Chapter 7 can be read below the cut.
In the early hours of the morning, Nymue lay awake, staring up at the ceiling of the cabin. The words the demon said to her the previous night kept running through her head. Hello, witch.
Nymue didn’t think she was a witch, but she didn’t even know what a witch really was. Morgaine had mentioned witches before, but she had never gone into detail on the subject. The last time Nymue had asked was when she was seventeen, and Morgaine had said that she’d tell Nymue in a few years – maybe.
Next to her, Ariana shifted in her sleep. Nymue looked at her for a moment, then returned to staring at the ceiling. She doubted she’d be able to get any more sleep before the sun rose.
Two hours passed before Ariana woke up. Nymue watched her check her watch and then jump to her feet, alerting everyone else – her, Brithan and Hakirin – that it was six o’clock and they all needed to get up immediately. Hakirin vocally protested and Brithan grumbled much more quietly, but Nymue stared at the ceiling for a few more minutes before finally getting up.
Tjara gathered everyone around the firepit for a meeting half an hour later. She stood with her hands on her hips as usual. “Those of you with light-aligned magic will come with me,” she said.
Kallinu gestured to the two standing on either side of zem – Veitlen and Ren. “What about us three?” ze asked.
Tjara pointed backward over her shoulder into the forest. Dilapidated buildings were visible through the trees, as well as some much newer-looking boxes. “You’ll be over there,” she said. “That’s where we’ve stored the dark magic. I want you three to practice manipulating it. Especially you, Veitlen.”
Veitlen looked skeptical. “Are you sure that’s safe?” he asked.
“You won’t improve if you don’t practice,” Tjara responded curtly.
“Guess that’s true,” Veitlen grumbled under his breath.
“Don’t do anything especially dangerous,” said Tjara. “I don’t want to come back here and learn that you’ve destroyed those ruins or somehow managed to injure yourselves. Understand?”
“Yes,” said Ren.
“Of course!” said Kallinu.
“Yeah, of course,” said Veitlen halfheartedly.
Tjara led the other five students into the trees. Once they had vanished from sight, Kallinu turned to Ren and Veitlen, a diabolical grin on zer face.
“I have an idea,” ze said.
“How far away from the town is this place?” Ariana asked.
“About two kilometers,” Tjara answered. She stepped over a downed tree. “There are many of these sites all over the Northern District. We’ve known about this particular one for years.”
“You’ve known that there were ghosts here for years and you haven’t done anything about it?” Nymue said, not able to keep the disgust out of her voice.
“Those ghosts have been here for five hundred years,” said Tjara, her voice even. “A few more years won’t hurt them.”
Ariana looked over at Nymue, a frown starting to form on her face. “Are you okay, Nym? You’ve seemed a little off all day.”
“I’m fine,” Nymue said sharply. “I’m just a little tired. That’s it.”
Tjara turned around to face the group when they reached the ruined buildings. “No matter what happens next, I don’t want any of you to panic,” she said.
“Why would we need to panic?” Hakirin asked.
“Aren’t there just ghosts in there?” Brithan asked, attempting to peer around Tjara.
“Yes, they’re just ghosts,” said Tjara. “But ghosts can be terrifying if you’ve never seen one before. I don’t want a single one of you touching your rifles, or knives, or spirit weapons. Understand?”
There is a chorus of “Yes” and “I understand” from the group. “Then follow,” said Tjara.
The building might have had a door once, but there was nothing left in the doorway to obstruct their entrance. Tjara walked inside first. Three ghosts were immediately visible – translucent, electric blue humanoid-shaped blurs that had some resemblance to television static. Something about them made them hard to look at – Nymue had to keep glancing away every couple of seconds.
After a couple more seconds, the forms of the ghosts became clearer. One of them was cowering on the ground with its hands in front of its head, one appeared to be attempting to run out of the building, and one was standing still, looking at the doorway.
“These are ghosts?” Ariana asked, her voice barely above a whisper.
“Yes,” answered Tjara.
Ariana continued staring at the running ghost. “It…it kind of sounds like that demon Veitlen and I ran into a few weeks ago,” she said.
“That ghost is speaking whatever language it knew when it died,” said Tjara. “Most demons don’t wander far from where they used to live as humans. It’s likely that they both lived around this area.”
