“Benjamin, be still.”
Hearing Edward’s sharp tone, Ottelo and Pitney drew their swords, but Edward was already working his gift on the vex walking beside his brother. Belda’s disappearance instantly forgotten at the sight of him.
“Put those away. She will not harm me,” Benjamin said quickly, readjusting his brim to fall lower, hiding half his face.
“Wait,” Edward stepped back, releasing just enough of his gift to keep Narbe in his sights. “You know she is there?”
“Yes, brother. I can sense her,” Benjamin looked to Ottelo and Pitney’s swords gleaming. “She is scared. Put them away.”
They both slowly re-sheathed their weapons, looking bewildered at the current events.
“The vex, Narbe, walks beside him,” Edward explained. “But how is this possible?”
“And how can you see her? I thought your sight was lost in these woods?” Benjamin’s mouth turned up at the corners. “I have missed you and am glad to be with you again. Tell me, do you have food? Vex prefer raw meat and I must say I have not got the stomach for it.”
The three stared at him as if he were a ghost, unsure of what to make of a man who had been taken by vex and lived to tell of it. Without shifting his gaze from Narbe, Edward reached for his pouch hanging on Regal and handed it to his brother.
He ate hurriedly, shoving the food into his mouth before it was even empty. Once or twice, he took time to shush what appeared to be the air to Ottelo and Pitney. Edward watched, stunned, as his brother petted Narbe’s neck. They were as patient as they could be, watching him with open mouths until he was finished eating his fill before the questions started tumbling out on top of each other.
“Did the vex take you?”
“Where have you been?”
“How did you escape?”
“What did they do to you?”
“How are you alive?”
“Could you take us back there?”
“How did you find us?”
“Was it the tunnels?”
“Were you with Yavin?”
“Did you know you are with a vex right now?”
“How are you with a vex right now?”
“Is it safe?”
“You can touch them?”
“How in the world are you alive?”
His wide brimmed hat tipped to one side, Benjamin leaned up against nothing that was, in actuality, Narbe, and smiled at them. Finally, the questions stopped and one question remained.
Benjamin, genuinely happy to be with his brother, but bursting with all the things he had learned, straightened himself and touched his brother’s shoulder.
“I will tell you everything, but we do not have much time. We need to get back to ReAnne.”
“But I have not understood everything I need to do. Belda led me to the Point of Rending…but I was not there long enough to know how to help ReAnne…Belda is gone-” Edward protested.
“We do not have time to find her. You will know what to do when the time comes; I know it, just like I did.” Benjamin threw his body onto Tuens, who neighed happily at seeing his owner return.
“Come, we must be going.” Benjamin clicked his tongue and Tuens started at a trot.
As they rode, Narbe remaining close by Benjamin, nodding and nudging to keep them in the right direction, he began to tell them everything that happened.
“Right before I was pushed beyond your sight, I was aware of many, many feelings. I was torn between all of them happening around me…feelings that would not make sense unless someone, or something, was present with us. Anger and hate…but also love and wonder…curiosity. It was as if I was sensing a combative nature. Of course now, I know I was sensing the different vex we could not see through the mist.”
He stopped here for a moment and looked around. “Speaking of…where is it?”
The other three had not noticed the mist had subsided and their pathway was clear before them.
“Belda?” Ottelo asked, but Pitney just shrugged. No one had an answer as to why the mist was no longer blinding their passage through the woods. The ground was green, lush with years of not being treaded upon by travelers. Small creatures scampered down tree trunks and paused on limbs, nuts held in their tiny paws, watching the group of travelers as they made their way through an otherwise untouched forest. It was familiar and yet, unsettling.
“Did she bring it? Is she why my gift would not work before?” Edward thought out loud.
“I think we should not give her more credit than she deserves, brother. If there is one thing I am sure of now, it is that things are not always what they seem to be.”
“Now you sound like Yavin,” Pitney teased him, but Benjamin did not laugh with everyone else.
“I wish I could speak with him before we return, but there is not time. We must hurry back to ReAnne. Her time grows short.”
“How do you know that? We have been gone half the time of Aoife’s corruption. I need to get back to the Point of Rending so I can figure out how to save her.”
When Edward said this, Benjamin turned Tuens to face his brother. “Edward, listen to me. You cannot go back to the Point of Rending.”
“But if it will save ReAnne-“
“What good does saving our sister do, if we lose our king?”
“What are you talking about? I am not king-“
“But you will be.”
“In time, yes-“
“Time is running out, Ed.”
