Chapter 31 can be read below the cut.
Nymue had been on a field survey when the news of the Seventh Avatar broke. The survey had lasted long enough that the news had disappeared from the newspapers when she’d gotten back to Tivadshy. She’d remained blissfully unaware of the existence of Hallion Rydynnaid until Kallinu brought it up at a lunch outing.
“Veitlen found the last Avatar,” said Kallinu. “It’s a kid in the south by the ocean.”
It took a few moments for Kallinu’s words to sink in. “He did what?” Nymue exclaimed. “I thought he stopped looking for Avatars back in 501.”
“I don’t think he was told to do it,” said Ren. “As far as I know, Avatar Chanda didn’t direct him to find this Avatar. He heard about it from a scouting team and went to investigate all on his own. Well, not all on his own. He took Ussuri Remura with him. But you know what I mean.”
“I’m surprised you know so much about what Veitlen’s doing,” said Nymue.
Ren wrinkled her nose. “He can’t ramble to Kallinu like he used to now that Kallinu’s working on Sairren most of the year. Now he just calls me instead.”
“Because you’re married?” Nymue asked, confused.
Ren shrugged. “I don’t know. You’re the one who knows how his mind works.”
“No one knows how Veitlen’s mind works,” said Nymue. “Where is he, anyway? I thought he was supposed to be here.”
Kallinu shook zer head. “No idea. Probably off doing some Avatar stuff. I haven’t been able to get in contact with him all day. But where’s Ariana? I thought she was with ye.”
“She’s with Professor Jukikynai today,” said Nymue. “We’re going to be going on archaeological surveys for the next couple of months, mostly in the Southwestern District.”
“Like west of The Avens?” Kallinu asked. “Or around Blood Lake?”
Nymue shook her head. “No, further southwest than that. There are sites there we couldn’t safely get to because of all the demons. I asked Veitlen to concentrate on hunting there last year, and it’s finally cleared out enough for us to do our work.”
“There are demons who are still fighting back?” Ren asked.
Nymue shrugged. “I guess not all of them got the memo.”
Eight months later, Nymue walked through what looked like the remains of a town. There were stones beneath her feet that made up a former road, and the stone foundations of many buildings still existed, heavily overgrown by the local plants. A few walls still stood, but none of the buildings had emerged unscathed from five hundred years of neglect.
Nymue couldn’t think of a better way to spend her twenty-eighth birthday. Ariana and Sajikitin had gone off to search a different area, so she was by herself and would be at least for the next hour. It was so peaceful to walk through the ruins, alone, with only the the sound of birds flitting from place to place as company.
The Southwestern District was mostly prairie and had few trees, but there was a spot ahead of her with couple of clusters of trees and plants she hadn’t seen anywhere else in the town. There had probably been a seed vault nearby – or perhaps a nursery.
Something tall – some kind of building – was visible behind those trees. Nymue made her way around the trees and plants to see something she had absolutely not expected to exist in any ruined town – a mostly-intact temple. Some of the windows still had pieces of glass in them. The front door, somehow, was still entirely intact.
“Huh,” she said out loud. Nymue walked up to the door and gently touched her fingers against it. It didn’t budge, but that didn’t tell her much. She pressed her palm flat against the middle of the door and pushed forward. There was the horrible sound of wood scraping against concrete for a moment, then the door fell forward and hit the ground, splintering into pieces.
She waited a minute to see if anything else would fall apart. When that didn’t happen, Nymue stepped into the temple. Most of it was illuminated from the light through the broken windows. Some of the original stone flooring still seemed to exist. Multiple stone slabs and pieces of concrete were piled up against one wall. There were a few plants growing by the windows, but none in the center of the room, where the sunlight probably didn’t reach.
There was a metal door in the back wall of the temple. Nymue frowned and walked up to it. The door didn’t match the rest of the building. It looked newer than everything else. She grabbed the door handle and pulled it toward her. The door didn’t budge, but it didn’t feel stuck, either. She pushed it instead, and much to her surprise, the door swung open with such force that it hit the wall.
From what she could see, there was a staircase that led downward. Nymue fumbled for her flashlight and clicked it on, illuminating as much of the stairs as she could. They led into darkness.
