Cycles: Ek-War’s Story


Author’s Introduction

The story you are about to read is called Cycles: Ek-War’s Story, which is the first part of a five-part series itself titled Cycles. This is one of the first stories I wrote for my blog, and now it is the first story I am recording for audio. 

Before we move into our story, here’s a final word of, let’s call it caution. This story takes place on a continent where there live two peoples, who are respectively known as the Black and White people. I chose these names in reference to Daoism, which is a Chinese philosophy best known for its yin-yang symbol. This symbol stands for the two forces which govern the universe and are ultimately unified. Thus, within Daoist systems, you often see these false oppositions which are ultimately resolved. These oppositions can be heaven and earth, individualistic and collectivistic, active and passive, and it is these sorts of oppositions which inspired me in writing the Black and White peoples of this continent.

So why is this important? Well, while narrating this, I retrospectively noticed that there might be an unfortunate racial connotation to my story, if you’re not familiar with this deeper source of inspiration. Thus, I want to assure you: while the world I’m about to describe contains many unjust hierarchies, none of them are based on race, certainly not in the white supremacist way of our contemporary world.

So please, allow me to tell you now the story of Ek-War, a lone druid who sits among the Stones and stares up at the stars…

1 Of Stones and Stars

Ek-War was the town’s druid. Born to Ek-Pan and El-Wer, themselves druids, his parents’ reputation would precede him throughout his childhood. The profession was about more than just the practice of various medical techniques; as a druid, one had to learn and perform important religious rituals concerning the cycle of life and death. The most significant of these was called the I-Tan-War, which we would translate as ‘breaking the mind’. By severing a druid’s connection to his body through intense nerve-numbing procedures, it was hoped that the instinctual empathic resonance among War’s people could be strengthened. Because the effectiveness of the I-Tan-War was thought to be related to one’s inheritance, druidism was a tradition bound to certain families, War’s among them. He had had little choice in his career path, or the physical and mental changes that had befallen him as a result. Like his parents, the breaking of the mind had made War telepathic.

If War’s skills as a druid were appreciated by his fellows, they evidently did not show it in terms of hospitality or social inclusion. Perhaps it was because of his ability to peer into the feelings of others that he was shunned by the villagers, or maybe they found his ritualistic techniques bureaucratic and off-putting. Whatever the reason, the practical result was that he often found himself wandering the outskirts outside his hometown, including the mysterious circle of Thinking Stones. Though he was always alone here, his empathic abilities allowed him to contact these monoliths, their rocky appearance hiding a sentient interior. Many legends were told about the Thinking Stones, about those few moments in history where they supposedly intervened in worldly affairs. During his adolescence, War had been told most of these tales by Ak-Wen, astronomer and scholar from the White Core. Wen had spent about three years testing his hypothesis that the Thinking Stones of the north-west, such as those of War’s village, possessed a great deal of astronomical expertise. Using the fading powers of War’s father Ek-Pan, Wen would get the Stones to change their configuration, enjoying the cryptic messages these rocks seemed to be sending him through the sequence of their patterns. After gaining much insight into their abilities and telling young War everything he knew of them, he had departed for the Core. Recently, a much older Wen had returned to the north-west, and with him an apprentice that he was trying to guide into the same line of research. Touring the region, they would visit War and his town’s circle about every eighth day.

When they had met again after such a long time, Wen had found himself quite impressed with the way War’s skills had developed. Not only was he an excellent physician, the town’s population nearly free of disease and empathic ailment, but the town’s Stones had connected to his mind in a way that was unparalleled by the other formations. War suspected that this had to do with his social isolation, since it had allowed him to spend a great deal of time among these mysteries. Though he respected Wen, he remembered that his adolescent years had been his most stressful, and attributed part of this to Wen’s exciting yet troublesome presence. He also could not help but blame Wen for his father’s later failures as a druid; if so much empathic power had not been wasted on contacting the Stones, perhaps his father could have saved the town from the epidemic that had struck near the end of Wen’s study. Though this tragedy had driven War to develop his own skills to the best of his ability, the town had spent nearly a  decade suffering through several unfamiliar ailments, both physical and empathic. His parents, even with their powers faded, had greatly assisted War in fighting these epidemics. Unfortunately, they had eventually died of Eyeshut, one of the last epidemics of that period. As War would later learn, the spread of disease had coincided with the arrival of island traders from the south, and he considered this no coincidence at all. The island traders were opportunists, not caring for the evils they brought with them or the people these victimized. In fact, the changes they had wrought went far beyond the arrival of foreign sicknesses. Since they came in search of whatever exotic goods the Black and White people had to offer, this put the impoverished Black lands in the lucrative position of middleman. Within a few years, the balance of power between White and Black had swung to the latter’s favor, and this swing had resolved itself in the violent conquest of White territory before settling into a new and unstable equilibrium.