“Yes, I know. You keep saying we must hurry and I believe you.”
“You are not-“ Benjamin took a deep sigh and tried to untangle his thoughts. “We cannot lose our king, brother.”
“Yes, Benjamin, I agree. And I saw Father in the Point of Rending. He looked like he was not well…not well at all.” Edward’s voice trailed off.
“Well…even if you were to die,” Pitney started, “Your kingdom has two other kings to spare and a further bridge to close the gap between the Staas and Mirias kingdom would still be strong with a binding between Ottelo and Princess ReAnne.”
“Even if I were to die?” Edward looked at Pitney sideways. No one had spoken of Belda’s parting words to him, but they had weighed heavily on Edward’s mind before Benjamin reappeared to them. “Wishing ill of me, Pitney?”
Pitney did not bother to blush. “Of course not. I think you would make a strong and interesting king, one I am most curious to see come to power. But surely you would not sacrifice an alliance at the prospect of losing a king…not when Mirias has so many options-”
“Pitney, I do not think now is the time-“ Ottelo warned just as Edward cut in.
“It does not matter, our options, because I am not king and our sister is not dying.” To Benjamin, he said, “Do you understand?”
“As you wish,” Benjamin nodded and then continued on his tale. “As you all saw, I was thrown back, into the mist and beyond your sight.”
Edward grunted his approval of the change of subject so he went on.
“But I never landed on the ground. My arms had flailed about me and were caught mid-air by something I could not see, flying me above the mist. I thought my life was easily over, having put two and two together of being carted away by vex. I screamed, but my voice seemed as a small chirp of a bird in the vastness of the air around me. I started praying, begging for my life to be spared, when I heard something in my head. At first, I thought my prayers were being answered audibly, but then, the words and structure of the speech began to fascinate me.
‘Havarth,’ one spoke.
‘No. Havarth, no,’ another responded.
‘Havarth, take to. Must.’
‘Not must. Die.’
When I heard this, I assure you, I thought the second intended to eat me, but I gained a bit of my wits about me and began to use my gift. Certainly, I was fascinated by hearing their conversation, as Yavin had taught me how to break through blocks to achieve this, but never had it simply just occurred without my trying. Neither of the invisible creatures was revealing any signs of animosity, or even hunger, so I put it in my mind to remain silent and try to decipher more of their conversation.
‘Die. Not now.’
‘Take Havarth. Hazar. Die.’
‘Not die. Use. Master.’
‘Die. Not. Master.’
From this, I am sure you will agree, I concluded they were arguing about whether or not to take me to Havarth…to their master, of whom I can only assume is some form of king they have established there. To the best of my knowledge, no ruler stays in power for long in Havarth. I believe the last word Father received was King Waxon had been poisoned by his own queen and then her son put her in the dungeon, only to succumb days later to his own demise in his father’s chambers. Whether by the current ruler or by the vex, I was fairly certain I was going to meet my doom. Either way, I needed to act fast. I pushed just a bit against the first vex since his intentions seemed to line up with my dying being an eventuality.
I could feel the block in his mind. At first push, animalistic, to be sure. But upon a further push, I met with an odd sense of consciousness, as if it were a man, almost. This perplexed me greatly, so I attempted to push the other one with the same result.”
All sets of eyes blankly stared in Benjamin’s direction.
“Let me explain. When we were with Yavin, he forced me to quiet my own mind and search for something greater in every subject I set my gift to. At first, I was annoyed to sit in the quiet, but then, I realized there was something to be heard there that I had not allowed myself to hear before. I had set my own expectation on each creature, in some way, instead of listening to every nuance of what they were feeling. I expected the vex to by vile creatures in their every intent, but I found something much more interesting.
Every creature I sense has a bit of fear within them, but it is not the only thing always present within us. Both man and beast carry a marker for its kind. This marker can be found in the response of the first push towards their thoughts. Birds initially return a small tweet, caw, or shriek. Bears will emit a small roar, almost a whisper if you don’t know what you are listening for. Snakes will hiss, and chipmunks will chipper.”
For just a moment, Benjamin paused and looked around at his travel companions.
“These vex,” he continued, “let out the same as a man.”
When his travel companions still said nothing he held up his hands. “Ok, I guess you do not care to know. Very well.”
He sat straight up on Tuens and rode forward ahead of the others. When their protests rose to a height acceptable to him, he continued.
