Note: A revised (better) version of this story is available for free as part of the Immerse Or Die 2016 Anthology, All These Shiny Worlds.
Nestled deep in a secluded valley, ringed by the most imagination-defying mountains you can imagine (only moreso), there is a temple. It is a massive building, three stories of black granite, halfheartedly trimmed with the pious but artless golden engravings of someone who had come along centuries after the fact and decided it could use work. A small but vibrant city of several thousand souls encircles the temple as though the city's inhabitants are huddling close to it for warmth.
The temple is the heart of the city. It's where people go to celebrate births, mourn deaths, feast, get drunk and say things they'll regret come morning, and to celebrate the fact that time has passed, and that they have passed it together. And time does pass, drawing them ever further from the beginning, when the original settlers came here from the sky and built a temple that stood as silent evidence of powers that their descendants no longer possessed. Then, as if by agreement, they took the knowledge of their former existence to their graves.
Fifty years after the temple was completed, the last of the original adult settlers had laid on her deathbed. A frail, sweet-tempered, batty old woman, she was revered and cherished by the descendants of the community. Her last words were dutifully transcribed. Mixed into the delusions, there were hints of what had brought her and the others to this windswept valley. But this record is most cherished for the two pieces of advice, the last advice that the founders would ever give.
"Don't shove the glow rock. It doesn't like that."
Then, with an unmistakable urgency, she added, "Don't let things get complicated. Things always go badly when you let them get complicated." Then, as if to emphasize that advice, she died.
Eight hundred ninety-four years later, their descendants tried to honor their will by not speculating too much on the whys behind it. It was enough to live as the ancestors had shown them: simply, compassionately, perfecting without ever really innovating.
Above all, they tried not to let it get complicated.
Reesa was thirteen. Things felt very complicated, and she feared that things were about to go very, very badly. She felt hundreds of eyes boring into her back as she ascended the marble steps. Despite the elegance of the simple, white robe she wore, she felt naked and exposed. Four other girls had performed the ceremony before her, and each of them had done their part properly.
She reached the top of the stairs, and knelt before the wizened high priest. The priest sprinkled water on her forehead, muttering with phonetic precision words whose meaning was lost to antiquity. She would respond, at the proper intervals, by raising her hands above her head and shouting "Tah kali! Upshan!" The handful of peasants attending the girl's rite of passage didn't know what the phrase meant. Wrongly, they assumed that the priests did.
There were two more unintelligible exchanges and a notoriously difficult bit involving three candles. Finally, in the climax of the ceremony, a cloth was removed from the marble column behind the high priest, revealing the sacred Upshan Berental. It was a translucent, glowing ball which hovered about a handspan above a squat marble altar. But in the minds of the gathered worshippers, it was more than a novel parlor trick. It was an object of reverence, of devotion, a conduit linking their minds to the minds of the gods. It glowed green today.
The purpose of the Upshan Berental was comfortingly inscrutable, like the will of the gods itself. It glowed, it hovered, it frequently changed color, and from time to time stray cats would wander in and take great fascination in it. Outside both the temple and the earshot of their flock, the priests would jokingly refer to it as "The Sacred Thingy."
The inductee rose, placed her hands upon the sphere, and tried her best to feel the monumental significance of this moment. It wasn't easy. In the moment she touched the orb, she'd half expected some flash of revelation, some deeper understanding of the universe and her place in it, or maybe a bolt of lightning for some past transgression. But no, it was just a warm, glowing rock. Once the smell of incense washed out of her clothing, her life would be unchanged but for a new obligation. She would be required to stand watch over the ball for eight hours twice a week. Though the Upshan Berental -- Conduit to the Mind of Heaven -- was admittedly very pretty, she expected the novelty would wear off quickly, leaving long hours of boredom and drudgery.
Now the ceremony switched back to their native English -- hey, nobody questions it on Star Trek -- and Reesa made solemn vows to guard the ball with her very life, wax and polish it whenever necessary, and keep herself undefiled by men. No problem there, she thought. She'd first have to have a conversation with a boy that didn't leave her pondering how hopelessly stupid they all were.
The high priest spoke a few words, praising the girl for her willingness to make the required covenants, which made her flush with pride. He followed his praise with a rather long-winded parable that started out being about virgins and lamp oil, but soon drifted off into a story about a beautiful woman he'd met before joining the order. Before the old man could say anything too incriminating, one of his assistants whispered something in his ear, and he wrapped it up.
