The treetops move violently as if the wind were tethered to them, trying to escape. The sun flickers on and off. Shadows dance to-and-fro. It a magical scene. A forest you’d expect to see fairies fluttering about and tiny imps poking their heads through the ferns.
But the men and women of this colony are people of science. Magic is for the dreamers. Magic is but a conundrum yet to be understood by science. That’s what Harris always says. And he says it often to Moritus and the other children, so they don’t get their heads lost in this wonderous forest.
“Class. Class.” Harris doesn’t raise his voice. Rarely does he let emotion get the best of him. “Quiet down. An outdoor discovery of nature doesn’t warrant barbarianism. Let us not drop all learned behaviors. Manners please. We are people of sophistication.” His voice is so daunting it demands attention without elevation. And his appearance isn’t to be taken lightly either. He’s a tall, dark man, and looks as though children might be on his breakfast menu.
The class settles down and line up in four single-file rows, hands to themselves. Just what Harris expects of them.
“We have a short distance to venture, yet. But soon you will see the enchanting way of the thunderbugs. And it is there where we will setup our labs and dig deep into the conundrums of nature. They may look magical, but remember—”
“Magic is but a conundrum yet to be understood by science.” All the children monotonously finish the sentence for him.
“Very good. Very good. Have your nets at the ready.”
Moritus slings his net over his shoulder and keeps a keen eye on the bushes.
“I will give you the go-ahead. Don’t jump at first sight, please,” Harris adds.
There’s a gentle flicker of light ahead. Moritus battles his urge to run. He wants to be the first to catch one. But he knows Harris has unrelenting consequences. They don’t involve physical punishment, but even more dreadful—mental anguish. Like memorizing all eighty-eight constellations in the night sky and where each is located, when they’re visible, and the name of the brightest star, or binary star group in each. The constellations don’t look anything like their names depict, but now Moritus can find his way in the night because of that punishment.
More thunderbugs take flight. Small, brilliant white and pale-blue dots fill the forest. Electrical currents flow between them like a bolt of lightning as they get within proximity of each other. And a subtle smell of burnt flesh mixes with the sweet odors of the evergreen forest.
Moritus flinches at the sight of them.
“Don’t be so zealous.” One of his classmates pops him on the head with his net.
Moritus turns around to see Alistair. The brash boy smiles. Moritus, quite the opposite.
“We’re all going to catch one. Well…maybe not you.” Alistair’s face turns solemn. “I’ve heard orphans lose their passion with their parents.”
Moritus’s jaw tightens.
“And we all know it takes passion to do anything worthwhile in this world.” Alistair grins. “If you’re not passionate, you’re fierce. And passion will always triumph. That’s what Harris is always telling us. So if you haven’t got any passion, what good are you?”
Moritus’s fist curls into a tight ball.
“Not good enough to catch a thunderbug,” Alistair adds.
Moritus’s fist divides a girl and a boy to reach Alistair. But he isn’t quick enough. Alistair grabs his wrist and twists it. Moritus succumbs to the pain and flops onto the ground before Alistair.
“Sticks and stones, Moritus. They’re only words.” Alistair squeezes tighter.
Moritus’s eyes grow wide as all the hair on his arm grows longer, darker, and thicker. Alistair releases Moritus’s wrist as he tugs and the young boy slams into the forest floor.
All those close enough to witness it, erupt with laughter.
“Look at the orphaned ape,” Alistair taunts.
“He’s not an ape,” a girl defends him. Aralily, a Lahyf who he’s always admired from a distance, but never spoken to much. Although, he doesn’t speak to anyone much. Mostly to avoid situations like this.
“He sure looks like one.”
“And you look like a rat-faced sheep with a bloody nose,” she rebuttals.
The boy looks confused and grabs at his nose. Aralily slams her palm into his hand, and he screams like a goat. He pulls his hand away and blood pours from his face.
“Sorry,” Aralily corrects herself, “a rat-faced screaming goat with a bloody nose. Piss off!”
“Aralily.” Harris’s voice is calm and threatening at the same time. “Mend him. Now.”
She purses her lips, crosses her arms, and steps closer to the boy. He flinches. She raises a hand to his nose and squeezes. The goat screams louder. When she pulls away, the blood stops gushing. The boy is a bloody mess, but she’s healed his broken nose.
“Very good. Now, by my side. You’re with me for the remainder of the lesson. And we’ll discuss the consequences afterward.”
She wipes her hand off on her slacks before approaching Harris with her head down.
“Thanks,” Moritus whispers as she trudges away.
“Alistair…” Moritus rises to his feet. “You’ll get your comeuppance.”
“My comeuppance is to be the greatest of all time.” He smiles and waves him off.
“Why is he so arrogant?” Moritus mutters to himself as he trudges back home. He scratches at the hair on his arm, not sure what to do about it. It’s soft, and he enjoys petting it, but it makes him weird. He’s already weird because he’s an orphan. As far as he’s aware, he’s the only orphan in all of Azure. Though, he’s never ventured out of the Crimson Capital. But there aren’t too many outpost colonies out there. So, he’s likely the only weird orphan. And he doesn’t need any more reason to be weird.
He ponders Alistair’s comments about lacking passion. Everyone has passion. Right? An orphan’s passion might be survival, but still a passion, nonetheless. Always wondering when their next meal is or where they’ll bed down for the night. That’s how they’re depicted in the stories, anyhow, but Moritus doesn’t have those same issues. Not here in the Crimson Capital. Sprhowts like Alistair have wiped away any possibility of famine. They’re the race to idolize. With their ability to manipulate the growth of the flora, the harvest is always bountiful. Food is distributed to everyone. No bartering or stealing is necessary. And there’s a surplus of dwellings thanks to the Sprhowt experimenting with their talents. They’ve grown an entire forest of giant redwood. The Dihkai, like Moritus, have hollowed them out. And the Hiberneyt have petrified them to ensure a lasting structure. But it’s all because of the Sprhowt we have them at all. The Sprhowt, or Greenthumbs as many have started calling them, are the doers. They see the most results from the Seasonal Sciences. Still, maybe Alistair is right. Moritus doesn’t have the passion to be the greatest. Or to stand out above anyone, really. Moritus just wants to be included. And what kind of passion is that?
