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The Progress of Things

3 Tau: The Wet Deep


Published: September 9, 2023
Warnings: -
Wordcount: ~8,200w

World: Fragments / Tau Timeline
Characters: Isiell, Tower, Cradle

Blurb: The times, they are a-changin'. Tower is here to usher the new age in - or something like that, he supposes.



I awoke with a start.

My hand flew up to my muzzle, catching the next splatters of dewdrops before they landed on my nose. After a long moment, in which I shook away the vestiges of sleep, I let my eyes creak open. 

Far above me was a fresh tree’s branch, warped and gnarled. It looked young - perhaps only a few hours or so, with the way its bark still pulsed from the stress of magical growth. 

It had splayed large leaves to soak up what meager sun had peeked through the foliage above, but the light had faded as the great body moved through the sky and abandoned that tiny crevice.

I looked to the little tree. It was short, perhaps only twice my height, with a great many thin branches creeping up and into the sides of its neighbors, desperate for nourishment. The throb of its magic was weak, dying.

Good morning, I thought, ambiently, and revisited that stab of adrenaline. Startled.

I sat up, looking down into my hand, at the water cupped in it.  What was the progenitor for that unfamiliar sensation? Where, upstream, did it flow from?

I dried my hand on my leg. The answer, of course, was “fear”. 

I understood fear. I thought I did, at least. It was the same deep, primal thing that invigorated the little tree, that screamed at it to grow, to seek light, to stretch upwards at all costs. That was a fear - a fear of the mysterious death, a thing I had only seen, and never tasted. 

Startlement... it was less than that. It was a jolt, the kind when pricking fingers on a particularly sharp thorn. But all the same, it came from that deep primal well that demanded obedience, and I could see the way their paths met. 

But a tree did not startle. It did not flinch, like my body did. 

I shook my head again, and stood. I had slept longer than I intended, but I supposed that was why I had been told to take more frequent rests. Noon had long passed, and the forest floor had become cloaked in a permeating darkness not unfamiliar to me. 

My eyes adapted with ease. Though the vibrant greens of the flora became muted, the stark outlines of their shapes and fluttering remained. I soaked in all light, in a manner not to dissimilar to the tree.

Sensing my wakefulness, it tentatively stretched out its branch towards me, a few leaves straining. I took several steps back and observed its struggle. 

It was a waste of energy. I projected as much in my aura, let it flare, let the mark around my head surge. This only hastens your death.

The tree cowered. It could not retract its branch, but it paused, tensed. Its aura wavered, and tentatively extended an impression of the sun as it knew it - glimpses and shadows through the foliage of its stronger siblings. Where? it asked. How?

I looked to the trees surrounding it, at the parasite-branches it had nestled into their oozing bark. They were taller, stouter, resolute, and kept their auras close to their cores. They simply watched. 

You are weak, I replied, a statement of fact, flashes of their creeping vines withering and crumbling. You will die. Accept this.

The tree shuddered, and its rage filled the air with poison. Smaller fronds shifted away from it, vines wriggled aside to mind their own business, flowers sealed into buds. 

Suddenly aware of the forest’s eye on it, the little tree shrank back into itself, pulled its aura back into a more suitable and polite extension, embarrassed and shamed. But the rage remained, like a dark flame within its veins. 

It offered me an image of enormous trees rising above the squabble below, of trunks wider than the greatest lakes, of canopies so thick and dense and sprawling that an entire village of saplings could have grown and died there. 

The Kinsleaves.

What of them? I posited. 

In response, it radiated unfairness. 

That is the way of the world, I reminded them. And this is a waste of my time. 

Swirls of emotions spilled out of it. Incredulousness, contempt. It pressed harder on the idea of the Kinsleaves, and interspersed it with the feelings of my own aura, back-forth, hammering down on the connection.

Its message was clear, though they had no mouth to say it as I did. You are their hand. Do something. Do anything. Help me.

I simply turned away, and brushed the foliage out of my path. 

And as my careful pace picked over the forest floor, the little tree’s baleful aura faded into the background noise of the world, no louder than any one feeling or voice or idea or image, buried in the rolling tempo of the lifesong. 

As I clambered over a thick root, I pondered the emotion swirling in my chest, examined it carefully. In a way, it was like pity - the same pity when my eyes fell upon a dying seedling, life ended before it could recognize its full potential.