The girl made her way back down the stairs, to the general relief of the mostly bored and confused congregation. The rite of passage was over, and after some congratulations from the congregation, the last few difficult weeks would be a fading memory. No more sixteen hour days of studying, no more subsisting on bread and water, and the opportunity to see her parents again. She gave a backward glance to the Upshan Berental. Silly, overgrown marble, she thought.
I heard that, said a voice in her head. Her face went pale, and she spun around to face the shining sphere. She stared at it for a few moments, while the audience began muttering in confusion. Finally, in embarrassment, she turned and started walking quickly. Just my imagination, she thought.
Just your imagination, the voice agreed cheerfully. Reesa broke into a sprint.
The three days between the ceremony and Reesa's first time watching over the Upshan Berental was a time of dread for her. But what could she do? Ask one of the priests to guard her as she guarded? Tell people that she had been hearing voices? Her fear of the Upshan Berental was exceeded only by her fear of embarrassment. She resolved to pretend that nothing had happened, and hoped that nothing would.
The world turned quickly, and all too soon the dreaded evening was upon her. She entered the temple as the sun set, to find her friend Arkit standing watch in front of the pedestal. Arkit was only a year older than Reesa, but a full head taller, and as self-confident as any adult in the village. And she was beautiful. They would laugh together about the way boys salivated over Arkit, about how foolishly they behaved trying to impress her. But secretly, Reesa wished that she could inspire a tenth of that sort of foolishness.
Arkit saw her and waved for her to come over. "Hey, Ree. I have to run. Try not to get caught sleeping." Arkit gave her a quick hug, then began rushing toward the door.
"Wait!" Reesa yelled.
Arkit turned back. "What's wrong?"
"What if it," Reesa swallowed hard. "What if it does something?"
"Oh, Reesa. The Upshan Berental doesn't do anything. It just floats there." She gave it a demonstrative shove. The sphere was nudged slightly off of center, then slowly floated back into place. "I once saw it change color. Red to blue."
"Can it... can it get angry? Do you think?"
"You've just got jitters. The ball won't do anything, and if anybody comes in, there's a dozen priests quartered upstairs." She leaned in and whispered conspiratorially, "I hear that some of them are warrior monks."
She patted Reesa's hand. "Now, I'm supposed to meet Jedoan down by the lake. I know, you think he's too old for me," she chattered as she headed for the entrance, "and of course he doesn't have a single thought in his head. But he's just sooooo pretty."
The heavy temple doors made a frighteningly loud noise as they slammed shut, and Reesa was left alone with the suddenly menacing orb. Reesa stood in the appointed spot, apprehensive eyes fixed on it. Its unblinking gaze met hers, and the hours began to pass. Eventually her resolve waned and the discomfort in her back and shoulders waxed. She sat down.
The priests had warned her to be vigilant and always remain standing, but Arkit said that they never got in trouble for sitting down, or even sleeping. More than a couple of the boys claimed that they could skip out for hours at a time unnoticed. Reckless, stupid boys.
The voice entered her mind like the hiss of frigid air. Reesa yelped, jumping to her feet and spinning to face the orb. "Who's there?"
It had heard her thoughts before. She was sure of it. Just stop it. she flung the thought back viciously. Whoever you are, leave me alone!
The orb grew brighter, its pale cream color melting into a furious crimson. Ree. Sa. Come. To. Me.
Controlling her breathing, she stepped closer to the pedestal. Every muscle in her body was primed and desperate to flee, but she'd been given a commandment, a test of her faith. Fighting down her rising panic, she reached out with a single finger and touched the warm, glowing surface of the orb.
The instant she touched it, the light extinguished, and the ball dropped as though a supporting string had been cut. As the ball clattered down the steps, making a bang bang bang noise that only the dead could sleep through, Reesa screamed at the top of her lungs.
The acoustics of the temple were really quite remarkable.
It was all over town the next day: how Reesa had burst in on half a dozen jammie-clad priests, screaming "I broke it! I broke it!" How they'd all rushed down the stairs to find the Upshan Berental burning quietly in its proper place. How the poor, crazy girl had started hurling venomous accusations at the ball, using such language as had not defiled the temple in centuries. [Actually, it had only been a few weeks. Priest or no, you try holding your tongue when you've just dropped a heavy marble statue on your foot.]
