to fear and hate runes.
"They chased him into the mine, and they hounded him down in the darkness, and they executed him as they always executed the most vile people; with the crusher. But it didn't end there. The rest… well, that's total guesswork. Nothing like this has ever been recorded in our world's history."
Oouka nodded. "The rune got into the jaad?"
"That seems to be the case. The mine itself became its bearer, if you will, the body on which it was held and the place through which it channeled its power."
"So it took vengeance; vengeance for its dead bearer. Do… do you think they loved each other?" Oouka said, then bit her lip as a blush came to her cheeks. "That must seem ludicrous."
"Not especially. Maybe. Or something like it. Can a rune 'love'? I doubt it. The thing is, Oouka, they're tied to the living. For all that she has a bearer, it's not the right kind. Rock doesn't live and die, age and fade. Stone is immortal. But people are not, and it's that very mortality that powers the rune."
And suddenly, Oouka understood. "The rune's been kidnapping people so it can use their… life energy? Soul? This seems awfully strange. The rune was stealing people to be its bearer."
"Then parasitizing their life energy, draining them dry in a massive explosion of rage, mourning, and longing," Nirrti said.
Oouka felt a chilling stab of grief, and jerked upright, looked back and up in the direction of the mine. Her head swam, and she lay back down.
"The rune lost him," Oouka said, remembering the words she'd heard. "It doesn't realize that he's dead… does it?"
Oouka heard Yuza's boots crunching on the village road long before he loped into view. He was singing to himself, Oouka didn't know the language, though she guessed from the harsh syllables that it was Karian.
He appeared around the edge of a building, walking towards them purposefully but empty-handed.
"Yuza!" Oouka cried. "It's good to see you again."
He nodded. "You too, my beautiful sea king. But I doubt that'll last."
"No food, then?" Nirrti asked, looking vaguely in his direction.
"No," he said, tone shifting down just a little. "Well, there is food, but it'd kill us if we ate it. This place has been falling apart for at least twenty years. There's no sign of life anywhere. Not a thing. The animals won't even come into the village boundaries. Just a lot of overgrowth. I guess nature's not so easily intimidated,"he said smoothly, dropping down inbetween them.
"We'll have to move on soon," Nirrti said simply. "I'm starving, probably literally. Yuza, do you know how long we were in there?"
"No clue. But time's… I don't know. I don't think it means much to her. You said you went through a shakso taris; so you were in at least a few months. That seems about right."
"Right for what?" Oouka asked.
"Right for a cycle to begin and end. You're not the first. This has happened periodically for… well… I guess about twenty years or so. Same every time."
Nirrti grimaced and started trying to rise. "A crawl through the tunnels of her mind, ending the same place Arakaan's life did. At the crushing room. Did she kill anyone who reached that point, Yuza?"
"Not really. Most of what happens in there's incidental. The Wardens, as far as I can tell, they're like mental blocks in her head. Part of the structure. Not really limbs or anything like that, but part of how she constructs her own thinking. Everything in there is. Pretty limited, though," he said, and Oouka found it both amazing and incredibly endearing that he maintained that unwavering monotone even now, while talking about what had to be the worst experience of his life. "I could feel bits of the past with her, you know? Old memories. It's like she can't move on. No matter what, she keeps circling the same bit of her mind." Yuza rose again, and helped Nirrti to stand. "She borrows people's bodies, but never really connects to the mind."
"She needs a bearer. So that's how it is. They can't even exist save at an animalistic level without a bearer."
"How do you feel? You were being used for quite a while."
Yuza shrugged vaguely. "Bad. Could probably be worse. I don't know. It's like there's something missing in me, you know? A space I can't really define. So how's it go? Do I age at speed and die a crooked old man at forty?"
"No," Nirrti said as she stood up. "One day, you'll just… stop. I'm sorry Yuza. There's no cure for something like this. One day, no matter how healthy you are, no matter what you do, your body will just give out. I can't say when. But you probably won't see fifty."