One could say that the cycle of alternating violence and quietude was endemic to the lands of Black and White. The legends of old all attempted to justify these monstrosities, claiming that the geography of the lands themselves had come from a collision between two warring forces, one Black and unyielding, one White and passive. Though one would expect Black to prevail, the White force could use its healing powers maliciously, cursing Black with an illness that only White could cure. With the White Core victorious through dependence, its rulers would institute an order of passivity, normality and conformity. But the proud warriors of the Black lands could never tolerate this repression, and before too long they would once again take up their banner in rebellion, starting the cycle anew. War had never felt like picking a side in this process. Whether it be because of his academic upbringing, the loss of those closest to him, or the general world of death that surrounded him as a druid, War wished for detachment, something he could only find among the Stones.

The Stones were his companions, for they not only kept him company, but also gave off an aura of sympathy, as was confirmed in the many legends about them. According to the tales of old, the Thinking Stones were either the transformations of those who lived before the arrival of the Two Peoples, or the product of White scholars experimenting on themselves with ancient arts. Either way, they had seen how man’s desire, be it for conformity or individual accomplishment, would inevitably lead to conflict. This was because their desires did not account for the authenticity of all life and non-life, and merely sought satisfaction at the cost of everything else. Though sympathetic to man’s condition, the Stones sought to alleviate themselves of want and need by taking the simplest form they could imagine, wandering the world freely and peacefully, and interacting with others only when it was asked of them. But there was more to this origin story, for Wen had relayed to War the more secretive tale of the Schism of Stones. This event, which had occurred either at the Stones’ becoming or some time thereafter, was the result of a dispute among them on the nature of their mission. Some of the Stones wished to accept their surroundings completely, forever yielding to what existence would bring onto their path. Others wanted to use this opportunity to understand the nature of being itself, freed from their subjectivity like no other could ever be. Though you could not tell it by looking at them, the enmity these groups harbored for one another was greater than that between the most militant Blacks and Whites. The irony of this ‘most passive hostility’ was not lost on many scholars, finding itself tuned into many a nasty joke or nursery rhyme, once even inspiring a Black-White peace initiative known as the ‘better than the Stones’ campaign. These jokes didn’t really amuse War.

Going over the history of his land and his life, War felt sure of his retreat among the Stones. He would not shy away from his medical duty, but neither did he feel like doing anything more for his fellows. It was this singular commitment to the Stones that caused his connection with the circle to deepen, and he hid he extent of his powers from Wen’s prying eyes, wanting to make sure the scholar and his apprentice would leave him his seven days of peace. But even though War kept most of his power hidden, Wen still seemed to have plenty of use for him.

In the decade or so that War had not seen Wen, the contact with the ocean traders had given the White scholars plenty of inspiration. Wen had heard of a legend from beyond the seas, where some Stones were supposed to have broken their silence and started sharing their knowledge with the people, claiming an ability to listen to the stars themselves. In response to this tale, Wen had turned his research towards replicating these results, using formations across the northwest region to tap into the feelings of the celestial bodies. His initial results had been disheartening: the heavenly bodies seemed to be devoid of any feeling. However, he had then discovered that empaths could tap into the minds of beings between the stars, whose keen senses allowed Wen to study the heavenly bodies like none before him. This had revolutionized astronomy across the continent, and Wen became a famous scholar almost overnight. As for the many druids who had actually made the necessary observations, they were humble and easily disregarded, including War. It was simply not what he was after.