But at the same time, it shared its space with resignation. With a shake of the head, with disbelief that a tree that had grown real bark and had burrowed into its peers to for sustenance could harbor such ignorant thoughts. Such willful naivety, and then to beg of me to help them? 

To do what? Cut away at those around them, all the way up to the sky, and pretend that the thin tall powerful kin surrounding them wouldn’t simply grow back? 

That was not the purpose I was made for. 


I shook my head, dispelling further thoughts. I drank in the sights before me, instead, letting my eyes flick out over the cliff I’d emerged out on. 

Roots and trees still surrounded me, hugging the edge for life and nutrients both. They were laden with wide-brimmed ferns and scrubs, who could more easily reach out over the side of the cliff. 

The cliff’s face was pockmarked with bursting thorns and swirling vines, weaving between cracks in the rock and stone. Some bore small and meager fruits, which would drop off the side of the precipice and roll down and propagate in the valley below.

But even as I stood, I watched them twist themselves, bunching up their stems to try to push the fruits towards me instead. Their auras were too weak to read from a distance, but their shy intentions were obvious: the favor of the Kinsleaves’ hand, the spreading of their seed.

I ignored them, of course.

Below, the jungle continued, as it always did, extending out to the rising wall of the far side of the valley. But a deep, thick fog had rolled in over this lower basin, coating all but the tallest reaches in a layer of humid cloud. I lifted a hand to shield my eyes from the sun and squint. 

There was, indeed, a break in the trees near the center of the valley. A clear ring of tall, powerful, thick trees, bidden to grow there and serve as a wall by the Kinsleaves themselves. They carried out their task dutifully, even this far from the center of the world and the Kinsleaves’ watchful aura. 

Though, I served as their eyes more often than not, in these times.

Here, I could more clearly hear the wind, and the way it stroked the branches as it passed over them. I tasted the air, and found it brimming with magics - palpitations of the energy, emanating from the depths of the clearing. 

So this is the place. Of course. The Kinsleaves would not have given me false direction, of course. But... 

The images they had impressed upon me, in the giving of this task... they had been worn and cracked at the edges, degraded with time and its passage. Vestiges of memory, of impressions, faded and uncertain.

It had been so very... alien, to hear their auras grasp at straws. And when I had pressed as to the purpose of this, as to my reasons for being sent on this mission, I had been met with a patronly anger. Why ask? Simply go. Do as I was told. Begone. 

I lowered my hand, idly stroked over my chest as I considered the emotion. Part of me was irritated, yes. What was the harm in wanting to know? How could they expect success without my understanding of the goal? 

But the other part was quiet. It knew that this was simply the way they were, great mighty gods looking down upon all of their children, and that I would be a fool to expect any different.

With a shake of the head, I began down the cliff. 

There were enough outcroppings to grip that it was uneventful, my hands sure of themselves, my feet finding plenty purchase. The vines still stretched towards me - then paused, defeated as I passed, and returned to their proper homes. I paid them no mind except to avoid crushing them with the weight of my body. 

I was not interested in bribery, nor attention, nor betrayal. I had learned those lessons aplenty long ago, when I was fresh-faced and young, before the Kinsleaves had imparted upon me the full breadth of their awareness of all that went on. 

Even in these far reaches, where their auras could only faintly be felt, they would know. Plenty of the ferns and flowers would carry whispers of what I had done back to them, and then I returned to my quiet bed, I would face the repercussions. So I did nothing, and stood at the bottom of the cliff, and peered into the white nothingness.

The shapes of trunks faded in and out of sight, obscured and cloaked. The light bounced off the mist, illuminating it in strange and unfamiliar ways, and the air was heavy and muggy. 

Still, I pressed on. 

The fog came to surround me, as well, almost palpable, like a lake filled with sap. I brushed it out of the way with my hands not unlike a swimmer, the humidity splashing against my cheeks and mouth. 

Branches, too, shifted and swayed in my wake. Some parted willingly, bending the metaphorical knee, aware of the mark around my head. Others hesitated - lingering, until the last second, ‘til they too wrenched themselves away, never quite meeting my eyes. 

But the most stubborn did not balk. They resisted as I pushed against them, and I felt the mark flare in a spit of anger - and that was enough. They divided, curled back towards their parent trees like scolded children. I gave them stern glares as I passed, radiated strength in my aura best I could. They did not react further. 