Ariana frowned. “That makes sense, I guess.” She turned around. “Nym-” she started. “Uh, what are you doing?”
Nymue was kneeling down on the ground, looking at something. “I saw this,” she said, and pointed to a half-buried fragment of something thin and rectangular.
“Rozenbarr…get off the ground,” said Tjara, sounding exasperated.
Nymue yanked the fragment out of the ground and stood back up. “Isn’t this part of a floppy disk?” she asked.
“Yes, but that’s not why we’re here,” said Tjara. “Please put it back in the ground and let future archaeologists deal with it.”
Ren stepped forward to look at what Nymue had in her hand. “Oh, yeah! It totally looks like some of the old floppies I’ve seen at the market,” she said.
“Are there still people who use floppies?” Hakirin questioned. “Why?”
“It’s necessary if you have an old computer,” said Brithan. “I think the space program uses them a lot.”
Tjara coughs loudly. “Don’t forget why you’re here,” she said. She pointed to the closest ghost. “I’m going to show you how to rejoin a ghost.”
She motioned for the students to spread out around her, and they did. “They aren’t aware of us, and they won’t ever be aware of us,” said Tjara.
“Because they’re in their own separate universes, right?” said Nymue.
“Correct,” answered Tjara.
“Can you explain that a little more?” asked Brithan. “I’m still having a little trouble understanding it.”
Tjara pointed with her hand at the ghost. “Five hundred years ago, some people panicked when faced with the Cataclysm. To try to save themselves, they removed their souls from this universe and created their own pocket universes. The ghosts we see today are what bleeds over from those pocket universes. Echoes.”
“That’s a lot easier to understand than how my history teachers explained it in school,” said Brithan.
Hakirin didn’t look entirely convinced. “I thought this wasn’t known for sure,” ze said.
“It’s not,” Tjara answered.
Hakirin blinked in surprise. “So it’s all just speculation?”
“As far as anyone knows, yes,” said Tjara. “We haven’t managed to recreate their process.” She turned back to the ghost. “Now onto the magic part of this.”
Tjara hovered her hands on each side of the ghost’s face. It fluctuated. “What you need to do is concentrate on the ghost in the same way that you did when you manipulated the magic in class,” she said.
There was what sounded like a burst of static from the ghost. Nymue definitely heard distinct words.
“It definitely noticed that,” said Nymue.
“Correct,” said Tjara. “We can use our magic to drag them out of their pocket universes and back into ours.”
“So what happens after that?” Ariana asked.
Tjara waved at her. “Come here. I want you to do this.”
“Me!?” exclaimed Ariana.
“Yes. I’ll explain what goes on while you rejoin it,” said Tjara.
A couple of moments later, Ariana stood there with her hands almost touching the ghost. “Are you sure you want me to do this?” she asked.
“Yes, Ariana,” said Tjara. “After the ghost is rejoined with our universe, it disappears.”
“I’ve read a lot about this!” said Nymue excitedly. “The soul is immediately rejoined to our universe. The ghost is there one second and gone the next. It doesn’t have to go to hell for cleansing and rebirth. It escapes that cycle entirely.”
“What?” said Brithan. “Rejoining a ghost means it immediately gains liberation? Without any effort on its part at all?”
“Yes,” answered Tjara.
The ghost dissipated right in front of Ariana. “Ooh!” she said in surprise. Then she looked toward Tjara, who was still facing the others. “Um…”
“A zero-effort path to liberation,” said Hakirin. “Disappointing.”
“I imagine that spending five hundred years cut off from the entire universe clears all of your negative karma. Somehow,” said Tjara.
“Excuse me!” said Ariana. “I made the ghost…rejoin.”
“Ah, that’s good,” said Tjara. “Nymue, you’re up next.”
Nymue stood in front of the ghost crouched on the ground. She frowned down at it.
“This one isn’t talking as much as the others,” said Hakirin.
“They don’t all constantly talk,” said Nymue.
Hakirin looked skeptical. “They don’t? How do you know that?” ze demanded.
“How many ghosts have you been around?” Temurlin questioned, his voice much more quiet and less accusing than Hakirin’s.
Nymue ignored both of them and concentrated on the ghost. “No answer, hm?” said Hakirin.
“I don’t think you’re going to get any answers out of her if you press the matter,” said Temurlin softly.
“Concentrate on the ghost like you concentrate on magic,” said Tjara.