Moritus arrives at his hollow and kicks the door in. What does it matter if he has a door? Nobody comes to visit. There’s no one to keep out, and no reason to maintain privacy.
He slides his fingers between the door and the jamb. His anger causes him to white-knuckle it, but his determination is what forces the door off its hinges. The weight is too much, and he tumbles to the ground as it falls on him. Cancer has spread from his hands to the door and leaving large ruptures covered in black rot. The hinges remain attached to the jamb.
If survival isn’t Moritus’s passion, and standing out isn’t, then what is? He’s desperate to find out. To prove to Alistair he’s not passionless.
Later that evening, there’s a rap on his door jamb as he picks at his soup. He nearly spills as he reaches for a knife lying on the table. Why would a predator decide to wander in tonight, of all nights, when he’s destroyed his door?
His eyes catch hers and his face warms with submission and embarrassment.
“Ara…Aralily.” It comes out almost as a question. She unsettles him. Always has. She’s confident. She’s kind. She’s intelligent, yet occasionally brash, like earlier today. And beyond all that, she’s cute. Long dark hair, the color of the hair on his arm—he hides it behind his back—almost always bound into a tail. Soft dimples. An alluring smile…
“What are you staring at?” Her face squishes into something concerned. Still cute.
“Huh?” He puts the knife down casually, trying to make it look like he was using it with his supper. Because a knife is necessary to eat soup. Idiot. She gives him another odd look. “Oh, I…uh…I was just thinking how I needed to get that door fixed.”
She looks at the door lying on the ground. Then glances at the clean hinges. “Accident, huh? Yeah, my door tends to do that too.” She pauses with a hard stare. “When my angry bear gets frazzled by my screaming goat, they create all kinds of havoc. Dumb animals.”
“Who’re you calling an angry bear?” I smirk. “I know I’m not the screaming goat.”
They both start laughing. It lightens Moritus’s dark mood.
“So…how’d it go?” Moritus asks.
Aralily angles her head with a quizzical brow.
“With Harris? Did you learn to navigate by starlight?”
She grins. “Even better!” Her tone is feisty. “I’m now studied in the evolution of the thunderbug.”
I shrink back in my seat. She wanders in from the door and takes a seat across from me.
“Did you know the bioluminescence is created by a chemical reaction in their bodies. And it’s not the same as the light from fire or lightning. It’s cold light. Bioluminescence is one of the most efficient sources of light. It’s brilliant! And only when they get close to each other do they produce enough energy to create that charged zap and burnt smell. It’s because their exoskeleton gets hot and smolders just a bit.”
“So, wait…you enjoyed it?”
“Yes. Why do you think I punched that screaming goat in the face? It was the perfect opportunity to disguise my real desire—a private lesson with Harris. An opportunity like that doesn’t come around too often.”
“Oh…it does for me.” Moritus scratches his head, then quickly tucks his arm under the table when he realizes he’s displaying his ape-like arm.
“No need to hide it,” she says. “That’s why I’m here actually. I figured you’d need a hand with healing that.” She smiles and exposes her dimples. “Unless…you want to keep it?”
“No!” He nearly yells at her and continues in a calmer voice. “Please, remove it.” He lays his arm on the table and squirms. Anticipation in both the unknown of what she’ll do to heal it and…her touch. Moritus continues the conversation to remove any awkwardness. “You’re a Lahyf, right?”
She sits straight up, her hands flat on the table. “How’d you know?”
Moritus flinches and stiffens his body. “I…uh….I…”
She smiles. “I’m kidding. Lighten up a touch. You might enjoy the world around you more.”
He eases back into his seat. “But if you’re a Lahyf, how do you remove hair? That’s a Dihkai talent, no? I probably could remove it, but I don’t think I’m capable without leaving black scars up and down my arm.”
“Yeah, I wouldn’t recommend using decay on yourself. Or anyone for that matter. It’s kinda…irreversible. Healers can’t reverse that. But hair!” She raises a finger. “Hair can be removed. Watch.”
She takes hold of his hand. Moritus squirms. And she brushes her fingers through the hair with her other hand. “It’s soft.” They make eye contact. Moritus breaks it and looks down at her hand petting his arm.
“Yeah, I’ve been petting it all afternoon,” he admits. “As much as I despise it, it’s hard not to.”
Aralily closes her eyes and focuses. Moritus takes the opportunity to stare at her. Beautiful, sure. But there is something else about her that draws him. She’s perfect in his eyes. Is she his passion? Can a girl be a passion?
She opens her eyes and catches him staring. Aralily smiles. Nothing more.
He squirms again and pulls his arm closer to his body. The long, dark hair sheds away onto the table. His arm is smooth as he runs fingers up and down it.
“I imagine your normal hair will grow back. I treated it like a wound. There were excessive follicles as if you had a barrage of micro-arrows attack you. So, I pushed ‘em out and closed ‘em up. Good as new. But I wasn’t quite sure how to leave you some hair. So…we’ll just have to wait and see. You might get some pimples as the hair tries to regrow and push back through your skin. I don’t know. I’m just a Healer.”
“Better than a Gloomer.”
“You should own your race, Mori. Don’t shy away. I know there are talks of the Dihkai threatening others, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of. You don’t have to be lumped in with the rest of them.”
“It’s not the Gloomer part I’m ashamed of. I’m an orphan, Aralily. I’m the only orphan in all Azure.” Moritus looks away.
Aralily holds back a snicker.
“I don’t think you know what it’s like.” His tone thickens. “To be alone. To not be included—”
“I personally enjoy being left alone,” she cuts him off. “It’s where I find peace.”
“But people flock to you. People like you. I like you.” Moritus stops sharp at that comment. He rises to his feet, grabs his soup bowl, and places it in the wash tin. He refrains from turning back to face her.
“Moritus…” She rises too, steps to approach him, but doesn’t make it past the edge of the table. “I don’t mean to be irreverent. It’s just…you need to get out more.”
Moritus turns to face her. His dark features more lucid than usual.
“I mean. You’re not the only orphan. Think about all the chaos that has flooded the streets. Think about the other Dihkai, those who abuse their talents. Parents die, Mori. In this world and all others. Just because you don’t see them, doesn’t mean they don’t exist.” She finally approaches him. “Have you ever seen a screaming goat?”