For her ungodly behavior, she was banned from Watch for a full month, and confined to the Temple's kitchens when she wasn't at school. Washing dishes was dull, humid drudgery, but this made Reesa happy. Plates never whispered to her brain.
The month passed too quickly, and her embarrassment soon faded. When it came time to return, she was given the coveted morning shift, where the body was fresh and people sometimes came by to break the monotony. This would be easier, she figured.
But it wasn't. By the end of her first hour, her nerves were already raw from the constant tension. Any second now, she just knew that the voice would come again. It would be there, inside her head, saying... saying... saying...
Just say something! she shouted the thought into the gaping silence where the voice should have been.
I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare you. The voice seemed apologetic. Reesa tried to keep her face neutral. A few elderly worshippers milled around the periphery of the room, offering up prayers, or maybe just gossiping to pass the time. They certainly weren't paying the girl any notice.
Who are you?
My name was Kyron. I'm not sure it applies anymore.
Are you a god?
No. I was... a boy. An acolyte like you.
Curiosity almost overcame the girl's resentment. But not quite. So, I probably won't burn in the Blackfire if I tell you to leave me alone?
Probably not. As far as I'm aware, I have no say in the fate of your eternal soul.
Good. She turned her back on the pedestal, staring determinedly towards the vaulted ceiling.
I really am sorry, the voice spoke. Reesa didn't reply. They waited out the remainder of the shift in silence.
Finally, Arkit arrived to replace her. "Did you have fun?"
"More than you can imagine."
"Rile asked if you'd be at the festival this evening," Arkit very nearly squeaked the good news. "I think he fancies you." The sphere flared red again, but only Reesa noticed.
"It'll be good to be away from here," Reesa said. "This overgrown marble is starting to get on my nerves." She turned and bounded down the stairs to the awaiting entrance. Someone let out a shriek, and Reesa spun around.
The Upshan Berental. It was following her.
Four priests stood in a circle around Reesa and her unwanted companion, studying the pair like a new species of insect. The aged High Priest Ragnar was the first to give his professional evaluation of the problem.
"She's bewitched it! She's an evil sorceress!"
"That may not be the case, your excellency," said Uther, a handsome young priest who was often a subject of speculation among Reesa and her peers. "It may be that the gods have chosen this girl for some special purpose."
"Most irregular, most irregular," he muttered. Then he rapped the orb with his cane, shouting, "Speak English!"
Uther cast him a worried look, then turned to the girl. "I'm not sure how to ask this," he said, "but have the gods tried to... contact you?"
"No," she said. It was the truth, right?
"But you've seen some unusual behavior from The Sacred Thing -- I mean, from the Upshan Berental, correct?"
"I wasn't lying. The first night, I touched it, and it turned off and rolled down the stairs."
"Most irregular, most irregular."
"Before that? Before you touched it, I mean."
"It was red."
"I see. You recall nothing else?"
"Nothing," she lied. What was she supposed to say? There's a boy in the ball, and we're having a quarrel?
She snapped back to reality a moment too late. "What?"
Uther repeated, "Until the Conduit stops following you, we can't allow you to leave the temple."
Reesa started to get suspicious. The priesthood actually seemed to enjoy waiting on her. They'd rigged up a tent and some bedding behind the pedestal, to give her someplace private to sleep. One of the older priests taught her how to repair the temple's books, to make her feel useful. They made sure she was well fed and let the other acolytes talk to her, even when they were on duty. And every waking hour on the hour, they would escort her to the entrance to see if the Upshan Berental would follow. It always followed, like an eager puppy looking for a walk.
Sometimes she would try and strike up a conversation with her captor, but without success. Sometimes it seemed like Kyron was stubbornly refusing to respond. Other times, it was like he wasn't there to answer. But whatever the reason, it was almost a week before she heard from him.
The silence was broken after the third visit from her parents. They had argued. Her father had yelled at her, as though the whole thing was something she made up to get out of chores. As usual, mother seemed to disagree, but her objections were timid and muted. When they left, she burst into sobs.
The girl's temper flared for a second, but she fought it down. As much as she disliked the boy, she would never be free without his cooperation.
What can I do for you, Kyron of the Glowing Marble?
He laughed with delight. I'm in an awkward position. I have many strange and fantastic stories to tell, and some secrets of the universe to reveal. But the only one I can tell them to is angry and cannot forgive me.
Of course I'm angry! You're keeping me prisoner!
You were ignoring me!
You humiliated me in front of everybody! Why don't you bother someone else?