In the time between Wen’s visits, War had been making his own observations with the help of his circle. This is what War now knew about his world and the heavenly bodies around it:

At the center of this celestial system was the Far-Star. Even from a considerable distance, it shone brighter than the Half-Star that dominated his world’s sky. It had to be massive, for all the other bodies swung around it without ever losing their grip.

Closest to the Far-Star was perhaps the most enigmatic body, an orb astronomers estimated to be ten times the size of War’s own. Its strangest feature was the dancing of lights bright and dim across its surface, oscillating by the dark-light pattern of one of its moons. In other words, whenever the moon was cast into darkness, the lights on the main orb would disappear, and vice-versa.

The next orb from the Far-Star was about one and a half times than War’s world. It was orbited by a moon with only a third of the size of its mother world, which made it about half as big as his own. Both looked lively and colorful, exciting Wen and his colleagues, who now speculated wildly about the existence or conditions of any life there.

Third from the center was the harmony between War’s world and the much larger Half-Star it orbited. The Half-Star got its name from the many bright spots that drifted along the luscious patterns of its swirling surface. It looked like an endless pattern of clouds dotted with tiny stars, and scholars thus suspected that it was made up of inert and enflamed gases. Sharing a space with War and the Half-Star was I-ek, a foggy mass about half the size of his own orb. In-between these three one found a plethora of smaller bodies, whirling rocks with neither uniformity nor hospitality.

Last in this system was the dark and terrifying ruin of the Outer Moon. The assortment of loose rocks still had the illusion of a complete orb about them, even if the world was broken to its core in reality. This orb had unnerved all of the druids that had looked at it, War included, and so Wen had chosen to focus his study elsewhere for the moment.

Eager for a discovery that could top all his earlier achievements, Wen had gotten dangerously ambitious. He believed that through a careful positioning of entire northwest formation of Stones, a skilled empath would be able to send his thoughts into the heavens. Wen thought that the origin of the Stones lay outside of this orb, based on the recent finding of Stone formations along the edge of impact craters. If Stones were in fact found on other orbs, as Wen hypothesized, then a gifted and Stone-assisted empath might be able to open a line of communication across the orbs.

War was skeptical of his old teacher’s ideas, and considered this idea of celestial interference to go against the philosophy of the Stones themselves. Even if the Stones could contact the other orbs, he believed that they would not allow themselves to be used so directly. An overambitious scholar like Wen would receive no revelations from the Stones or the stars, but War believed himself to be a different case. In secret, he had used Wen’s positioning techniques to amplify his powers and talk to the outer worlds directly, foregoing those mysterious creatures that other druids had made use of. As it turned out, even the faintest star would send him its feelings. He also received many signals from the colorful orbs, which he interpreted as a sign of life. Taken together, the presence of these heavenly feelings was so intense that War started to suspect the other druids had also withheld their observations from Wen. Maybe they were annoyed by Wen, or maybe they didn’t think these inputs worth reporting, as they had so far been too alien to make any sense of.

But then one day, as War focused on the Half-Star, he heard a woman’s voice.

2 Of Columns and Contact

The voice was clear as day in his head, even though it was further away than any people were known to exist, all the way up there in the heavens. What creature was this? Yes, he had been feeling signs of life from the other orbs, and the idea of heavenly people seemed acceptable to him. Yet he had never expected to hear them so directly. War had caught the mind of another in such an unconventional manner that he wasn’t sure what to do.

His current inaction could be contrasted with the turbulence of the academic community. After Wen’s findings had brought up the possibility of people beyond this orb, many of his colleagues had gone over the old scrolls, to see if the ancients had anything to say on this. The Works on Origin were the first to be taken to hand, the collection that told of the oldest blacks and the oldest whites, of how they came to reside on this orb. That they came from ‘a land before’ was known even to laymen, though the idea that this referred to a physical location had gone out of fashion some centuries before. Nowadays, most assumed that the origin of blacks and whites was the same as that of any individual: The Life-Before, from which life was a great journey into the eventual After-Life. Of course, scholars of the Heaven school took these two places to be one and the same, with existence being a big back-and-forth between this world and one they called Heaven. Using a rather obvious play on words, these scholars had interpreted the new astronomical discoveries as evidence of Heaven being the actual heaven, with that lived beyond the orb being our ancestors and descendants. If their cosmological musings were correct, then passing into death would mean ascension into the heavens, and vice-versa.