Moritus smiles. “Thanks to you, yes.”
“And before today, it still existed. You simply didn’t know it was there.” She pauses and stares at him for a moment. “Find your passion, Mori. And don’t worry about Alistair. He’s an asshole.” She places a hand on his hairless arm. “Sorry ‘bout that. Now it’s more like a baby’s bum. But it’ll grow back.” She turns and walks to the drafty entrance of his hollow. “I hope.”
The flow of the Scarlet is captivating in the morning light. Such fluidity, yet there’s constant repetition. A strict pattern to the flow if you stare long enough. Moritus leans against the rail of the pier, staring into the depths of the crystalline, red waters, waiting for the rest of the class to arrive for today’s lesson.
“Watch out!” A voice interrupts his brooding thoughts. “I hear there are leviathans in that river.” Aralily leans against the rail next to him.
“As long as they’re not screaming leviathan’s…”
“You’re here early,” she says.
“As are you.”
“Yeah, but I enjoy learning. I’m here to investigate the scene. Get an idea of what today’s lesson might be about.”
“And I enjoy long thoughtful walks on the pier.” He sticks out an elbow. “Shall we?”
She smiles and latches on. “It’s beautiful out here. The river is so vast. So smooth and clear. And the rolling plains behind it, too. Don’t you think?”
“Do you ever wonder if the Crimson Capital will outgrow it?”
Moritus smirks. “Hardly. How could a city outgrow the land?”
“Because humans have the passion to do so.” She catches brief eye contact with Moritus. “With what’s going on in the city—the blitz of crime. We don’t lack prosperity, so it’s hardly desperation causing it. With the talents we possess, there isn’t a soul within this colony in dire need of anything. You’d think only a person acting out of despair could harbor such choices. So, it’s greed, right? Or lust. Or an innate human desire of some kind. We encroach on our surroundings. We try to one-up each other. Have you ever watched a pair of siblings?” Moritus cocks his head. She flattens her lips. “Not in a weird way. They squabble. They intentionally poke at each other to see how the other will react. They fight to be the better. And why? They both have their parent’s love. They’re both nourished. Yet they push their dominance on each other. It’s in our blood. And passion will fuel it and rear its ugly head.”
Moritus runs a hand through his hair. “Aralily…” She looks at him. Her dimples hide just beneath the surface. “I don’t know much about these things. Siblings… Parental love… Passion…”
“Sorry. You said you enjoy thoughtful walks. I was just…sorry.”
The two reach the end of the pier and press against the railing, looking into the depths of the water.
“When you stare into it, what do you see?” Moritus asks.
“The water?” She gives him a sidelong glance. “I see wonders. I wonder what lurks beneath the surface. What kind of life thrives down there. What possibilities there are to explore its depths. What about you?”
“I see a large void. It’s like looking into the night sky. Sure, there’s stuff there, but it’s so open and…empty.”
“You’re a lonely soul, Mori. Let’s change that.”
Moritus turns to face her, still leaning against the rail. He noses closer. Aralily continues staring at the red waters, unaware. He’s moves to place a hand on hers but hesitates. In his retraction, a sliver impales his hand. He grinds his teeth and quickly uses his rot to vanquish it.
Aralily looks up. “Are you okay?”
“Just a…” An urge comes over him. Whether it’s the beauty in her frown, the dimples that move with her cheeks, or her intoxicating confidence, he isn’t sure. He lunges forward to kiss her.
She kisses him back briefly, then pushes away. “Moritus.” She places her fingers over her mouth as if his kiss were painful. But she kissed back. Her eyes grow distant. “It’s not… I’m not…”
“Is it because I’m an orphan?”
Aralily grins, closes her eyes, and shakes her head. “Of course not.” She moves to put a hand on his shoulder but pulls back.
“Is it because I’m twelve?”
“Well, you’re certainly too young to be kissing girls. For goodness’ sake, I’m fourteen, and I’m too young to be kissing boys. I like you, Mori, but just not—”
“Okay.” With haste, and an abruptly disrespectful end to their conversation, he walks away, back toward land where they’re supposed to meet for their daily lesson.
Moritus has the thought of how awkward it might be, but quickly remembers only a day ago, before Aralily decided to insert herself into his life, he was alone. It’ll be no different than the start of yesterday’s lesson. And no different than tomorrow’s, or any following day. Moritus is destined for solitude.
He thought, maybe…Aralily was his passion. A girl. That’s an acceptable passion, no? Men fall in love with women all the time. Are they not passionate? Maybe not all, but some, certainly. Maybe his passion is simpler than a girl. Maybe his passion is to be included. To not be alone. When Aralily said he was a lonely soul, it struck him. And maybe that’s why he kissed her. And lost her. A passion out of reach for a boy destined to be alone.
If he is destined for solitude, then why try for anything else. He’ll make solitude his passion instead.
“Is everyone in attendance?” Harris, with a lazy finger, counts the individuals standing about the head of the pier. “Good. Today, class, we’ll be looking at Azure through the lens of water. Follow me.”
Harris leads them to one of the port buildings. A simple structure like most in the colony. He presses into the wall and reveals a door. “Please hold the door for your neighbor as you enter. This isn’t a lesson in etiquette. They will not be able to enter if you let the door shut on them. And if I catch any pranksters, there will be instant consequences. Come now.” Harris disappears into the dark space.
Moritus is of the mind to let them all disappear behind the door without him. He watches as each classmate holds the door for the next. One by one they disappear. Moritus’s brain is in turmoil, rumbling back and forth with whether to join his class. Or does he feed his newfound passion—solitude. He can walk away right now and never return. He would escape the insults. He would avoid failure with only his standards to set the marker. Life is daunting when living by others’ standards. He could be free. Maybe solitude truly is his passion.
Aralily, the last of his classmates, walks past him and glances over her shoulder. She holds the door. A frown on her face, and those cute dimples too. Moritus hesitates. He watches her. Wondering how long she’ll wait. He’s not trying to test her out of some disdainful attitude toward others. He’s just undecided. If he chooses solitude, he won’t have her bright personality to lift him when he’s fallen into a well of darkness.
He moves to follow her, but she’s already decided he’s not coming. She turns her back and lets the door swing shut. Click.