Like I said. You're the only one I can talk to.
Reesa was taken aback. Not even the other acolytes? There was only silence. "You're alone in there, aren't you?" she whispered aloud.
Not exactly. Sometimes I can sense others, but they're impossible to really talk to, and they never stay long.
Reesa wasn't sure what he was getting at, but it did sound very lonely.
So, if I forgive you, you'll tell me the secrets of the universe?
Then I forgive you. But let me get ink and paper. Mysteries of the universe ought to be written down.
Nearly seventy years ago, Kyron had watched over the Upshan Berental, as so many had before him. He was fascinated with it, maybe even obsessed. He found that, when he was completely calm and relaxed, he could feel the presence of the orb, feel its distinct warm texture in his mind. Then, late one night, he found something deep inside. It was a way in. It was open.
The moment his mind entered it, the door slammed shut. Kyron watched in horror as his body stood up, eyes unfocused, and shambled away. He watched from inside the sphere as the weekly services marked the passage of time. Once, he watched his parents as they spoke to the congregation of the difficulties they were having raising their suddenly silent child.
After years of pounding on the door, screaming to get out, he gave up and started exploring his new prison. He soon found that he was not entirely powerless. The orb had controls that a mind could manipulate. First, he figured out how to look up and down, and from side to side. He soon got bored with spinning himself dizzy, but eventually discovered that he could rotate in still another dimension, having nothing to do with the physical space he was familiar with. A small twist, and he found himself looking out over a gleaming metal city at sunset. Another twist, and he was staring into faces of alien creatures, all feathers and tenatcles, squawking at the sphere in what could as easily be either outrage or lust.
He quickly became lost, and every attempt to retrace his steps seemed to lead him further afield. When his panicked dash through the sphere had exhausted itself, he found himself staring at an abandoned temple, half collapsed and covered with jungle life. Two creatures which looked a lot like monkeys -- but with extra arms -- were beating the sphere with sticks, howling at it. It seemed as good a place to stop as any.
The monkeys soon got bored and left. Kyron also got bored, and started searching for other controls. He found one, which he explored for the longest time, before giving it the most tentative twist he could manage. Time froze. Emboldened, he twisted it further. The monkeys returned, walking backwards. Another turn, and the jungle life started retreating from the ruins, which started stacking themselves back up into a luxurious palace. A few more adjustments, and he found himself watching as the palace was sacked and burned.
It must have been awful, Reesa whispered. She felt his muted agreement more than heard it.
Imagine cute, fuzzy stuffed animals slaughtering each other. Better yet, don't. It's not pleasant.
He spun away from the scene, and found himself staring into pitched blackness. Eventually, the sphere returned him home of its own accord.
I doubt I'd ever have gotten back on my own. It's too vast.
There are that many places to go? Reesa marveled.
Not exactly. It's more like I'm always in the same place, but looking in different directions. At first, I thought I must be moving from sphere to sphere, but this sphere is the only one there is.
After nearly an hour spent clumsily trying to explain what it felt like to live in a hyperdimensional sphere that permeated the fabric of reality, Kyron gave up. You look tired. Reesa only nodded in agreement. I'll let you go, if you like. But I have other things to tell you, so promise you'll come back.
The next time the priests came to escort her to the front door, the sacred orb didn't follow. She went home and, after reuniting with her parents, stole off to the barn to find a secure hiding spot for the mysteries of the universe.
Five years later, another dreaded day had come. Upon reaching a certain age, Reesa was expected to take up new vows, those associated with a marriageable woman. Thus would she be freed from the duties of guarding the Upshan Berental -- or, as she had begun thinking of it, storytime. Reesa had stalled as long as she could, using diversions as varied as a poor dowry, moral support for younger acolytes, an upset stomach, and the dire warnings of a soothsayer who did not technically exist. Now, as she walked next to the now-High Priest Uther, she found herself running out of excuses.
"Reesa," Uther's kind voice flecked with the tiniest hint of frustration, "let me be blunt. The rites of the Watcher are for the benefit of those who guard. They instill physical and mental discipline, to prepare you for your life as an adult in the community. The Glowing Marble -- and I truly wish you'd stop calling it that -- doesn't really require protection." He looked at her expectantly, and she realized with a start that he thought he was telling her something she hadn't already deduced.
"I... I understand." She tried to summon up a thoughtful look, as though it came as a revelation. She wasn't sure she'd succeeded, but the conversation flowed on.