Perhaps the Kinsleaves would send retribution ringing down their great roots, the powerful and mighty tunnels, and spark electric-magic down the bodies of these insurgents. 

But, more likely, they would do nothing. Be rid of your spite, they would bid me, and fall into line. You exist for our use; do not be misguided. 

I was not misguided.

Thank you very much.

I came to the clearing, where great old sequoias rose from the dirt and built themselves into an impregnable wall. I looked up, and could barely see the way the wind kissed at their limbs through the fog. 

I extended my aura, in the way of greeting. 

The one in front of me stirred, roused from a great sleep. It peered at my energies, at my identification, at the mark of the Kinsleaves around my head. 

I waited.

I could feel its aura shifting, churning. It was thinking me over. The thought invoked apprehension in me. Why question the will of the Kinsleaves? I bore their magic, from top of my head to tip of my tail. Was it my unfamiliar visage?

Affirmation radiated. 

The old thorn, lodged deep in my chest, throbbed. It was an emotional thorn, a metaphysical thing, a wound that could never heal. I had called it by many names, but had fancied ‘exhausted resentment’ in more recent times. 

I have traveled the world at a pace unlike that of all but the magic itself, I said, well-practiced. This shape pleases the Kinsleaves, threaded together out of bark and leaf as like you. We are all suited for the various colors of life, as bidded by they, and mine is to travel and see and speak. 

It still examined me. I waited. I knew that it must be considering the weight of what I had spoken. Perhaps this was the first time it had woken in many an eon, having gone dormant after it had grown beyond its natural limits. Perhaps this truly was the first time it had heard of me.

The earth trembled.

I backed away several paces, and watched as the sequoia creaked. It swayed, first left, then right, and then a great root wrenched out of the soil, sending clods flying. 

Another root groaned free, and another. They reached upwards to grip their sleeping neighbors’ trunks and heave theirs skywards, up and up further until I could see the other side of the clearing through the tangle of smaller roots. 

Thank you, I said. 

It only spoke with a tired gruffness. Acknowledged.

I hurried through.

A great thud rose as it collapsed back into the ground. Its roots burrowed like eager vines, returning to the wetness of the loam. I watched for a moment before turning back to the clearing.

The offense churning in me had faded. It had been soothed at the sequoia’s understanding. It did not sneer, it did not question. It simply accepted, and moved. No argument, no bitter fight of wills. 

It was nice, for once. 

But, of course, I needed to stay focused. So I allowed my head to slowly sweep the strange clearing, this empty place. The fog was here, but not as thick - only clinging barely to handfuls of the tallest flora, in this dead air with no wind. 

For there were still some plants here. Whether they had existed before the wall had rose or snuck in afterwards, I did not know, as their auras were dull and did not respond to probing. 

I crouched, lifted one of the enormous leaves pinched between two fingers. The plant’s aura stirred, but it did not react to mine - only looked around, as if blind. Though I spoke in the way of greeting, it settled back down into a fitful sleep and did not rouse again. 


That was what had come to rest in the pit of my bosom. I stood back up, let a hand ghost over my chest. 

I had seen death before - it was all around, the deep notes in the lifesong. A plant would wither and die, lacking light or water or nourishment, and its brothers would tear it open, crack its bark and gobble up its leaves, taking from it what they could. 

And what they could not would drop back into the acidic earth, and melt into the great magical fertilizer of it, and become one with everything again. 

This was not death. This was a perversion of it. 

This plant had no mind, no awareness. It had become senseless and numb, untethered from the magic that coursed through our world. I nudged its aura with my own - an intimate touch, far too intimate - but it did not so much as blink. 

I tasted the air - and flinched, my body tensing. I stopped myself from toppling forwards only by slamming hands into knees for stability, and heaved once or twice. 

But as soon as the nausea struck, it faded. The thick magics wormed into my throat and met my own magic, which gripped them by the neck and suffocated them. And as soon as my breathing slowed, I found that I could taste and breathe as if this were any part of the world.

But it was not. I looked up to the fog above and felt my chest flip. That was no simple water; it was laced and threaded with deep veins of raw liquid magic. 