Moritus glares at the wall. He has instant remorse for letting them walk out of his life. What is he to do now? Go home? He could disappear. Azure has vast amounts of terrain yet to be explored. He’s always enjoyed a jaunt through the wood on unmarked trails. He’s been told he’s from the Alta Silvae region. Maybe he could venture there. But can he endure a lifetime of it? He must. Leaving the colony is the only way to chase his new passion.
The wall opens, revealing the portal to the other side. Aralily pokes her head out with a large, mischievous grin. “C’mon, loner. Get your butt in here.”
He follows her, grateful the decision wasn’t forced on him just yet.
The room is dimly lit by thunder lanterns. The thunderbugs’ odor isn’t noticed without getting close, thankfully. A space like this could feel toxic if it smelled of burnt flesh. Aralily leads him down a flight of stairs with a couple switchbacks. At the bottom, it opens into a cavernous room. Again, dimly lit by thunder lanterns. And one wall is constructed entirely of glass. A small amount of daylight is visible at the top of the window. The rest is submerged beneath the surface of the Scarlet River. This is what Harris meant by seeing Azure through a watery lens. It’s like a secret chamber of the aquarium. Probably one of Harris’s laboratories.
“We all made it down.” Harris glances at Moritus. “Very good.” Does he know Moritus was contemplating not coming? Moritus brushes the thought away, just as quickly as Harris’s glance comes and goes.
“Azure through the lens of water…” Harris gestures to the glass wall. “Ah, but this is just an aquarium, Harris. No. It isn’t. This is no ordinary glass wall. It is an immersion lens and will allow us to get a closer look at the life thriving within every cup of water you drink.” What started as an excited grin, flattens. “But it is not a plaything. You will respect it more than you do your mother.”
Moritus cringes at the comment. Was it intentional? Is Harris mocking him?
“Now, there are only so many eyepieces.” He gestures to small objects protruding from the glass window. Moritus hadn’t even noticed them. “We will pair up. But because odd numbers don’t pair up evenly, one lucky subject will join me.”
Moritus watches as Aralily squirms.
“Get to it. Find a partner.”
Aralily stands back. Moritus watches her. He stands back and waits because he knows nobody wants to partner with him. Aralily stands back because she wants to partner with Harris. But she’s too popular. Multiple classmates approach her, and she’s burdened to accept one of them. The other two pair with each other. Moritus is left standing in the back. As expected. As desired, he tells himself.
“It’s because you’re an orphan, Mori.” Alistair never fails. And all it takes today is that one tiny, painful comment.
Moritus rushes the pretentious fool and tackles him to the ground. One fist after the other pummels his face. Alistair clearly wasn’t anticipating any kind of retaliation from Moritus. He lies there suffering the beating without any attempt of defending himself.
“Stop, Moritus!” Aralily hurries over to stop the fight. “You’re being an ass just like him.”
She grabs Moritus’s arm on his back swing. A mistake for them both. In the heat of the moment, he shoves her away, and instantly recognizes what he’s done. He stops pummeling the screaming goat to address the damage he’s done to Aralily.
She lies on the ground in pain. There’s a hole in her tunic at her abdomen and it’s lined with black rot. And a black handprint covers the flesh beneath. It eats away at her stomach.
The class huddles around them. Moritus doesn’t know what to do.
“Look what you’ve done,” a hoarse voice says. It’s Alistair continuing to mock Moritus even after taking a beating.
Harris rushes to aid the girl. “Step back.” His voice is commanding but calm as usual. He speaks with an authority that nobody dare intervene with. But the terror in his eyes display his true emotions. A child might die under his charge.
He wipes away the mushy residue created from the rot and tosses it to the side with a flick. Like a hand shedding mud. Or quite the opposite—bubbles. Harris is the opposite of a Healer, and there is nothing he can do to save her. He’s a talented Dihkai, but only a Dihkai. His talents will only make it worse. But he presses a palm to her abdomen, regardless.
“Aralily, focus. This is up to you. You must stop the decay. Dig into the Seasonal Sciences and focus all your healing where my hand presses. I will guide you. Fight it.”
Silence. Not a word or a gasp from the class. Not a sound from Harris or Aralily as they focus their talents. Only the gentle hum of the thunder lanterns can be heard, and an occasional creak in the immersion lens behind them.
Her eyes flutter. An intentional and tranquil inhale into her lungs. Exhale from slightly parted lips. Again. And her eyes open.
“Are you okay?” Harris pulls his hand away. Aside from the decayed tunic, there doesn’t appear to be any damage. “Well done.”
“Thank you,” she replies. And a large grin brings out her dimples. Even at near-death, the beauty of her personality shines.
“Jerk,” someone whispers.
Moritus turns his head to see Alistair standing next to him. He has no rebuttal. What he did was inexcusable, and he knows it. He has the thought to run up the stairs. To evacuate the situation and never come back. His forefingers beat against his thumbs as he stares in anticipation.
Harris helps Aralily to her feat. “You are excused if you wish.”
She shakes her head. Of course. She’s not going to pass up a chance at learning. She’s too extraordinary for that.
“Class, to your spots at the immersion lens. Take turns learning how to use the eyepiece and get familiar with it for now.”
The class disperses. Harris eyes him pensively before approaching. The instructor pulls him to the far end of the immersion lens where the last eyepiece remains. “You will learn nothing from my lessons until you overcome whatever turmoil is within here.” He points to Moritus’s forehead. “So, what is it you’re dealing with? Best to not beat around the bush or this will only take longer.”
“I don’t belong here.”
“I don’t have any care to. I have no passion for it.” Moritus glances over to where Aralily stands. She is already free from the incident. A smile on her face. She’s put it behind her just as quick as he hurt her.
Harris follow’s his eyes.
“Ah…” He places a hand on his shoulder and points him in the direction of the eyepiece. “Come, let’s at least pretend as though we’re observing, or it will only create more gossip.”
Moritus looks up at the tall man. A simple thing to say, but it draws him closer. He’s willing to listen.
“You’re lost. Alone in a world of community. And you feel the need to be part of it. Do you not?”
“I can only help if you are receptive.”
“What do you know of being alone?”
A brief grin flashes on Harris’s face. “All too much, young sir. All too much.”
