Perhaps it was a case of familiarity breeding complacency, but the trek down to Bix’s dwelling seemed less ominous to Haradeth than before. There were still the flickering lights that barely could illuminate the passageways that had given the whole thing an aura of menace before, but they seemed less like something unnatural and more like the sun peeking in and out from behind clouds. The wretched creatures the Sylvani descended into as they aged were still present, muttering to themselves as they skulked from shadow to shadow, but instead of unnerving Haradeth he felt a surge of empathy towards them.
Humans revered their ancestors as their age claimed them. Some were revered for their wisdom, others were cared for because of their senility, and in the worst cases they were abandoned, but they were not feared. The idea seemed terribly unnatural to Haradeth. No species of Alith born showed disgust towards their elders. How could the life cycle of the Sylvani be so different?
“Haradeth, what are you doing?” Lorathor asked.
Haradeth wasn’t certain himself. He had diverted from the path and was walking towards one of the elder Sylvani, that much was clear. “I’ve got a feeling,” was all he could say.
“Be careful,” Lorathor cautioned, walking behind Haradeth at a distance that grew with every step.
“Be careful be afraid be weak be strong be nothing at all,” the elder Sylvani said in a sing-song voice. Haradeth knew there was a term for them, one Lorathor had told him, but he’d forgotten it. He was so intent on forgetting they existed because they made him uncomfortable that he’d forgotten their names.
“I will be something,” Haradeth said. He adopted a conversational tone, as if discussing the idea of being nothing was the most natural thing in the world. It was the way he’d seen humans talk to their infants when they babbled, as if the noises made some sense to them. Given that it eventually helped those infants learn to speak, perhaps there was some wisdom in the idea.
This particular elder had adopted a form not unlike a starfish, although it did not hug the floor. It rose up on smaller starfish as hands, and a single eye peered up at Haradeth from the center of its mass. As he approached, the skin of one of its arms stretched to reveal the Sylvani beak. It wasn’t moving but the elder was still muttering an endless string of things Haradeth should be. The sound seemed to come from the underside, and Haradeth had to wonder if there was another mouth under this…man? Woman? Did Sylvani even make such distinctions, or was that just an artifact of speaking their language?
Haradeth stretched out his hand towards the elder. Its eye grew larger and split into two, then three and four and five, but it did not shy away.
“Haradeth, be very careful,” Lorathor cautioned. “They can be unpredictable.”
“I think it’s going to be alright,” Haradeth said, extending a sliver of his power with his hand.
All of the small gods had a gift. His mother could make plants grow just with her touch. His uncle, the forge god Vinania, had been able to shape metal with only his will and contact, purifying iron to steel and making it into the finest blade without need for heat to touch it. He’d almost destroyed an Alohym vessel as he died, turning the hull of the thing into spikes that protruded inwards to slaughter the inhabitants. Gianna-o-Zan, a goddess of Xhaod that Haradeth had met once, had been able to ride the winds as if she was a bird. He’d heard it had taken three Alohym to cut her out of the sky, zipping between the clouds and raining iron projectiles down atop their soldiers’ heads.
His gift – the gift of the last of the small gods that was still whole and healthy – was the ability to influence the minds and bodies of animals. The mental influence did not work on beings that were both sentient and sapient – humans, Sylvani, Underfolk. Their free will was too great. Among beings that came close – dolphins, crows, elephants, and others – it allowed him something akin go speech. But these Sylvani elders were more creatures of instinct than their normal counterparts. If Haradeth was right-
The Sylvani elder extruded a tendril so quickly Haradeth couldn’t reach. It wrapped around his wrist and began to constrict. Haradeth could feel the bones in his wrist begin to grind against each other and gritted his teeth against the pain. The sliver he had been extending became a torrent containing a single command. Calm. I mean you no harm.
The tendril relaxed but did not release its grasp on his wrist. It was enough. Haradeth sighed with relief, and Lorathor sheathed the sword Haradeth hadn’t even seen him draw. “Shadow take you, Haradeth, you are insane.”
“No,” Haradeth said, letting his power pulse through the Sylvani’s body, “he is.”
Haradeth could see it now, peering into the Sylvani’s form, sending waves of calming into the poor person. It made him want to weep, the way the brain had degraded. It took some coaxing to get the Sylvani to release him, and he turned to Lorathor with tears in his eyes as the elder’s muttering resumed.
“What is it?” Lorathor asked in a hushed tone.
“This isn’t your natural life cycle,” Haradeth said. “There’s some nutrient your minds need, some metal or humor that is not native to Alith. Your plants likely leeched it out of the soil when you were on your home world, but here…”
“Here it doesn’t exist,” Lorathor said, his voice growing low. “Here…we cannot get it.”
Haradeth nodded somberly. “It directly impacts your ability to control your form. That’s why these Elders seems so unpredictable, because they aren’t fully in control of what they do. Their shapes warp so often their conscious minds cannot handle it-”
“And they go mad.”
“And they go mad,” Haradeth finished. “But in its absence…whatever is missing is also what causes your bodies to age. That’s why you’re functionally immortal here – but instead, this happens. With this chemical, you’d age like humans, although probably slower. Lorathor…I’m sorry. I thought I could help.”
Lorathor looked at Haradeth, and his eyes were radiant with excitement. “You did help, Haradeth. We could maybe find a way to synthesize this chemical here. We could find a way to recreated it. We all thought…we all thought this was our destiny. But it’s not a destiny. It’s a disease. And diseases can be treated.”
“Sometimes,” a voice said. Haradeth and Lorathor turned to face the speaker. It was Bix, crouched atop the amorphous form of one of the Sylvani Elders, riding it like some kind of inhuman mount. “But often…well, some diseases are best treated with stabbing.”
Haradeth had gotten pretty good with just accepting what Bix said, but he couldn’t help himself this time. “What disease is treated with stabbing?”
“The kind that are just going to kill their victim even if we don’t do anything,” Bix said. “Then stabbing can end their suffering. The kind that are caused by blood building up that needs to be let out. Then stabbing can let the blood out. And the kind that infect entire civilizations. Like the Alohym.” Her glowing eyes glistened brighter than usual. “Then stabbing can cure that disease very well.”
Haradeth nodded. “You said the portal stones were working?”
“The boogers. I said the boogers were working. You’re the ones that keep calling them by that stupid name.” Bix nodded and tapped the Sylvani elder beneath her. It began to roll back towards her home. “Now come. We need to figure out where you’re going.”
Haradeth followed, his step lighter than it had been in sometime. Finally, they’d be able to do something to help.
And maybe, in his lifetime, he’d see the Sylvani’s spared this madness.