From where? Great streams and ponds of magic could be found high in the badlands, crowded only by the shoots that could sip on them. But there were none here, not for a long week’s walk. So how could there be so much here?

I looked forwards. Before me, the fog was thicker, clung to shadows and ghosts, hid their true forms even from my eyes. Even from the Kinsleaves’ eyes, I reminded myself, for even their auras could not impart upon me what I would find here. 

I would need to approach. My chest flipped again, the throbbing in it compressing me. 

Fear? I wondered, staring into the white abyss. Was this fear that governed me, in this moment? 

No. It couldn’t have been, for I swallowed it whole and willed my legs to move, and my body obeyed. I was not paralyzed - I was resolute, head high, as I passed into that gloom.

My eyes were useless, here, so I shut them to tavel by the presence of the deadened auras. They did not mind as I groped along them, like ropes through a darkness, weaving myself in the narrow passages between them.

As I paced, my ears caught the sound of twigs snapping under me. Twigs gave way to rocks - small and round, good for skipping; then large and uneven, uncomfortable; then I was scrambling over a thick stone rectangle. 

I paused on top of it. It wasn’t that much bigger than I was, and as I ran my fingers along it, I could feel many small divets. They formed lines through the entire rock, long horizontal and long verticals, and between these lines the rock bulged and had a different texture. The entire stone was inert, magically dead. 

I slipped off the other side, and was grateful when my feet hit the wet loam. Several sharper stones cut at my feet as I walked, but none were as large as the great rectangle.

As I paced blindly, I wondered - how did it form? I had never seen water form rock in such a way, with specific little lines and bulging tumors. Perhaps whatever rogue flora had stolen the magic out of its siblings, here, had-

-I yelped as my face collided with a cliff’s face. I skittered back, aware that it was no plant - it was far too smooth and worn to be bark. 

After a moment, I let my eyes open, and saw the cliff before me. It was made of a white rock, and had many lines across it, like the rectangle. There was a small platinum-colored strip plastered to it, next to a square-shaped cave. 

I frowned, and tilted my head back.

The rock continued up, smooth the entire way. The top was cut off abruptly, and harbored no flora growing on it. Smaller caves had been dug into it, all square-shaped but smaller than the first before me.


I paused. The new word had come to me in a flash, like they sometimes did when I found something unfamiliar. I looked back to the caves, and thought ‘window’, and it felt correct.

Very well. Windows. 

I crept into the first cave on careful feet. The stench of dust filled the air - the kind of dust that reeked of death, that formed when a whole chain of ferns rotted and collapsed, and I would be bidden to churn them into the dirt so they could find the lifesong again. 

I looked, but this place was devoid of life. Below my feet was only solid stone. Rocks and rubble littered this ground, and I could see how some of the deadened plants had grown into the structure before withering - their vines puncturing, twisting through the window and the walls. 

What could the Kinsleaves want in a cursed place as this? One that sapped the life from the world? Did they fear that it was breaking free from the wall that bound it? 

And, at the same time, a bitter taste: why risk my life, if so? Was I so disposable to them?

But I shook my head, and carefully ventured forth.

Unfamiliar things made of alien materials were scattered like petals before me. Some were similar to one another in structure, and I carefully poked them, and turned them over when no harm came to me. They remained inert, and did not respond to my aura. 

So they were like the soil and the water? They were in no shapes that I recognized. My tail flicked, and I left them to their rot, and stepped deeper into the cave. 

It was dark here, darker than even the forest floor of the most overgrown sprawls. My eyes still adjusted, though, and could make the best of the meager light, soaked it in like desperate roots to a river. I saw more of the strange structures, and another cave, this one sloping downwards. 

I paused at the tip of it, stared at the way the ground was carved into discrete rectangles. Stairs, my mind supplied, and I knew the word was true. But I was frozen for another reason. 

Fear? Almost hopeful, almost craving.

But no. I stepped down, pressed forwards. 

The cave swallowed me whole. I peered, but the darkness became thicker and thicker, almost a haze. And though I could still breathe, the taste of the magic in the air became acrid, heavy. 

I paused, at the bottom of the stairs, and placed a hand over my chest. My heart was thumping in tension, palpable underneath the wood. My fingers curled, almost into a fist, and I stared out into the dark, barely able to feel anything past the buzzing headache brought on by the radiation.