“It’s not so much being alone. It’s that I don’t know what to do with it.”
“Aha!” Harris raises a finger and puts his eye to the eyepiece. “Then you’ve already figured out the problem. That is the hard part. Thank you for that. I wasn’t quite sure I was going to be of any help. And here you are conquering my role for me. So, let’s find a solution.”
Harris pulls away and gestures for Moritus to look. He puts his face to the lens. Giant foreign creatures are revealed. He pulls away and looks directly through the window but sees nothing. He puts his face back to the lens. The creatures are everywhere. Hundreds, maybe thousands. Their bodies have the mass of a hairless bear, except more legs. And a face that looks like a sharp rectum. And large terrifying claws. But there’s a strange innocence to them. “What are they?”
Moritus pulls away. “What’s their purpose?”
“What’s our purpose?” he responds but doesn’t wait for an answer. “I have some theories. But there is much more to study. There’s a brilliant connection between them. And they’re everywhere. Not just in the water.” His fingers flick at his tunic as if he’s dusting it off.
Moritus’s eyes drift to the window. He can’t help but ponder the world from a different lens. Maybe his view isn’t the only view. Maybe Aralily is so joyful after a near-death experience because to her, it wasn’t near-death. It was a challenge to overcome. It was an opportunity to prove to herself she’s strong and capable. Whereas Moritus sees it as terrifying.
“There are more wonders to explore in this world than there are stars to guide you in the night.” Harris winks at Moritus. “You said you don’t know what to do with your solitude. Let’s start with something you enjoy.”
“I…I don’t really know, sir. I don’t know what I enjoy.”
“Well, what is it you do when not attending my lessons?”
“I eat. I sleep. I wonder what everyone else in the colony is doing.”
“I…I suppose so.”
“Let’s put a pin in that. Wonder is a place for inspiration. It will guide you.”
He stands up straight and observes the others in the class. “I must tend to the other students. You’ve earned an afternoon lesson with me, by the way. Don’t think I’m letting you off so easily. You nearly put a hole in a classmate’s stomach.”
Harris walks to the next group over, leaving Moritus alone to examine the wonders of the Scarlet River. He observes the red waters. The tardigrade aren’t the only creatures out there. Other microorganisms shaped like parasols bounce up and down. And eel-like creatures slither to-and-fro. Each is alone and they live in harmony at the same time.
A crack and a scream pull Moritus away from his thoughts.
His classmates are looking at the wall adjacent to the immersion lens. Harris too. Another crack sounds and a large timber column tilts toward the students. Some press against the glass wall. Others jump toward the back wall where the stairs are located.
“Get out!” Harris commands in a loud voice. Still not a yell. His emotions never enter his voice.
Harris catches the weight of the column to protect the students pinned against the glass, and a beam falls from the ceiling. Harris isn’t ready for it. The weight tears through him, forcing his knees to give and he collapses beneath it.
He isn’t moving.
Three of Moritus’s classmates are pinned between the timbers and the glass, unable to get free. Alistair and Aralily among them. They squirm and wiggle without success. Moritus is of the mind to flee up the stairs with the rest of the class. Harris will wake eventually, right? Harris will save them.
But Moritus knows that isn’t a realistic thought. He’s the only one who can save them. He’s a Dihkai with the decaying talent. It might take some time, and all his energy, but he can decay those timbers enough to break them apart.
A large, dark shadow swims past the immersion lens. Something much larger than the microorganisms they were observing.
Another crack sounds. But this one is different. It doesn’t have the sound of a falling tree. More like the sound of a frozen pond cracking. It’s apparent when a large crack spreads the distance of the immersion lens.
Moritus must act now.
He rushes to the other students and firmly presses both palms to the top timber.
“Hurry up, Moritus.”
Moritus’s fist stretches past the timber and smashes into Alistair’s cheek. He doesn’t scream like a goat this time. Instead, he falls limp. It doesn’t give Moritus the same satisfaction. And worse, his head created another crack in the glass. It spreads across the immersion lens like a lightning bolt.
The large shadow beyond the window circles back. This time Moritus gets a better glimpse at it. With a large jaw and teeth to match, spines protruding from its back, and four legs, he knows it be an alligator. But never did he imagine them to be so large. It’s the length of the entire immersion lens.
“What is it?” Aralily asks. The pitch of her voice fluctuating.
Moritus doesn’t answer. He closes his eyes and presses his palms to the timber. He focuses on the grains of the wood deteriorating. He feels the hard wood soften beneath his hands. He saturates the timber with all his energy until he has no more. And he comes up short. The timbers are too thick.
He must save them. Regardless of how much of an asshole Alistair is, he can’t leave him here to die. And Aralily may have rejected him, but that certainly doesn’t fit the consequence of leaving her here.
“Aralily, can you wake him?”
She reaches across her partner for today’s lesson, whose face is blank with shock, and places a hand on Alistair’s forehead. He wakes almost instantly. A bit groggy and confused, but that doesn’t matter.
“Good. Now, help me move this. Maybe we can break it apart.”
“Wait!” Aralily screams. “Don’t touch it. Look.”
The rot spreads, even without Moritus forcing it. It spreads like a cancer through the beam.
The immersion lens cracks again and water drips down the glass. Moritus has no interest in tangling with that alligator. He must do this now.
He grips the timber and pushes backward with his legs, away from the broken glass and his classmates. The beam slides toward him and he stumbles. Its momentum shoves him to the floor. All the air escapes his lungs.
“Are you okay?” Aralily pulls the end of the beam off him.
Moritus manages to nod. “H…Har…”
“We need to get the other timber off him.”
Alistair and the other girl are already gone. Up the stairs to safety.
“I don’t know if I have…” Moritus sits up, still trying to find his breath. “…the energy…” He gets to his knees. “…to decay another timber.”
“You must try,’ Aralily pleas.
Moritus knows she’s right. He can’t knowingly walk away from Harris when he’s in danger. Just like the students, he must try to save him.
He presses his hands to the other timber. The glass in front of him fully cracks. Water spews into the chamber, but Moritus doesn’t look to see. He closes his eyes and focuses on the deteriorating timber. Fatigue takes him, and he collapses to the wet floor.