Yuza sighed, then seemed to brush it off and smiled vaguely. "Never mind. I got to see things that nobody else ever will. Not that it's nice… but I got to do something unique. Something that's all my own, you know? I mean, I might even be important to the edgewalkers now, right?"
"Definitely. Yoman and the other circle members will want to talk to you for a long, long time about what you saw down there."
"Brilliant," Yuza said, rolling his eyes.
Oouka gathered the blanket to herself and began to stand as well. She felt exhausted, but hunger was beginning to set in. If their bodies really had been sustained by the rune's power, like The Wardens and the others, they were going to be in severe trouble when it faded completely.
"Won't she just bring us back?" Oouka asked, feeling a sudden, sharp fear in her mind. She couldn't fight it again if it came to that.
"No," Yuza said. "She let us go because she realized what was happening. Nirrti broke her train of thought, through it for a loop. I know, because everything went into chaos in my – or our – head. That's when I saw you, Oouka."
She smiled, and walked painfully to him, and kissed him deeply. He really had been a wonderful lover, and the first person she made love to on land. "So everything that came after was her trying to fix her own head?"
"Sort of. You were kicked out of her mind, into her body. There you were just foreign, unwanted elements, and The Wardens can act as they wish to deal with those. Though Nirrti was a bit different."
"She was trying to 'fix' me, wasn't she?"
"Maybe. Or just trying to puzzle out what happened. You're the first Thorassian who ever got brought here, you know."
"Well, at least it's over now," Oouka said as they began to awkwardly move off, following the path into the village so they could head up and out of the small valley that surrounded them. "We'll tell the Yatans and they can deal with it for good."
Nirrti paused. "Whatever made you think we were telling anyone?"
Oouka looked at her as if she was crazed. "Well, aren't we?"
"The inner council of the edgewalkers, yes. The Yatans? Not a chance."
"But… you can't just leave it! This'll happen again if you do, won't it? Yuza?"
He nodded, and scratched his head uncomfortably. He held Nirrti up with an arm around her shoulders. "Probably. She's got a bad memory."
"Oouka, you have to see the bigger picture. This is the most significant discovery in the last century. This provides indelible proof that runes can not only exist without bearers, but they are to some extent, absolutely alive. They have feelings, thoughts, of some sort. They're sentient! We need to study this, this is what the edgewalkers are for!
"Besides, what can the King do? Send the army? To do what? Kill all The Wardens? Kill everything in there? Send runebearers to demolish the entire mountain? Oouka, the rune's in the ground! It can't be killed, can't be destroyed. They're invincible. Never in our history has a rune been so much as damaged; just the bearer has been killed. Think, for one moment, about the powers we've seen that rune demonstrate. Now imagine what it could do if it really applied them. If we told the Yatan government… at the best we'd lose our chance to study this, at worst we'd be sending dozens, if not hundreds, of people to their deaths."
"Or worse," Yuza added. "Not all of those Wardens are originally from the town. One or two are people who didn't die, and didn't get away, and now are never going to leave."
"She needs a bearer!" Oouka cried, desperate, but fading.
"Yes, and I'm sure she'd appreciate the ready supply that the King would send her!" Nirrti said. "We'll send in our own runebearers, and hope one of them can talk to her directly. Or something. I don't know. This is far too big a decision for me or anyone else to make on their own."
"But we have to do something," Oouka said hopelessly.
"We've done all we can," Nirrti replied. "We survived."
Oouka nodded, defeated. Really, what else mattered, in the end?
But still, that faint connection tugged on her mind, and as they began their slow and painful trek away from the mine and the village, she couldn't help but look for them on the horizon, watch the distance growing. Her mind's eye still saw the Wardens reaching futilely for the light, the Pale Ladies grasping blindly for her, the Man-things muttering blindly in the darkness. Tears flowed, and her mind ached as she thought of the pain they were leaving behind, pain that would never, could never end; and just occasionally she thought she heard a haunting, whispering voice carried on the wind.