“I know,” said Nymue.
The ghost started glowing brighter. The light was starting to hurt Nymue’s eyes, and she squinted in an effort to try not to blink. “This-” she started.
The ghost shone as bright as the sun for a moment. Then it was gone. When Nymue opened her eyes, she saw tiny fragments of light magic floating in the air. One by one, those fragments blinked out of existence.
“Huh?” she said in surprise.
“What just happened?” Brithan asked.
“What was that?” said Hakirin.
Nymue looked at Tjara, who stood there with an incredibly shocked expression on her face. “Is that supposed to happen?” Nymue asked.
“It’s what happens when you try to rejoin a ghost too quickly,” said Tjara.
Nymue frowned. “Are you sure?”
“Am I sure?” said Tjara. “Of course I’m sure!”
“That was almost scary,” Ariana remarked.
“What do you mean, almost!?” Hakirin demanded. “That was terrifying. It was like staring at the sun.”
Tjara rubbed her forehead. “I can’t believe this,” she muttered under her breath. It was a quiet sentence – one Nymue assumed that she wasn’t supposed to pay much attention to. But it definitely seemed to her to have some other meaning, like Tjara was disappointed about something else.
“What I want to do when I’m done with conscription?” Nymue asked. “Probably become a historian.”
It had been a long day – all the buildings had been full of ghosts, and every single one of them had been able to rejoin at least one ghost. Nymue encountered the same problem every single time she attempted to rejoin one – a flash of light as bright as the sun, and then fragments of light magic destroying themselves. Tjara had ended up with a perpetual frown, but hadn’t said anything about it. If anything, that made Nymue worry more.
Everyone had piled into one cabin to talk about things before it was time for lights out. Presumably, Tjara was in the other one. Nymue hadn’t bothered to check.
“Like, ancient history?” said Hakirin.
“You said something about that on the way here, didn’t you?” Ren asked.
“It’s not the history of the Old Humanity, is it?” said Veitlen.
“No, early Selenian history,” answered Nymue. “After we came back from Sairren.”
Ariana looked stunned. “I thought you said you were interested in the outside world,” she said.
“I am, but it’s more of a mild interest than anything else,” said Nymue.
“I can’t believe you lied to me,” said Ariana, looking unimpressed. She didn’t sound serious, and Nymue answered her comment with a fake pout.
“So, what about you?” said Nymue.
“Well,” said Ariana, looking at the rest of the group, “I think you all know that I want to be an archaeologist and figure out what’s in the outside world.”
“And I think you all know what I want to be, too,” Hakirin announced. “A doctor.”
“Might want to work on your attitude a little bit first,” Brithan commented.
Hakirin shot him a dirty look. “Sure thing, fish farmer.”
Brithan didn’t react. “I don’t see how growing food for people to eat is a bad thing,” he said.
Temurlin held up a hand, looking worried. “Let’s not fight,” he said. “What about you, Ren?”
Ren’s face lit up. “A merchant!” she said proudly. “It’s what my family has always done, it’s what I did before conscription, and it’s what I’m gonna do for the rest of my life.”
Everyone stared at her in silence, and Ren quickly started looking uncomfortable. “What is it?” she said. “Do you not like my life goals…?”
Kallinu threw zer hands up in the air and smiled, drawing all attention to zemself. “I’m gonna be an astronaut!”
“Oh? Spaceguard or research?” Ren asked.
“Spaceguard!” said Kallinu. “Though I’d really like to work on Sairren…” Ze looked toward Veitlen and Temurlin after a moment. “So what are ye two planning on doing?”
“I’m not actually sure,” said Temurlin.
“Yeah, me neither,” said Veitlen.
“Seriously?” said Ariana.
Temurlin raised his hands in front of him, looking nervous. “I mean, I’ve thought about being a lot of things! But there’s no one thing that I want to be.” He shrugged with one shoulder. “I guess I’d be fine doing anything.”
Kallinu crossed zer arms. “That answer is unsatisfying,” ze said.
“I’m sorry,” said Temurlin with a frown.
Kallinu glanced to Veitlen. “I guess ye’re gonna say the same sort of thing, eh?”
“Sure,” said Veitlen with a shrug.
Kallinu narrowed zer eyes. “Sure.”
“Yeah, sure,” was Veitlen’s reply.