There was no way she was going down there on her own. Nymue walked back out of the temple, hoping that Sajikitin and Ariana hadn’t wandered too far away. It was unlikely that a demon would be down there, but it would be unwise to go in without backup.
It took her almost half an hour to find Ariana and Sajikitin and bring them to the temple. Ariana was carrying two rifles, her own and Nymue’s, as well as a couple of high-powered flashlights.
“There’s some kind of basement I wasn’t expecting. I don’t want to go down there without a decent light source,” said Nymue.
“What do you think is down there? Demons? Do you plan on startling them with light?” Ariana asked.
“It’s doubtful,” said Nymue. “I don’t think a demon would shut itself into a basement on purpose or on accident. What I want to make sure of is that the stairs aren’t about give way or that I don’t trip over some kind of pothole.” She extended her hand toward Ariana. “Give me my rifle.”
Ariana raised her eyebrows. “You seriously want to shoot any potential demons down there?” she asked.
Nymue frowned at her. “What do you want me to do, let them kill me?” she asked. Ariana looked even more confused, so she continued. “Veitlen’s message hasn’t reached all the demons. Some of them are still antagonistic.”
“That’s not what I meant,” said Ariana. “I thought I’d be going down there with you.”
Nymue shook her head and gestured at Sajikitin. “No. It’s best you stay out here and defend Professor Jukikyai,” she said.
“What? Defend me?” said Sajikitin in surprise. “What do I need to be defended from? There aren’t supposed to be any demons around here.”
“The hunting teams don’t always manage to kill every demon. A couple always manage to slip through. ,” said Nymue. “And you are defenseless, Professor.”
Sajikitin frowned and crossed her arms. “You’re correct about that,” she said, “but I still don’t like the idea of you going in on your own.”
“I’ll be fine with my rifle,” said Nymue. “If I end up not being able to use it, then I can always manifest my gold inside a demon’s lungs and drown it.”
Sajikitin stared at her, wide-eyed. “You can do that?” she asked. “Are you sure about that?”
“Yes,” said Nymue. “I’ll be fine. I am an Avatar, after all.”
She gave a wave to the two of them before heading back into the temple. Nymue had left the metal door open, so she clicked on the flashlight and shone it through the doorway and down the stairs before carefully setting her foot on the landing and pressing down hard. It creaked, but didn’t give way, so she stepped onto it and waited a few seconds.
Nothing happened, so Nymue carefully stepped down the staircase. The stairs went down further than she expected. She shined the light into the darkness of the basement and saw nothing – no shelves or boxes or containers like there would have been in a seed vault. Just an empty concrete room with something painted on the ground.
She stepped forward and shone the flashlight over the nearest part of the design. It was much bigger than a single flashlight beam could illuminate, and she traced the perimeter of the image to find something black-and-white and roughly circular.
Another taijitu. The concrete was cracked in multiple places, but the paint hadn’t been exposed to light in years and wasn’t as faded as it might have been otherwise. I wonder why this is all the way down here, hidden, when the ones in the other temples were on the floor of the main room?
Nymue stepped back outside and gave Ariana and Sajikitin a brief overview of what she’d found. Sajikitin chewed on her lip the whole time. “Another temple with a taijitu? That’s the third in the Southwestern District. They must have been more common than we originally thought,” she said.
“I think that’s where that aspect of our religion came from,” said Nymue. Ariana raised an eyebrow, and Nymue continued. “The duality. Light and dark magic. And there’s the fact that the taijitu on our flag looks almost identical…”
“That’s right,” said Sajikitin.
“Do you need to take any pictures?” Ariana asked.
Nymue shook her head. “No need. This isn’t anything new.” She sighed. “I feel like our research isn’t progressing.”
“Well, there are some things we can assume,” said Ariana.
Nymue frowned, immediately skeptical. “Really? You really think it’s okay to make assumptions? Even after what happened last time?”
Ariana looked defensive. “Are you seriously going to bring that up again?” she asked.
“I will settle for nothing less than the actual truth,” said Nymue seriously.
“Course you won’t, Nym,” Ariana. Even out of the corner of her eye, Nymue could see she was smirking.