While the school of Heaven, most popular around the White Core, was trying to combine cosmology and astronomy, the Black philosophical schools had other things on their mind. For starters, if you were to ask a Black scholar, the idea of a school was antithetical to their conception of the ideal philosopher. A true thinker was to reject any consensus, and it was no use taking any thought-leader as your master unless you were planning to surpass them. Nevertheless, White scholars had long noticed that many rough-but-certain trends could be discerned in Black scholarship, and had defiantly taken to naming them. As Wen’s discoveries had migrated south, Black philosophers had mocked the reverence with which their White counterparts considered the heavens. Just as they had appropriated the ocean traders’ techniques to explore the seas themselves, so too would they one day take to the heavens and claim the riches of the stars. At least, such was the prevailing ideal.

These contrasting academic developments had made War more curious about Black philosophy, and from what writings he had picked up, there appeared to be one scholarly trend that was intellectually outpacing laymen and scholars alike. Centering on the southern city of O-Parn, a collective called the Pillars had found philosophical solace in the teachings of the Stones, quite similar to War himself. They believed that one’s needs were an impediment to one’s freedom; to free oneself completely would mean a release from as many material attachments as possible. Despite living ascetically, they were still utterly selfish in the way they called upon their followers to make use of all senses, and to expand their mind wherever possible. However, they also held that the impediment of another was the impediment of oneself, as this prevented a meeting of minds they considered forever profitable. Eventually, they proclaimed, their knowledge and potential would grow so great that the boundary between minds would be shattered: all would be one and one would be all. It was for this reason they called themselves the Pillars, as they would both bear the weight of the current reality and provide the foundation for a greater one. And thanks to the revelations of Wen’s research, they now also believed that countless alien beings were willing themselves into ascension at any given moment. Their interstellar influence made the arrival of a greater reality a mere matter of time.  From the first successful ascension, however far it might take place, all other Pillars would be catalyzed into action, speeding up the process and making their total transcendence inevitable. It was a lot to grapple with, but War was greatly inspired by it. He had been tempted to travel to O-Parn several times, but could not bring himself to abandon either his post as druid or his circle of Stones.

Hearing for the first time a voice from beyond the Orb, he was reminded of the Singularity, the name by which Black scholars referred to the cascading being of transcendence. If the voice of this being came from beyond the stars, could a great change be upon him? While a part of War might have wished for that, he could not bring himself to believe it. A simple factor prevented this voice from belonging to a conglomerate of ultimate beings: gender. Gender had quite a significant presence in a mind, and War had become adept at sensing it, since this skill could help quite a few townspeople in their empathic troubles. If this presence was the Singularity, he could expect them to be genderless, or to possess all genders at once. From what he sensed however, this mind clearly belonged to an individual woman, albeit one that walked among the orbs. Despite the vast discovery before him, his Black sensibilities had now been slightly disappointed. Though War would briefly entertain the ideas of the School of Heaven, this person showed no sign of being dead or unborn, and so his hypotheses were cast into the unknown once again.

Despite this being proving less extraordinary than the scholars had suggested, War was wary of engaging with it. Whenever he had connected empathically with one of the townspeople, it had happened with their explicit consent; a fear of unwanted intrusion would only exacerbate his social isolation. Though he had already used his powers on the stars themselves, these were surveyed so abstractly that he felt their empathic integrity had not been breached. But now he faced the possibility of gazing into a mind that, although essentially alien, was more familiar than he would have expected. Would he look where he might not be allowed to?

In the end, it was mostly curiosity that got the better of War. He also considered that if he didn’t do this first, Wen might come to discover this presence through his other sources, and possible coerce them into a less gentle form of contact. Some empaths were known to have done despicable things to the minds of others. By contrast, his first glances were simple ones. Other than the gender he had already assessed, he now looked for indications of age and appearance. A subject’s emotional insecurities could tell you a surprising amount about either. He looked for correlations between emotional patterns and use of language, trying to piece together some of the woman’s language from her emotional intentions. Warnings, insults, compliments, the tone of her inner dialogue gave plenty indications of which was which. Then, he tried to see if he could reach into her tactile senses a bit, see what kind of operations were motivated by which emotions or linguistic terms. Put simply, he was reading her body language as she performed it.