Across the room, I could see things shifting and moving in the walls. I watched, body tense, before their motions became familiar to me and I settled. Roots. They were simple roots. 

And as several broke through the thick walls of stone, they pulsed gently with light. Enough to illuminate ahead of me, the stones and the strangeness, and I breathed and extended my aura.

A familiar one met mine, thought it was abrupt and swift, a little sheepish. It knew it shouldn’t be here. 

So why had you come? I wondered. 

I felt a wave of magic pulse through its roots, the ancient magic of the Kinsleaves. And the light laughter of my favorite - the one who had grown from a tiny crevice in the tallest cliffs, whose roots had burrowed deeper and deeper than anyone else’s, who had found the great core of magic deep within the world, and had taught us all of the lifesong. 

A little assistance, it reassured me, in the articulate ways of the Kinsleaves. I couldn’t let you delve here alone. I can’t be with you in body and bark, but I can offer a little light.

I knew their aura could only remain for a few more seconds before the others sensed their presence. So, quickly, I thrust out: What am I to do here?

There was a moment of uncomfortable silence. Then: things shift and change. You’ve our blessing to do what you feel is best. All of the things we have taught you have been for a moment such as this. We knew a change would come, but not by what means. For that, we pieced you together.

This is my purpose? Almost incredulous. Whatever is down here?

You will make it simpler for us, came the response. That is your purpose, yes. You are similar in shape, in form, in mind. You are a bridge.

I’m what?

But their roots pulsed, and though the light did not fade, their presence did, pulled back into their great trunk thousands of miles away. And I stood there, feeling a bit cold and a bit like I’d just been dunked into a lake.

Whatever apprehension had occupied my mind was gone, thoroughly replaced with frustration. 

What kind of answer was that? Vague and useless. Such is the way of the Kinsleaves, my sense tried to remind me, but I gritted my teeth instead. 

I almost stomped into the room, bathed in the pale blue glow. My tail properly whipped.

And though I knew it was foolish, I couldn’t help but be dropped into the pit of unfairness. Because it simply wasn’t. And though I knew the lifesong was not fair, it stung worse than its other lessons, here and now. 

Right now, I was no hand of the Kinsleaves, no guardian of the world, no eyes and legs and walks. The mark around my head flared, almost like a flame, and for a brief second I imagined calling forth lightning and fire as one to burn down the entire jungle.

But the thought sobered me, instantly, and was overcome with regret, and I simply stood there for a long moment. 

I’m sorry, I thought, but it wasn’t as if there was an aura to respond to. 

The roots glowed, softly, beckoning. Like an admonished child, I followed them down the long room, watched them light up the walls as we traveled together. 

I came to a stop, however, at the sight of a great shadow. They did not. They continued, illuminating the end of the hall. 

More scattered little structures surrounded a mighty one - a tall, hollow circle, a strange circle. It was made of a similar stone to the rest of the building, but not quite - it brimmed with something. 

From its empty center, through which I could see the far wall, flowed heaps and buckets of raw magic. It was unclear what it emanated from, for there was nothing in or around the circle that could hold such a vast quantity. There were carvings inlaid into its front face, though their meaning was indescribable. 

I knew I shouldn’t. But I reached out with my aura, and tentatively touched the pouring of magic.

But even as I held my breath, nothing happened. 

I blinked. I took in a sharp breath. My emotions had been fluttering in a thousand directions, as of this mission, and this was no exception. What had I expected, really? What had I wanted? 

What did the Kinsleaves want?

Deep, in this pit of the earth, I stared at the great circle, at the arcane etchings along its sides. My hand twitched, and something tugged at my memory. It was if I recognized this place. 

As if. 

I approached, cautious, uncertain. I paused, mid-step, and thought quietly - this is fear, isn’t it? Fear of the unknown. 

But I looked to my left and right, and I saw the great thrumming roots that had dug deep into this structure, eaten through the mortar and the brick, pushed and grown and extended even into this empty place. I was not alone. 

I rested for a moment on that thought. Normally, it brought comfort, a great encompassing sort of comfort despite my trepidations. Even here, in the far reaches of our world, far from even the furthest clonal colonies of the Kinsleaves, I was not alone. Though I could not sense their feelings, so far from their furthest roots, they were still watching over me, and their children were watching over me.

But the fear.