When Moritus wakes, he finds both Aralily and Harris leaning over him. He’s not underwater. And nobody is battling an alligator. He’s back to the surface with warm sun beating down on him. And he’s nearly dry. Only his back feels damp.
The exhaustion hasn’t fully released him yet. Both his arms and legs feel too heavy to move. He just wants to lie there and absorb the rays of the sun. It’s as if they’re reenergizing him. Maybe they are.
“What happened?” He can hardly hear is own words.
“Aralily woke me,” Harris replies. “And I took it from there.”
“The glass… The alligator…”
“It’s an immersion lens, Moritus. It was only the inner glass that was compromised. There are two layers.”
“But I saw water flood the chamber.”
“Again, it’s an immersion lens,” Harris replies. “Liquid is injected between the two pieces of glass. That’s how it functions. It only soaked the floor. The immersion chamber will be off limits for some time until we have the means to repair it, but nothing is irreplaceable like a life. Aralily filled me in.” He glances at her, then back to Moritus. “Thank you for saving the students.”
“He’s also the cause.” A voice shouts from the horde of students crowded around him.
“Alistair!” Both Harris and Aralily reprimand him. Harris glares at her before continuing. “You’ve earned an evening lesson. But tonight, I’m already booked. Tomorrow, perhaps.”
Alistair quiets and sulks away.
“The timbers fell. How?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Harris replies.
“Please…” Moritus can’t let Alistair’s comment slip away. He doesn’t understand how he could’ve caused it, but if he did, he needs to know.
“We have no clear evidence.” Harris refuses to tell him.
“It was your rot.” Alistair answers for Harris. Already having earned an evening lesson, he must not care. “After Harris flung it away from Aralily, it plastered to the column. And from there it spread. You did this, Mori. It’s your fault.”
“That’s a week’s worth of lessons. Alistair, remove yourself from my presence before I lose my temper. Your behavior is belonging to a toddler. In fact, you will continue to have evening lessons with me until you become a man. And a boy only becomes a man when he’s earned the respect of another. You will grow up. And you will earn it. Go!”
Moritus closes his eyes and sinks into himself. He’s the cause of all of it. He thought for a moment he was acting the hero. But he was only repairing his own damage. That’s not heroic. That’s saving your own ass from being a murderer. He didn’t know he caused the timbers to decay, but that doesn’t relieve him of the fault.
“Patience.” Harris speaks to Moritus. “I can say the word. It can go in and out. Or you can dwell on it. But I cannot teach it to you. Patience is a practiced virtue. It doesn’t come naturally to any of us. Some might claim so, but patience is tested in every moment and dependent on the emotions of the event at hand. Let’s learn from this, Moritus.”
The next day, Moritus is grateful to be free from his classmates and his instructor. It’s his day to help with the food distribution. All members of the colony must help at some point. And the colony has grown wide and large enough, that multiple distribution centers pepper the streets. So, today he monitors a fruit booth. There’s no exchange of anything monetary. It’s all free for the taking. So, he primarily waits and watches until the sun has set and he cleans up.
Most dread these days, but not Moritus. It’s reason for him to be alone and gather his thoughts. He doesn’t have to force himself into situations to be included. He does want to be included, though he doesn’t enjoy the process of being included. It’s awkward. Stepping into a group. Being new. Not knowing personal details of those around you. Not knowing whether a person expects a handshake, a fistbump, a hug, or simply an, Hello, upon greeting. Not knowing their interests to start up a conversation. It’s all so…awkward. Uncomfortable. Almost unbearable.
Some people handle this well. It doesn’t necessarily irk Moritus, but it stirs a hint of envy. Watching a newcomer come into a group and instantly meld seamlessly with simple charisma. It’s usually someone chatty, who’s good at moving their lips nonstop. It’s like a takeover, not a merger into a group. And Moritus has no interest in that. He doesn’t want eyes on him, he just wants to be included. And standing in the corner, alone, when the expectation is community oriented is worse than the awkwardness of trying to be included.
But out in the food court, with the other market stands, nobody pays him any attention. And that is the expectation. He doesn’t have to stand in the corner, not being included, because the expectation is that he does just that. He’s there only to stock more fruits onto the table if it’s a busy day, answer the occasional question—assuming he has an answer—and cleanup when the sun goes down. He enjoys it. He’s playing his part in the community, but there’s no pressure of being part of the community.
The sun dips behind the buildings. The crowd is getting smaller. Calmer. A gentle buzz on a warm peaceful evening. This is Moritus’s passion.
A morose gang wanders into the area. Morose only because they don dark, cheerless attire. They aren’t doing anything otherwise to earn that description. The color is trending for Dihkai. More specifically, Dihkai with a mission to subjugate all other races. Moritus has heard rumors of murderers lurking about the city. He’s never seen one, thank goodness. Would a murderer approach him and threaten his submission even though he’s Dihkai himself? He doesn’t know if it’s a race issue or if they’re just hungry for power.
They’re headed straight for Moritus.
It’s not quite time to close the booth, but Moritus starts packing and organizing anyways. Anything to avoid eye contact.
“You Mori?” a petite girl asks.
Moritus hesitates to look up from his tasks. It was a feeble attempt at avoiding them, but he didn’t want to show fear. He looks at her and nods.
She’s much older than Moritus. Maybe twenty seasons or so. She dons a black, hooded cloak with blonde hair escaping out the front. And dark eyes, the tell-tell of a Dihkai.
“We heard rumors of your incident yesterday.”
“Are you here to murder me?” Moritus is blunt. He’d rather know now.
A sly grin slides across her face. “We’re here to recruit you.”
Why? Why would they want to recruit Moritus? He’s shown no interest in them. He doesn’t roam around trying to imbue his dominance. Why him?
“I don’t want to be a murderer.”
“We’re not murderers. We have…pets for that.” She looks to her comrades and smirks. “We’re Dihkai. Just like you. And recruit is a strong word. That insinuates we’d be making you part of something larger. So, let’s say…befriend.”
“I do well without friends.”
“Do you? We heard what happened yesterday.” She gestures to a boy behind her. He attends the same lessons as Moritus. Sam, maybe? “You rescued three students and were reprimanded for it. Accused of being vile and causing the whole incident. But it sounds like you put on quite a display of your talent.”