As empaths always worked from the inside out, War was unable to tap into her senses directly. That required a subject to intentionally internalize their own senses, project them inward so to speak; it was called the ‘empath’s theatre’. Despite the lack of this technique, War could still discover some things about what this woman saw. Her imagination, her dreams, these were all clear as day. If they gave any indications of her life and her surroundings, she had spent much of her life floating, echoing a most chaotic sense of orientation. War supposed that the great spaces between the orbs might indeed make one lose their sense of up and down at times, but it was a strange sensation nonetheless.

Beyond the initial strangeness of this inter-orb existence, her imagined environment seemed utterly alien as well. Instead of forests and rivers, her memories were filled with iron, silk, and ceramics. The beasts of her dreamworld seemed unlike any War had ever laid his eyes on, some of them looking more like clockwork than beings of flesh. Even parts of the woman’s own body had a mechanical harmony to them. He had heard of the odd empath bonding emotionally with plants, gemstones, and once a White Core Springling, yet so far he had dismissed such reports as mere rumors. Now he had no choice but to expand the domain of beings he had until now considered alive. How else could he explain the seamlessness by which this woman’s flesh crossed over into organelles of glass, threads of silk, and limbs of metallic muscle?

Not all War sensed was unfamiliar to him. Yes, her environment and her appearance left him with many questions, but the dreams and stories she carried with her had familiar elements about them. They told of a long journey, starting with a life mostly lived on some great craft, a smaller version of which she now found herself on. In-between these points she has spent time on what had to be I-Ek, considering the cold mists that clouded those memories. There was one point that stood out, one marked by a great emotional energy of trauma and a sense of purposelessness. This had taken place on no world of mist or artifice, but rather a much greater and heavier orb, one where the Far-Star shone much brighter. If he had to wager a guess, this was a brief glance from the surface of the second orb in this system. The sight was bright and magnificent, certainly much warmer than many of the other places she had spent her life. Whatever about this could have caused such emotional turmoil was a mystery to him.

After learning so much about her, War had resolved to contact her, confident in his ability to communicate now that he was at least somewhat familiar with her and her surroundings. The irony was not lost on him that he would now be doing exactly what Wen had expected of him: contacting the stars. However, what had withheld War so far was the fear that he might be awakening powerful cosmic forces, forces that might either terrorize his people or be terrorized themselves through the abuses of Wen’s incessant curiosity. No offense to this mysterious woman, but she did not exactly seem like a threat. And as long as he kept her presence to himself, no harm would come to her from his end.

On a dark and quiet night, War took his meditative cloth to the circle of Stones outside his village. If these monoliths could be said to have a demeanor, they seemed more passive than usual. He always felt he held no secrets to them, that their gaze was passive yet all-pervasive; perhaps they knew exactly what he was about to do. This was the night that he, Ek-War of the village of O-Sift, would break the empathic barrier between worlds. Gathering his strength, he focused in on the womanly presence among the skies beyond, that tiny speck in a sea of darkness, floating in a capsule she used to cross the space between orbs. But then, before he could make himself known to her across that unimaginable void, his attention was drawn to a different presence within that capsule. Though he had always felt a background whisper in his meditations, he had put it down as an alien interference he was yet incapable of understanding. Now he had found its source, and through an inviting pull of empathic insight he discovered its shape and substance to be that of an iron column. This confused him greatly: how could something so inert exhibit such terrible empathic power, with the sudden presence of an awoken colossus? It was only then that War was reminded of his current circumstances, himself surrounded by a circle of similarly solemn entities. Could this being be a Stone cast in metal?

As the mystery enveloped his mind, the alien presence increased in power exponentially. If any other druids were listening, it would not be long before they too would start to notice this disturbance in the heavens. War hoped that they would not alert Wen of their discovery. It would certainly lead to the discovery of that initial womanly presence, perhaps putting her empathic integrity in jeopardy. Even if he was ashamed of his own incursions, he was not about to let anyone else mess with her mind.