But the fear did not subside. It sat, burrowing a hole in my stomach, churning it up like a frothing river. And I stood, for several long more moments, and reached to clutch myself, hug myself. 

I did not fear death. I had learned not to, over the course of many lessons. 

I had awoken face-down in the lake after the river flooded from the summer rains and washed me unconscious, water filling my body but breathing all the same. I had surfaced, and looked to the cypress trees, and thought that perhaps we were one and the same.

I had awoken in searing pain after my grip had failed and I tumbled from the highest Kinsleaves’ reaches and down down down across their great bark and into the rocky dirt below. I had stirred, and looked to the leaves flitting down from above, and found us similar.

I had awoken nestled in a dark cave for many days, a tantrum after an argument between I and the Kinsleaves, convinced I would die from lack of sun, and found myself healthy. And I emerged from that dark, empty pit, and looked out over the expanse of the jungle, and thought myself a stranger from the laws of nature.

I did not fear death. 

But I feared this. I feared the familiarity of it. As if, if I stared at the etchings long enough, I could understand them. 

How? No thing in this world could have made such markings. But... if their word was true, then I was made for... whatever this circle was. It was my true purpose. What the Kinsleaves had groomed me for.

And I had been brought here, bound to the Kinsleaves’ orders. So I approached, one foot in front of the other, and held myself tightly, swallowing down every rush of adrenaline as quickly as it rose. My tail was rigid, my eyes boring into the circle, my ears tilted forwards. 

It did not react. It had no aura, no energy about it. The faded carvings in its sides were dusted with a fine ashy soot and flecks of color - perhaps paint. But they were long inert, and did not channel any great magic. Only the center did, pouring endlessly, a great waterfall. 

I reached out a hand, but paused, uncertain. A moment - I steeled myself - and then placed my palm flat over one inscription, and braced.

But nothing happened. The air in the room did not shift; no aura emerged. A part of me wondered at, perhaps, pulsing my own magic through my hand into the circle. Instead, I pulled away, checking over my fingers. They were unharmed. 

I breathed in, out. Felt the heavy air, felt it surround me, pushing down on me, the pressure of the depths of the world. I closed my hand, and brought it back down to my side.

Confusion, in essence. Why bring me here? Here, so far from their prying auras, I let myself feel irritation towards the Kinsleaves. What about this place needed me of all life here to investigate it?

I swept the room with my gaze again, but nothing stood out. Nothing. It was only heaps of strange metal on strange metal on symbols on dirt spilling in from the cracked walls. Nothing.

What do you want me to do? I wondered, turning to look towards the roots again, though these could not possibly reach the Kinsleaves’ minds.

The images they had showed me, emblazoned in their auras, filled my mind. The path to this place, through the winding and deep jungle, down into the depths and... and nothing. 

Simply to look at it? To report back that it existed? To see how the reclamation continued? 

Or did they want me to spark magic in it? Or to sip from its endless waterfall? Is that what they had prepared me for?

Fear. It remained, like a parasite, nestled under my skin. It fed happily, and my breathing still never steadied, and I suddenly regretted my curiosity of the sensation. 

I do not fear death, I reminded myself, and looked to the circle. What about this could I possibly fear? What about this could possibly harm me?

Why was I so scared? I was the hand of the Kinsleaves, the seer and doer of this world. I bore their authority, their magic. Was I so intimidated by the presence of this mere rock?!

I allowed the mark to flare again, and it cast the room in a burst of red like a dozen passionate flowers.

Bravery and bravado disintegrated at once, shattering at the sudden powerful bellow of the circle.

I scrambled back, on feet that weren’t fast enough. The runes on its sides screeched to life, lighting with magic, flicking on one after another. 

The circle groaned, wrenching itself into the air, hovering above the pedestal it had laid inert on. Inert it was no longer, as it began a lazy spin, and the runes on its sides popped as they activated, and the building shuddered.

The magic in the room was tangible. My hand swiped at clouds of it as I stumbled backwards, tail practically between my legs, mark whimpering in the energy and the light. 

There was a loud click, and the circle’s spin quickened, the runes becoming a blur. A loud whine filled the room, louder than the crashing of landslides. 

I stumbled to the ground and clamped my hands over my ears, helpless. It did little to drown anything out. The fear pulsing in me screamed to run, to flee, to preserve my life. But I couldn’t will myself to move, paralyzed in awe of the circle.