"You've always impressed me as an intelligent, deliberate young woman. From the beginning, you've had more discipline than most of your peers would ever develop. The whole village is waiting for you to take the last step into adulthood, and I wish I understood why you're hesitating."
Reesa mulled this over for the longest time as she walked with the high priest through the town square. Uther, infinitely patient, allowed her the time to think.
She decided to trust him with a small part of the truth. "I guess I enjoy the time I spend with The Sacred Thingy. It's a quiet place where I can live in my head, where I can ponder--" she hesitated, then added, "the infinite variety of the universe."
Uther nodded appreciatively. "You know, if you enjoy it that much, I suppose some arrangement could be made." He thought quickly. "Perhaps you could become a special advisor to the acolytes. The younger ones practically worship you already. And you could still guard the sphere yourself from time to time."
"Really?" Reesa tempered her initial rush of excitement. She poked and prodded at the idea, as though it might be booby-trapped. It seemed safe enough. "That would be nice," she concluded. "But people would find it a bit strange."
"Strange? Who knows? I minister to a widow on the edge of town who keeps thirty cats, and insists that I treat them as full participants in our conversations."
Reesa laughed. Uther smiled and continued. "Nobody in the village is without their eccentricities. I would be disappointed if you were the only exception. Is there anything else bothering you?"
"Well, the thought of marrying is a little overwhelming, and no man would be tempted by the dowry my family could offer."
Uther nodded. "Your family is poor, true. But only a truly stupid man would need a bribe to marry you."
Something in his tone gave her pause. "Why do you say that?" she asked. She slowed her steps noticeably.
"You have a keen mind and a gentle wit. You desire to honor the gods in all things. You're beautiful."
"Nobody would call me beautiful."
"I would," Uther said, a little too sincerely. "But I do not wish to speak for other men," he added quickly, then winced as he stumbled into the subtext of what he'd just said.
"But, speaking only for yourself," Reesa said, trying not to laugh, "you think I would make a good wife?"
Reesa caught the frown of concentration that crossed the young priest's face. She stopped walking, grabbed his hand, and pulled him to a stop. The question spilled out of its own accord. "Uther, do you love me?"
His response was simple, with only a hint of hesitation. "I believe I do, yes." Reesa had expected him to be flustered, to stammer, to perhaps deny that any such thought had crossed his mind. "You seem disappointed," he continued. "I promise that we need never speak of--"
"No, no. Uther, I'm not. I feel the--" she faltered. "I love you. I think I have for a while now. But you're the High Priest now, the youngest ever. If you took a wife, you'd have to step down."
Uther smiled. "I know marriage is... discouraged. I'd probably be asked to let someone else take over the duties of High Priest, and I would not protest. But taking you as a wife would not be breaking any sacred vows. The gods won't hold me in contempt for it, so I don't care if the priesthood does. But I fear that you might."
The priest laughed with relief, his eyes joyous. "Then the day you are eligible, I'll go to your father and ask for your hand."
"Only my hand?"
"Only your hand. I could never convince him to part with eyes like yours."
Reesa smiled graciously. "Are priests allowed to flatter innocent maidens so?"
"Tell me you'll say yes."
A thought came to her, one that both thrilled and frightened her. "Before you ask for my hand, I have to tell you..." she trailed off.
"What is it?"
"The secrets of the universe."
Trapped, deeply shamed, physically and emotionally spent, Reesa watched the eyes of the priests as they pored over the notes she'd gathered over the last five years. From time to time, one of them would look up at her, each look accusing her of the most vile blasphemies. Except Uther, who wouldn't look at her at all. She kept looking, hoping for a compassionate glance, a word in her defense. But no, she only saw his distance, and a mixture of betrayal and despair.
They had been in council for six exhausting hours. Reesa was desperately thirsty, but didn't ask for water. If her throat was dry, then so were her eyes, and at the moment her only solace was the irrational certainty that she had no more tears left in her.
"Now, child," Father Nolhein's high, cutting voice bored into her. "Are we to understand that, on one of these... other worlds," he spat the phrase in disgust, "that there is a race of lizard men named the Tarktok?"
"Yes, Father," she whispered, without a shred of resistance.
"And they have another gender which is neither man nor woman? And fly about in these metal birds?"
"And these orgies you describe..." Reesa sank lower in her chair. "They're part of the religious rites of these demons?"