“Not many can take down a structure, Mori. We can help you harness those talents. Get them under control, so you can use them when you want to. We have an outpost out west beyond the plains. Hedgestone. Think on it.”
The blonde turns on her heel and leads the gang away. No harm done. Awkward—certainly. But it’s always easier when they strike up the conversation. No harm done.
Moritus inhales a deep breath and holds it for a moment before exhaling. Then he goes about his business packing up his booth. He ducks behind it to gather crates from beneath it.
“We missed you in class today, Moritus.”
Moritus smacks his head on the booth as he rises. He clenches his jaw to avoid cursing. “Tigershit,” he mutters anyways when he sees Alistair at the head of a group of boys. One of those charismatic type who take charge, yet often provide no value other than a yapping mouth. And most everyone listens because they lack the energy to engage.
Moritus looks toward the disappearing sun. “Shouldn’t you be meeting with Harris to review how to behave like a proper human being?”
Alistair doesn’t appreciate that comment. He reaches across the booth and yanks the crate from Moritus’s hands and tosses it to the side.
Moritus doesn’t offer much resistance, unsure why it was necessary, and unconcerned for the crate’s safety. Instead, he looks at him with raised eyebrows. Not out of alarm, but more so the Are-you-crazy? type of eyebrow hike.
“You nearly killed us, Mori. And now I’m suffering the consequences of a lifetime of personal tutoring because of it.”
“You could probably use it,” Moritus rebuttals. It’s not like him, but the words just come out. Alistair has that effect on him.
His friends circle around the booth and grab Mori’s arms. Again, he doesn’t offer much resistance. What’s the point? Even if he does manage to slip their grip, he’s not going to run away. That would only give Alistair more reason to taunt him. To make him feel alone and out of place.
They slam him down face first on the booth.
“Just get it over with,” Moritus says. He assumes they’re going to pummel him. Retaliation for Mori’s sucker punch yesterday. And for causing the immersion chamber to collapse, putting everyone in danger. But mostly for sucker punching Alistair. He’s sure that’s what he’s particularly upset about.
Alistair grips the back of Mori’s neck. Tight, but not painfully tight. What’s he doing?
Moritus feels a weird sensation all over his body. Like bugs crawling around his skin. He starts to squirm. A pummeling he could endure, but bugs? His flesh tickles. He wants to rip free of his clothes and get them off, but Alistair’s goons are stronger than him. And they already have him in an awkward position that doesn’t allow much wiggle room.
Alistair releases him and his goons follow suit. “There. Maybe you’ll stay in your hole now. Where an orphan belongs. Prevent you from causing harm to anyone else.”
Moritus rises, confused. Is that it? He doesn’t realize the damage done until he moves to check for bugs crawling beneath his tunic. His arms are hairy. Both of them. Moritus pulls his tunic away from his chest and peeks inside. His chest is hairy too. His palms slap against his cheeks to feel more hair.
“You belong out in the wood with the beasts, Mori. So, I’ve turned you into one.”
Moritus isn’t sure how to react. He’s furious. He looks like an ape wearing human attire. But part of him wants to escape to the forest and never come back. This is good reason to remove himself from the challenges of being included in a world that doesn’t want him.
Leaving behind the fruit booth, Alistair and his goons, and everything else, he flees from the food court. He runs down the street with hollering taunts chasing after him. He dips down an alley, gearing toward the wood. If anyone sees him, they’ll panic. He holds an arm up to his face to conceal it as he runs. His only thought is to escape to the wood as Alistair had urged. Through the city center, past the redwood hollows, and into the redwood forest.
He’s an ape. Or half an ape. Moritus is tempted to live his days out with the beasts, but in this form, he doesn’t belong with either humans or beasts.
He runs aimlessly deep into the wood. Tearing past tree trunk after tree trunk. Scrambling through underbrush and stirring thunderbugs.
Finally, he stops. He turns to look back and realizes it’s raven dark out here in the wood. He knows not where he is. But remnants of light—all the thunderbugs he disturbed—light his path home. He has no interest in going back, however. He’ll be better off out here. He sits with his back against a tree and enjoys the sight of the charged bugs fluttering about.
He sits for a long while. The thunderbugs settle down. The forest grows darker and darker. His eyes adjust slightly, but they’re not made for such a place. He wants to stay, but he knows he doesn’t belong. Where will he sleep? What will he eat? And if not here, then where? Where does he belong?
His stomach rumbles at the thought of food. He must go back. At least to his hollow. He can stock up on food for a month’s duration and figure out his next move from there. It will buy him some time to learn how to hunt. To learn how to feed himself. He’s wishing he were a Sprhowt right now. To have the talent of growing fruit with the touch of a hand would be useful out here. What good is a Gloomer for, anyways? They’re only good for destruction. That’s it.
Maybe Aralily could heal him, like she had done to his arm. But then he’d have to confront her. He’d have to endure that awkward moment of wanting to be included where he’s not wanted. That moment is worse than living out a life as a half-beast. He can’t confront her. Not like this.
Moritus is a Gloomer. A Dihkai. He’s only capable of destruction, so why not annihilate the surplus hair covering his body. Yes. That’s what he’ll do. He’ll decay the hair and make himself a normal boy again.
The only challenge will be stopping the decay before it destroys his flesh.
Moritus starts small. He pinches one little tuft of hair on the back of his hand. The hairs disappear instantaneously beneath his touch. It’s shorter, but remains thick, covering all his flesh.
There isn’t enough light for him to trust using his rot any closer to his flesh. So Moritus runs circles in the underbrush, flushing out thunderbugs. Their burnt odor is hardly noticeable out here with the smell of evergreens overpowering it. In fact, it’s almost harmonic with the smells of the forest, adding a magical aroma of roasted evergreen.
Plenty of light is produced by the bugs. Moritus hunkers down in the brush and gets to work.
“There it is!” an angry voice shouts. “Kill it!”
“Kill it?” a softer voice interjects. “We don’t even know what it is. Would you go about killing all life just because it’s unfamiliar? Or because you don’t like it? That’s rather cowardly. We’d end up killing all life on Azure if you were in charge.”
