|"One drop does not think itself an ocean, but the ocean cannot be, without water..."|
Previously: <Prologue> <Chapter 1> <Chapter 2> <Chapter 3> <Chapter 4>
The Resistance Operatives sat in empty contemplation, idle fidgeting, anything to keep their minds off hunger. The last of their stores sat untouched, the ever-present fiend of impending doom. Once the last bit was gone, it seemed, all hope went with it.
Laurel gazed around at these people who had so willingly thrown their lot in with her, even though it now meant a slow death by starvation.
The army ruled the streets now, and they were out for the blood of the resistance. Somehow, the soldiers had lost the necessity of wyrts—instead, they were behaving as mindless, slavish wyrts themselves. It seemed that at one touch they could tell the Resistance fighters from the rest, no matter what disguise they tried. Their movements were as regular as clockwork—until any of the Resistance fighters ventured beyond the front gate of the Marketplace. In minutes, they would be surrounded by soldiers. The last attempt to gather food had gained Atis a gash in his arm, Barmier's ribs were bruised by a soldier's boot, Gorrmunsa sustained several deep wounds, and Sverana had almost killed herself trying to protect Scander, who made it through with mild cuts and bruises and one black eye.
The wounds had nearly healed, but Carsius had forbidden anyone from even considering venturing out again until he could figure out a way to do it safely. Ergo, they were almost out of food. They still had running water, since they were tapped into the city's water system via the lone sink, and no one considered shutting it off because they could not figure out where all the water was going.
Laurel sighed and closed her eyes. The first few successes had invigorated her each time, but now she found it difficult to summon the strength. The last fight against the mother-mind had worn her out almost completely. She could manage little more than semi-wakefulness and slow conversation. How was she ever going to find the strength for the next battle, if it was ever going to happen?
Augustus and Carsius discussed the problem. They were not yet to the point of finding a solution, since the activity of puzzling over it kept their minds off their stomachs.
"Well," Augustus groaned, "at least it's not much of a puzzle which pillar of control we ought to go after next."
Carsius snorted, "Yes, but this will be the first time we aren't dealing with wyrts."
"True," Augustus mused. "What do you suppose they did to the soldiers to make them all that way? I swear Gorrmunsa and I watched their movements for three days straight without even blinking, and yet the instant we set foot outside the door, it's like they can sense we're there without seeing us."
"It does seem strange," Carsius agreed. "I've been asking myself the same thing."
"It's downright creepy, that's what it is!" Augustus shuddered.
Carsius was watching Laurel. "Poor thing," he remarked. "I cannot imagine what she goes through every time."
"Do you think, if she survives, we might convince her to return with us and train other operatives to do what she does?"
Carsius shrugged, "If she survives," he echoed significantly. "There's no telling whether it's an acquired skill or a genetic predisposition."
Augustus nodded, "That's true; if it's the latter, I guess it wouldn't matter if she were willing or not, would it?"
"Anyway, if we can't get at the soldiers the normal way, how can we even talk of training others?"
Atis approached the pair as Carsius spoke, flexing his scarred arm experimentally.
"Who says we can't do what we normally do?" he asked casually.
Carsius nodded to him. "How is your arm?"
Atis shrugged, "The scar has finally formed, so it's holding together. Barm is still sore, but he'll mend."
Augustus raised his hand, "What was that you were saying about getting them normally? I mean, without the wyrts it's impossible to tell what they're using to maintain control."
"Not so, my friend," Atis wagged a finger. "There are ways; observation, for one. Think: there are still wyrts, aren't there? On the people, on the walls, on anything with eyes. Therefore the mother-mind must still be active and manipulated by the Elitinati. The soldiers seem to possess some form of that influence." He displayed before them a data-screen with graphs and figures. "See, here I mapped out some anomalies in the remains of a soldier recently killed."
Carsius looked at him sharply, "What remains?"
"That's beside the point," Atis blustered quickly. "I found something very interesting. See what it is?"
Carsius peered at the screen again. "If I understood any of that, judging by your demeanor, I probably would."
Atis pointed to where sets of figures matched.
"This is the genetic coding for a wyrt, and this... Is a chemical duplication of the coding, combined in the blood of the soldier."
Carsius blinked. "A serum?" he asked Atis incredulously. "They've injected the soldiers with wyrt DNA?"
"No way!" Augustus gasped. "They've made human wyrts out of them!"
Atis nodded, "Apparently so; that's why the soldiers go about their business while we're in here, but respond so quickly when we show ourselves, because they are directly connected to the neural network with the wyrts by the chemical compound in their blood."
"And you still think the standard course of action would work?" Carsius queried.
"Well, no guarantees," Atis admitted. "The way I see it working, the althraxine and the analthraxine should affect only the wyrt compound, not the rest of the person. The althraxine will cause it to overload, creating a discomfort and allowing the body's own immune system to clean it out while the new idea sets in, and the analthraxine can ensure that any remaining vestiges lose their potency—but like I said, this is only conjecture."
Carsius sighed, "At this point I'm willing to try anything. We'll see what everyone else thinks in the morning."
Later that night, long after the last person extinguished their candle and went to bed, Laurel lay awake, staring through the gaps of missing roof material at the clear night sky full of stars. She felt something brush her arm. It was Ra'dith.
"Where did you come from?" Laurel whispered.
"Hush," Ra'dith's tone and manner were positively matronly as she straightened Laurel's blankets and adjusted her pillow with deft hands. "You have carried a weight far too burdensome. It is not right for you to bear it alone."
"But I can't help it!" Laurel protested. "No one else can do what I do!"
"One drop does not think itself an ocean, but the ocean cannot be without water."
"What do you mean? Oh Ra'dith, I don't want to think any more. Tell me plainly! Are you saying that I am the water, and the team cannot exist without me?"
"A spark alone is easily snuffed; but it flourishes, invisible, in the midst of a fire."
"What fire? I feel like a lonely spark right now."
Ra'dith withdrew some ointment in a small vial she carried in a pouch around her waist. She spread the ointment on Laurel's forehead, and immediately, the Elf-maiden felt the soothing coolness of the balm seep right into her mind.
"Oh, that feels good," she sighed, "Now I think I can....really...slee..." She slipped out of consciousness before she finished the word.
In her dreams, Laurel saw a single candle surrounded by darkness. Then another flame sprung up, then another and another! Soon it seemed like all the candles combined into a burning tree. The leaves burned and the branches broke off and fell, igniting the ground as well. As the flames spread and revealed more of her surroundings, Laurel saw that the tree stood upon a mountain, and it didn't take long for the whole mass to burst into flame.
The next thing Laurel knew, it was morning.