While War found himself fill up with these anxieties, the heavenly force kept growing in intensity, and he suddenly found that the druids were not the only beings who would respond to it. War felt the Stones around him start to reverberate in a manner both physical and empathic, and a low yet noticeable hum expanded into a harmony. As their presence intensified, he could feel this harmony spreading across the Stone formations of the entire northeast region. Some great cosmic process was developing before him. Keeping this quiet had now literally become impossible.

It was clear that War’s attempt at communication had likely been pre-empted by this Iron Column, who sought to contact not just Ek-War, but an entire network of Stones. Perhaps the Column was simply curious enough to contact those beings who lived upon the orb it orbited. But in that case, why had it not done so sooner? It was obvious now that its empathic emissions could reach even the least sensitive druid. War pondered this mystery for a few moments, until his latent senses picked up another difference between the current presence and his earlier senses, other than its sheer intensity. Not only had the Column expanded its reach, but the woman’s presence had almost vanished completely. Come to think of it, how had it been so intense in the first place? This mystery reminded him of the Stones themselves, or more particularly, of Wen’s discovery that they could enhance one’s empathic presence into the depths of space. Taken together, these mysteries and insights lead War to a shocking revelation:

He had not heard this woman from across the orbs by accident. She had been bait, a presence so subtle and particular that only he would pick up on it. In truth, he had been made to listen.

3 Of Muteness and Migrations

From that night on, the world had literally been set into motion as the reverberations of the metal harmony had somehow mobilized the Stones, sending them on a collective march to an unclear destination. For the first few weeks, their slow journey aroused some curiosity across the northwest region, but it was when their destination became clear that the greater White community really took notice. Though War was not responsible for that discovery, he was one of the first to feel its effects.

By the third week of the Stone’s March, as the event had come to be called, far-away travelers had started to set up camp on the outskirts of War’s town, surrounding the Stone circle that he considered his private domain. In retrospect, the arrival of these masses should have been obvious to him. After all, his Stones were the only ones in the whole northwest that had not started moving. When he first met with the initial arrivals, a diverse crew of scouts and itinerants, all would confirm his suspicions: per the scholars’ latest estimates, it was his town that all these colossi were headed to.

Speaking of scholars, White Core academics soon made up the majority of the camp’s inhabitants. Among them was of course Wen, who had managed to bring so many teachers and students along that War wondered how the White central administration felt about this endeavor. Scholarly congregations were not unheard of, even this far from the capital, but never had any of this size taken place in the barren northwest. In recent years, the southeast had been the most favored destination, as trade with the islanders had accelerated the acquisition of foreign teachings. This was clearly an unusual event to the arriving scholars, who shivered in their loose philosopher’s garb. Generally uncomfortable with the change of climate, they quickly decided to hold their grand discussions indoors, setting up a great meeting tent just south of the Stone’s Circle for that very purpose.

Before War had even coped with these initial developments, the needs of the academics catalyzed the growth of the camp. Great experiments with Stone formations were being formulated by the academics, plans that would all require the use of empathic techniques. This lead to a mass recruiting of northwestern druids, called to the camp like seasonal laborers. There was a clear lack of consideration for whatever adverse effects this move would have for the health of the region, and War worried about this. Though was glad to see that only a fraction of the northwestern druids took up the call, this meant that more had to be called up from the White Core. Druids of this kind were more scholar than healer, and War and his fellows despised their academic attitudes.

Beyond scouts and scholars, the third wave of arrivals consisted of merchants, mercenaries and various craftsmen, all ready to profit off the congregation. Even some Springlings had been brought to the encampment, which explained the erection of a windmill next to one of the larger tents. Within less than a month’s time from the initial emission of the heavenly signal, the camp was as big War’s own town, and its growth showed no signs of slowing. While War was greatly disturbed by this, his peaceful routine shattered by the presence of this academic community, not all visitors were unwelcome to him. Among the few Black academics that had made their way to his hometown was Ok-Por of O-Parn, one of that town’s famous Pillars. They had met at one of the druids’ circles the academics had been setting up. As it turned out, one faction within the Pillar movement had great interest in empathic abilities, seeing them as an accelerant for the birth of the super-being through the merging of minds. Ok-Por was this faction’s emissary, and War saw great potential in this empath, even if his technique lacked White refinement. In any case, he made sure to keep Wen in the dark about Por’s presence. Not only did the old man despise Blacks, particularly Black academics, but Por’s power had to be kept from Wen as much as War’s own.