It’s Aralily. Moritus is certain of it. And because it’s her, he refuses to show himself. They know he’s here, so it’s hopeless. But he can’t reveal himself in his current state. The embarrassment he’d endure. The shame. And he’s positive the boy is Alistair. The screaming goat. How he’d like to turn him into one right now. This is his fault. But again, he refuses to come out to spare himself from the heckling.
Moritus scurries through the underbrush, keeping low. He presses into a thicket, unconcerned of the scrapes he’ll endure. It won’t make his condition any worse.
“Look, it’s cryptic. Elusive. Traits of an evil beast. A predator waiting to kill.”
“Or it’s afraid of a grunting, screaming goat. Tame yourself.” Aralily degrades him. Moritus smiles on the inside.
“Shut it, Aralily!” Another voice. There’s more than just the two of them. “This isn’t a matter for a girl to handle.”
There’s a sound of a soft thump followed by a groan. Moritus grins outwardly this time. He knows it was Aralily not standing for such ridiculous filth to be spoken. He’s never known her to jump to fisticuffs so quickly, but she certainly has found a refuge in violence in the past few days.
“Enough of this. Let’s get it out here, so we can see it..”
Vines, or roots, curl around Moritus’s ankles. They pull taught. He slips a foot out of one and works on the other. But another root curls around his leg. Then another. They tug at him, pulling him in the direction of the voices. As soon as he slips free of one, another curls around him. There are too many. The roots trip and drag him.
He’s pulled out into the open. Thunderbugs flutter about everywhere, shining light on the entire scene. The roots climb a nearby tree trunk, pulling Moritus with them. His body is elevated, dangling by his ankles for all to see.
“What is it?” one girl asks.
“It’s a boy,” another replies.
All the while, Alistair has an evil smirk on his face. He’s very much aware of what he led all of them into the wood to see. Whether Alistair actually intends on killing Moritus, he isn’t sure. Moritus isn’t so appalled by the notion. It would ease his suffering. But how could Alistair kill him in front of all these people? Maybe by accident before they witnessed what they were chasing. But not now.
“Mori?” Aralily is wide-eyed.
“That’s Moritus?” another boy calls out. “But he’s so…”
“Gory,” a girl admits.
And she’s right. Moritus attempted to remove the hair from his flesh. He was successful in some areas. But it required a lot of energy. And a lot of patience to be so precise with where to stop the rot. Now, his flesh is scarred with black splotches. He was able to stop it from spreading, but not remove it without digging out his flesh. And he tried, but the pain was too much. More than the rot eating away at his flesh. And he grew too tired before he could finish. The end result, a naked boy with some normal flesh, some rotten splotches, and some bloody scars where his fingernails dug into his skin. But mostly hair.
“Mori the Gory,” someone whispers.
Moritus closes his eyes and covers his ears. He doesn’t want to absorb their reactions. The pain welling inside him is beyond tolerable.
“Mori the Gory,” Alistair repeats. And he says it again with a tune. “Mori the Gory, Mori the Gory, Mori the Gory.”
Others join in. But not all of them. Only those who are either self-centered or too immature to understand their actions have an impact on others. Moritus believes most people are ignorant to the fact their choices affect others. But that’s not the case with Alistair. He’s evil down to the core. He’s an intelligent kid, and he knows he’s destroying Moritus in this very moment.
But does he understand what Moritus is capable of? It could be as bad as cornering a skunk. It could be as bad as flipping a turtle on its back. Or it could be as bad as a lemming heedlessly trudging over the edge of a cliff. In any case, the outcome won’t be pleasant.
“Who did this to you?” Harris demands.
“It doesn’t matter,” he mopes with defeat.
“It does. This behavior cannot be tolerated.”
“If you fight my battles, what’s the point of continuing? The suffering will be unbearable. The defeat will never go away. I’ll forever be alone. Misunderstood. I might as well die.”
Harris remains quiet, straight-faced. Does that mean he agrees?
“Will you at least let me try to heal your wounds?”
Moritus nods to Aralily. She insisted on sticking around to help after she and a few other classmates helped him down from the tree. One of them was grateful enough to offer his tunic, so Moritus could cover himself. There was so much hair, he doesn’t think it was inappropriate for Aralily or any of the other children to be assisting him, but awkward, nonetheless. Especially after having revealed his intentions with Aralily. It felt better to have a cloth draped around him.
Alistair and his goons lost interest rather quickly and fled the scene. Same with several of his other classmates. But a select few, including Aralily, cared to help. It was rare form, for peers to be considerate of his needs. Moritus isn’t sure how to feel about it. Does he have to be in such a low state of humiliation…of dread…for others to care? Does despair have such a wretched stink that others either disperse to remove themselves from the stench, or flock to absolve it?
With Moritus having no guardians of his own, the children brought him to Harris. But Harris has no empathy. For process, maybe. For science, certainly. But not for children. It’s apparent with his silence. He believes Moritus is correct in his evaluation of the matter.
“The hair is easy to remove, but I don’t have an answer for the rot. Sorry, Mori.” Aralily’s lips flatten as she pulls away from him.
“Thank you, Aralily.” He forces a smile. “Harris…” Moritus offers him an appreciative nod. “I think I’d like to return home now.”
Without another word, Moritus drifts home. But he doesn’t intend on staying. He gathers what he needs, puts on fresh attire, dons his black hooded cloak, and sets out. He grabs a small amount of food. Only what will fit in his satchel. And he confidently steps through the open portal into the vast world of Azure.
He has a destination in mind. Hedgestone. But he’s not set on the destination. If his aimless journey should take him elsewhere, then so be it. Desperation is a difficult stink to scrub away. Aralily’s kind touch and Harris’s honest guidance worked for him this time. But he’s not so sure it’s a strong enough remedy. And although change is difficult for everybody, he knows it’s the best remedy.
There is one stop he must make before he departs the capital for good. He marches up to the hollow he knows to be Alistair’s. He doesn’t knock. He doesn’t pound on the door. He doesn’t use his rot to burst through it. His anger has passed. That will solve nothing. But he does want to say goodbye.
With a finger, and his touch of death, Moritus writes the following on his door.
I hope you find your comeuppance, G-O-A-T. And when you do, scream it from the mountaintops. You deserve it.
Mori the Gory, The Fierce Decayer.
We are the Blood of Azure