"Father, I don't think they're dem--"
His voice became hard and angry. "Clearly, they are. Blasphemous, low creatures who mock the gods with their actions. Others here have encouraged you to recant. I disagree; you should stand by these tales. I would be even more horrified if you admitted you could invent such vileness." Some of his peers nodded.
Uther spoke for the first time in several hours. "What disappoints me most, my child--"
My child. The formality of the phrase shook the girl to the core.
"--is the lack of any piety to these imaginings. Worse than telling lies about the gods, it's as though they don't even exist to you. All these years, I saw you as such a devout young woman, who loved the gods and was beloved of them in turn. All those long nights with the Upshan Berental, you weren't worshipping the gods, you were mocking them."
In that moment Reesa realized that she'd still held on to some small reserve of hope, because in that moment she felt it all ripped away. Head hung in shame, tears flowing, she whispered, "Burn them. They're all lies."
Uther gave a nod, then strode from the room. The other priests gathered up the tattered papers with their delicate writing, and fed them one by one into a blazing cistern in the middle of the table. Reesa didn't watch.
The priests escorted her down the stairs and out into the main tabernacle. She passed the altar without looking at the orb, without looking at anything.
Reesa? What happened? She returned only silence, but even in that silence, Kyron could feel the depths of her humiliation. He didn't know what to say. He burned red with rage. As Reesa was escorted out the door, a crash louder than a thunderclap enveloped the hall. Everyone turned to see the Upshan Berental floating like a flame amidst a cloud of dust, above the rubble that used to be its pedestal.
After a year's banishment from the Temple, Reesa returned to perform the ritual that would reunite her with her village. She had not heard from Kyron in all those months, and her only contact with Uther was one short, cordial meeting a week ago when she offered her petition to rejoin the Temple, and he had accepted. They had not discussed marriage, and Reesa knew they never would.
When the time came, the doors to the main hall opened to grant her entrance. She marched towards the front of the hall, where Father Nolhein was waiting. She knelt before him and offered a few words of penitence, then he poured water over her head. He bid her to stand.
She closed the ceremony by placing her hands on the Upshan Berental.
Hello, stranger, Kyron said.
I've missed you, Reesa thought, smiling.
Then she turned, and Father Nolhein presented her as a full member of the congregation. She took her seat next to Arkit, and caressed the tiny hand of her new infant. "You did great," Arkit whispered. Reesa tried to smile at the encouragement.
Can we talk? Kyron asked as Reesa's mind drifted away from the service.
I've been exploring. Mostly I've been trying to figure out the door that brought me here. I think I've figured out how to open it.
You mean, you can get out?
No. When you're in here, you're in for forever. But I think I could open it wide enough to bring you in.
What? Why would I want to do that?
Because you always told me how much you wanted to see the screaming turnip people? At this, Reesa laughed aloud, drawing some indignant looks. She couldn't deny it; she really did want to see the screaming turnip people.
There's so much to see in here. More than that, there are people in here. I'm learning to talk to them. Every one of them used to live in one of the places I've told you about.
I think they found their way here, like me. We're working together, trying to figure out how the whole thing works. We could use your help.
Kyron, please. I just want my old life back.
Oh, I think we both know that's not true.
Reesa pondered the offer. She had worked hard to get back in the good graces of the village. But no, that wasn't it. She had worked hard to get back into contact with the Sacred Thingy. She would miss Arkit, and the parents she loved but couldn't seem to get along with. But the things that kept her here seemed insignificant when compared to those innumerable alien worlds, the ebb and flow of civilizations. How could she, who had heard Kyron's stories for years, not want to see them for herself?
What do I do?
First, you close your eyes.
The gathering had ended, and the congregation was filing out. Reesa sat staring forward in her seat, unmoving but for shallow breaths and the occasional eyeblink. Uther watched her from the entrance, first with sadness, then with annoyance. Not until Reesa's mother began to wail did he come back inside to investigate.
Reesa's mother clutched the girl's head to her own chest, as though trying to summon her back through the sheer force of the embrace, sobbing uncontrollably. Arkit's arms were around them both, trying to offer comfort. Her father stood beside them, one hand on his wife's shoulder, trying to remain stoic.
"Did she say anything to you before-" Uther tried to summon a word for it, but came up blank.
Arkit nodded. "She said she was sorry, and to look after her parents."
"Is that all?"
Arkit gave a strained, abortive laugh. "I don't know what to make of it. She said, 'the secrets of the universe are mine.'"