Speaking of his old tutor, relations had been frosty between them ever since Wen had joined the congregation at O-Sift. It had started when War refused to explain why all the Stones were moving to his town exactly, and only got worse when the druid met with Ak-Warin and Ak-Wiran. These were two academics from the School of Earth, a group which split the difference between Black and White philosophy and claimed that all celestial phenomena were common, earthly, and spiritually equal. They lacked the White reverence for the Heavens, but also the Black sense of enriched enlightenment in the Singularity. In short, it was a simple school that War could appreciate. Warin and Wiran were the most prominent representatives of this school in the camp, and he had sought them out to form the beginnings of a Druid’s Circle, an empathic pact by which they could study the Stones. This proposal has angered Ak-Wen because it made it seem like War was trying to keep the strongest empaths to himself, pursuing discoveries at his academic expense. This was technically true, but as War tried to explain to his newfound circle, it was really about respecting the Stones and what dwelled in the heavens, making sure they would not be disturbed or abused by academic intrusion.

Having committed to the founding of this Druid’s Circle, War was cast into a web of scholarly intrigue, which was completely unlike his peaceful pursuits of just a few weeks earlier. Luckily, the encampment kept to the regimented schedule of an academy, and so many a night he would be the only one present at the Stones’ circle, occasionally accompanied by Ok-Por or one of the other members of his group. Here, he would spend a few hours in deep meditation, focusing on the heavenly signal that was still glowing so bright in his mind. Unfortunately the revealed strength of the metal presence had replaced the amplification of the woman’s mind. He wondered if she had ever taken notice of his remote observation. One could not look into another’s mind without there being some small reciprocal connection. Did his resemblance now inhabit her dreams, her subconscious? He could not tell. This mystery had also played some part in him founding the Druid’s Circle, and he had shared this secret with his fellows. Ok-Por was sympathetic, claiming that romance was one of the strongest mind-merging phenomena, and true to the self as well. War tried to explain that this was not a matter of love, but Por had clearly made up his mind. Warin and Wiran were mostly curious on an academic level, but a twitch in their looks told War that they too suspected a romantic motive. This annoyed him of course, but it did seem to make them more eager to work together and find this subtle female presence among the heavens. However, no matter how many of them had gotten together, or how strong their powers were combined, they felt naught but the terrifying hum of the metal being. It seemed that the pillar had no further interest in amplifying the woman’s signal anymore. War felt tricked.

In-between his nightly sessions with the circle and his daily discussions in the encampment’s many councils, he still had a druid’s job to do. With O-Sift’s greatly expanded populace, there were only more people to treat, be it physically or empathically. One of his new patients was Al-Nen, one of the few children of the encampment. Her parents had been respected academics, but they had succumbed to one of the ocean trader’s plagues, and so one of her father’s friends now took care of her. Unfortunately, this caretaker had been forced into attending the current congregation, bringing Nen along to a place she found alien and uncomfortable. The discomfort was only worsened by Nen’s ailments; her mother’s Shuteye had left her born prematurely. While the effects of her illness acted mostly upon the physical realm, leaving her both deaf and suffering spasms from time to time, the druids at the White Core thought the central cause was still empathic. With her caretaker occupied, War had taken up the care of this girl.

Nen had been difficult to deal with initially. She refused to talk to him most of the time, and preferred to communicate in written notes. Instead of pressing the issue, War chose to act accordingly, and their communicated through little scribblings on whatever paper War could snatch from the camp’s supply. The girl was clearly suffering from loneliness; there were hardly any children in the town or encampment, and her disabilities seemed to keep children from approaching her. Whenever she was afflicted by her spasms, he would try his hardest to calm her down, but something within her seemed to resist. Consulting his friends, it was Ok-Por who came with a strange yet salient insight. He claimed that within Pillar doctrine, it was vital that the self not be kept from shutting itself in, instead needing to be left defenseless for the forming of a Singularity. While seemingly irrelevant, War did realize that Nen had been living too isolated, and arranged for her to be moved into one of the town’s many half-empty houses. He then looked through the town and encampment for more of these lost children, orphaned or afflicted and now left to fend on their own. Though the eventual amount he gathered saddened him, he was gladdened by his ability to bring them together like this. He had created something wholesome from this sorry affair.