“I do not understand why this is so…and to what purpose this serves…but it has haunted me since I first could hear it, for it is heart-wrenching to recognize. Man cries. An almost imperceptible whimper, but it is there, nonetheless. It is an odd combitnation…a cry of mourning, desperation, even defeat. Almost as if there is something deep in the heart of him he knows is not quite right. Yavin’s was quiet, almost imperceptible. He told me if I could perceive his, then I could perceive anyone else’s. I did not understand what he meant, until I spent time with the vex. Now I could probably perceive any one of my choosing.”
Ottelo and Pitney glanced quickly towards one another, shifting in their saddles, but Edward kept a steady gaze on Benjamin.
“Why?” he asked.
Benjamin, who had kept Tuens at a steady trot, pulled back on the reigns and stopped traveling altogether to look into his brother’s eyes as he answered. “Because if you can find it, every man’s cry is unique.”
“Why?” Edward asked again, but even as he asked, he knew what the answer would be.
“From my experience with the vex, it is based off of man’s great need. The greater the emptiness felt within a person, the greater the cry. Not in volume or length, necessarily, but in the great grief, the emptiness. I am not sure I can do the description justice.”
“It is like a dark chasm that holds their pain and sorrow.”
“Darkness calling to them, protesting the light.”
“Edward?” Benjamin eyed his brother, who seemed to be in a world all alone.
“Right. Please continue with your story, Ben.”
“Anyway, rest at ease, all of you, for I have not searched any of you. Please do not be alarmed when I tell you your emotions rest quite easily within my grasp and searching further would feel as an intrusion.”
“Any man would take this knowledge and use it to his advantage against another man. It seems as if we have neglected the strongest of all gifts.” Pitney turned to Ottelo. “Previously, I thought making a man see what you wanted him to see was the greatest gift, even beyond Foresight. But now, I believe knowing the depth of a man’s despair would be far more useful if you were a manipulative sort.”
Upon hearing this, Edward’s back bristled and he swung Regal around in a circle, able to look them all in the eye, but locked his gaze on Pitney. “Then I am convinced of why the Great King bestowed the gift upon Benjamin, for he is the fairest and least manipulative of any man I have met.”
Pitney muttered something under his breath resembling an apology while Ottelo’s voice was heard loud and clear, “Honestly Pitney, what has gotten into you?” But Pitney just shook his head.
Benjamin tipped his hat in his brother’s direction, but said nothing more of the matter.
“This groaning too intense for words was what I was met with as I pushed further towards the vex. I wanted to know more about who was to kill me in Havarth and to what end my life would come to, but also, I was curious as to why they seemed to be having a bit of a scuffle in regard to me. If all vex were evil, as we are led to believe, then why was one fighting the other in taking me to their ‘leader’? Could vex possibly have a change on conscious, or even a consciousness at all? We had been led to believe they were empty vessals of war, used for the purpose of creating and solidifying an army whose sole purpose was to destroy us. From the beginning of time, they have been corrupt and brought destruction. The conversation between the two was rather contrary to the fact, wasn’t it? When I began to push the vex who wished to not take me to Havarth, I was met with this frail, guttural grievance resembling that of a man. Intrigued, I pushed a bit further, as Yavin had taught me to. I was met with quite a block, too strong than any other creature I had encountered before. I assume this block was somehow inherent in their very existence…a manner of protection or built-in defense. And then, something extraordinary happened as I was flying, clasped in the talon of one who flew me up higher than my stomach cared to climb…I heard a voice, separate from the vex’s thoughts I had sensed before. I looked about me, my sight met with only clouds below me and a perfect blue sky surrounded me. Surely, there was not another man in my presence for me to hear. The voice spoke the words, ‘I’m sorry’ once, and as I tried to find more of the same voice, I had somehow missed my traveling companion’s quick descent.
“They landed with a thud, my body thrown across a hard, damp surface until I hit up against a surface I could not see. The snarl above me gave me no question as to what I had collided with and my heart immediately thumped against my chest with urgency, even more so than my sudden and unexpected flight. This was a great surprise to me, but seeing how the first two vex left me to believe I was not yet to die, even in this horrid situation, I managed to keep my wits somewhat about me. I searched frantically, trying to use my gift. For the first time since I had been bestowed with it, it was foreign to my body. It felt as though I was trying to use something that was not mine. It eluded me, and left my whole body heavy with exhaustion. I collapsed onto the floor, much outside my will, only realizing I had slept at all when I awoke suddenly.
My trusty hat somehow managed to survive the trip. Remembering where I was and what had happened, I tugged it off my head to get a better look around. I was met with a cave that looked very similar to the tunnels of Yavin. All around me, at every angle, I could hear snorts, sniffs, and snarls. I knew I was in the middle of a room full of vex, even without my gift.