The first week of this new congregation was hard on Nen, as her spasms only increased under the initial social stresses. However, this setback revealed to War how her disabilities resembled the I-Tan-War procedures; her mind had been broken but never rebuilt, leaving her empathically open to all sorts of intrusive influences. With the help of his Druid’s Circle, they were able to teach her some simple techniques on emptying the mind. Since the other children were intrigued by these lessons, they were soon turned into group exercises. This helped make Nen feel less singled out, and to accommodate her further, the group soon adopted a most important rule: no talking. From now on, they would use the voluntary reciprocity of empathic communication to chat amongst one another. The children felt like prodigies rather than outcasts, coming to call themselves ‘the Flint’ as a reminder of their own potential. And as for Nen, she seemed happier than ever.

Through this effort, War felt he had overcome the chaos of these weeks. The events surrounding him seemed to be reaching their climax, as scouts both physical and empathic confirmed that the Stones were nearing the town. They seemed intent on reaching O-Sift simultaneously, as those nearer to the town slowed down and those further away sped up. The week leading up to this convergence made for some intense discussions and meditation sessions, both inside and outside of his own circle. By now the central academic councils had caught on to the power of War’s little group, though that had partially been accomplished through trickery; thanks to his previous experience with the signal, War was able to supply information about the pillar and its vessel that no one else could. Though some accused War’s circle of charlatanism, most were sufficiently intrigued by the specificity of War’s data to believe him. Because of this, War and his associates had managed to bypass most of the academics’ bureaucracy and land themselves a central executive position on the night of the Stones’ arrival. War had even gotten the other academics to keep clear of his own circle of Stones, their paranoia affording him the comfort he needed during the final few sessions of him and his emphatic comrades.

On the fateful night of the Stones’ arrival, the silent creatures did not make their way into the town or its circle completely, instead spreading themselves out in evenly spaced concentric circles around it. As War had learned from Wen’s experiments, this was a most potent form of Stone signal amplification, and apparently the Stones knew about it themselves. As his friends took up their places and made their own circle-within-a-circle, they closed their eyes and opened their minds. Amplified by the Stones of the northwest marshes, the hum of the metallic being grew louder than any sound their ears could possibly have tolerated. But hidden in this hum was another signal, a whisper that sounded softer than any their ears could have sensed.

Ascend.

Suddenly, from in-between the members of the circle, fifteen stone pillars shot out of the ground, throwing grass and dirt all over War and his fellows. Then, a seam appeared on each of the pillars as their two halves slid apart, revealing a hollow interior, seemingly lit without a discernable source. Though the suddenness of hits revelation woke them from their trance, the empaths still heard a second whisper speak out from the heavens.

Enter.

Given the way the bystanders now stared at the members of the Druid’s Circle, they too had heard the whispers. Having thrown all caution to the wind, the prominent academics launched into a petty argument on who would get to enter the pillars. Many were eager to do so, knowing that the sheer novelty of it all would settle their academic career for life. While this squabbling of factions and personalities extended into the next morning, Ek-War was able to get Ok-Por, Ak-Warin and himself on the list of emissaries. Unfortunately, Ak-Wen had also gotten himself selected. Though War and the other pioneers knew not what would happen to them, they prepared eagerly.

Sensing that the coming endeavor would take him away from O-sift, War arranged for one of his fellow druids to take over the care of Nen and the Flint. He implored them to keep this group together, knowing that it had inspired and enlightened these lost youth. With his remaining affairs in this place in order, War and his compatriots made their way to the Stones’ Circle. Surrounded by onlookers, each chose one of the pillars to board, which closed once all were occupied. Then, from within the capsule, War heard the whisper again.

Ascend.

War’s pillar shook heavily, stilled itself, and rose into the heavens.

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