I tried, ever so slightly to evoke my gift. Even the vex I had broken through during my flight was covered to me, shielded, if you will, from my initial sensing. I made my way slowly and cautiously about the room, careful to only touch the border of my gift, never fully lest I collapse again…occasionally hearing a louder growl and keeping a safe distance from it, I assure you. I had not felt this kind of oppression over my gift and I was both frustrated and fascinated by it.
When I ran into another ‘wall’ I could not see and no growl or grunt came in response, but instead a short sniff and a small nudge, I realized, perhaps some were less frustrated with my arrival…at best, maybe even indifferent enough to not care at all. I marked with a rock where I was and continued to feel around the room, crawling, feeling rocks and dirt beneath my hands and knees, the scent of reptilian-like breath permeating. It was not pleasant at all. As I made my way around the room once more, back to where my line was clearly marked, I touched ever so slightly on my gift again…the effort was like trying to grab a tree branch high above you…just out of reach and yet ever so attainable. But I was careful to not over reach and risk the acute exhaustion that overtook me the first time. When I had the edge of it, I reached out a bit further with my gift and concentrated on the vex that had nudged me, searching for that which I could not see.
This is where my training with Yavin became even more beneficial to me, for the covering was over all of them. A blanket of protection. The Spirit of Blessing makes it easier to use our gift, but unnecessary for the most part, because we are within a safe space. But what if there was something similar here…an antithesis to the Spirit of Blessing that was causing a shroud over all gifts. I thought of Paschar and how crossing that boundary left us with heaviness and the hardship of using our gift. Here, my friends, I assure you, the use of it was debilitating, but where this vex was, it was almost as if the closed door was slightly left ajar.
With the hardship of using my gift, imagine my surprise when I could suddenly not only sense the vex next to me, but hear her as well.
The rope. The bearded man…
And then it was as if something cut her off, built a wall around her thoughts. I listened again, to see if she would come through, and she did.
Cannot always control it. It takes over me.
And then she said something I will never forget, the deepness of grief, the sound of her torment accompanying it was the last thing I heard before I collapsed for the second time. She said, ‘I want to be free.’”
“Was it Narbe?”
“It was. It is,” Bemjamin nodded towards his invisible companion.
“She wishes for death, then?”
“I thought that as well, Ottelo. And perhaps death is the only way to freedom, but one does have to consider exactly why a creature would want to be freed from a role they were literally born to play. How would she know there was something to be freed from, unless she felt it deeply within her?”
“As if she is unhappy with her lot in life?” Pitney asked.
“Perhaps. I wonder…do they know the difference between evil and good. Do vex make a conscious decision? We had been led to believe they were offspring of Hazar Maveth and Aoife from so long ago…two people so far corrupted, they could not be brought back from their depravity…but what if they did not create an army of vex that blindly followed? What if they created an army of vex capable to think for themselves?”
“That would mean they have continually chosen to adhere to evil ways, Benjamin. All the more reason to destroy them. They hold more responsibility for their positions than a mere war horse whose rider saddles him up to fight for the wrong side.”
“Yes, Ed, it is true. But we always think we are on the right side of the battle until someone questions our motives, our position, and forces us to prove what we believe. In the end, do you always still believe it? Can you always find enough evidence convincing you to remain firm in your belief?”
“Well, I have. The Provider has been good to us. One moment under the Blessing would tell a man that.”
“Does it? How many have betrayed Providence? If all men felt as you, the number should be none. And yet, we both can attest that is not true. Belda lived under the Blessing, and chose Havarth as her home.”
“She was run out of the kingdom. She did not choose it,” Pitney said.
“Did she not, Pitney? Seems to me she set out to betray and wreck havoc while living there. In spite of her being under the Blessing, she chose darkness. She alone stands in direct contradiction to your thought, my dear brother.”
“So then, we are to believe not all vex wish to do us harm?”
“Narbe has certainly not done me harm.”
“Well, she had no problem coming at both me and Yavin in the tunnels.”
“Hhhmmm…” Benjamin tipped the rim of his hat up a bit to look at his brother. “Why then, would she be the reason I escaped? She had the opportunity to kill me. Why has she not taken it?”
Pitney eyed the air between Benjamin and a cluster of trees where Narbe was supposedly walking beside him. “If the vex are as discerning as you believe they are, Benjamin, then perhaps she is using you. Maybe it is not that she has chosen not to kill you, rather, it is simply she has chosen not to kill you yet.”