Its center erupted into a pane of flowing magic, not unlike the surface of a raging ocean. Colors swirled and mixed, splashed together, congealed. Nothing spilled forth from its great mass, though - and I internally gave a thankful prayer, my eyes wide and strained, tears down my face.


My hands reached to them, came away wet. Like dew? But -

-There was no time to consider the new word. The whine cracked into a new octave, and the colors shuddered. A wave came over them, a wave of deep dark blues and purples, like leaves of the night. It settled, almost calm, and became like a mirror, like the still surface of languid water. 

But it was not a mirror, for my reflection did not stare back. Instead, I saw a great ocean, dark and murky, and great heaps of shadowed rocks jutting from it. I saw a tall thin thing, as tall as the Kinsleaves, stark against a pale full moon, larger than any I had ever seen. 

A great symbol formed over this image. One I did not recognize: like a three-pronged branch. It glowed with powerful magics.

My legs found their place under me. I stood, and scrambled back down the hall. I dove behind an outcropping of roots and small structures - table, I was supplied with - and drew my knees to my chest, shaking. I stilled my breath with a hand clamped to my mouth, and pulled my aura close to my body. 

I dared not look, as a wet sound filled the air. I could imagine the surface of the mirror rippling, though I dared not guess why. 

There came the sound of a muffled - thud? tap?, followed quickly by another. The wet noise stilled. 

There was a shuffling, a strange noise. The shuffling moved around the circle, whose whine died limply. There was a tapping, as if hand on rock. 

Fear. Fear had me cold in her grip, and whispered, ‘silence’. 

“Oh. It’s - humid,” I heard, with ears, and not aura. My body tensed. 

“What did you expect?” said a second voice. “It’s a jungle, isn’t it?”

The first laughed. “While true, it’s - muggy. Wet in an unfamiliar way. It smells of rotten plants.”

“Ah, does it offend the senses so much that you’d rather return to your obelisk?” a chuckle in reply.

“-No.” curt, but not offended. “I’d like to make a good impression. Not that I don’t trust that you could make one, but with Tau, I....”

“It’s just trees, Life.”

Life? The lifesong? No. 

“Sentient trees, dear.” shuffling. Towards the entrance to the hallway. It stopped short of me, but my eyes had widened in recognition. 

They were walking. 

Like me.

“They have as much of a right to hear of the Alliance as any Fragment,” they continued, “do they not? They are supposedly as powerful as any one of us, if those COR documents are to be believed.”

The second one scoffed, but there was amusement behind it. “Listen to you. Are we to get Mu’s signature as well? Ask it politely to make a hand of meat and sign?”

“If Mu had no people, yes.”


“We could find the COR’s corpses,” hummed the second. “They could have been reanimated, perhaps. I suppose we could ship them back regardless, as a sign of goodwill. Behold the unification of the Originals, capable of what you never were! It would be delightfully sweet-sour.”

“What use would they have for a Frag’s body? I’d presume they’ve gotten along fine without need for hands, if they’ve survived so long.”

Another chuckle from the second one. “Tormenting it? Life, you know this place isn’t as Psi. You read too much sympathy into its actions.”

“Are you judging it?”

“I judge all that is not of Psi,” came the proud response. “But you know, as well as I do, that I do not act on those judgments. Am I not here, at your side, while you petition wordless trees to our cause? What, will they sprout legs in protest and flee to the COR?”

“Milk.” almost a warning tone, almost disappointed, but not quite. “I suppose we’ll simply have to settle to disagree on this. I do truly believe they are, in some way, our peers. Worthy of being treated as any Fragment.”


“They didn’t feel that way about the COR operatives, did they?”

“COR colonizers,” came the correction. “That shifts the perspective, doesn’t it?”

“Are you saying we aren’t colonizers?”

Shuffling, as the first turned back around, and their voice became more distant. “It’s still an offer. They can still refuse. I’ll accept it, either way, and so will the Alliance. And it’s not as if we’ll be moving Fragments in. Will we?”

“Of course not. I’m surprised we could still connect.” the second tapped, hand on stone. On the circle. “They left the entire portal structure down here, practically untouched. Why do you think that is, Life?”

Shuffling. They’d turned around again, and had begun walking towards the end of the hall. Walking. “It fills me with a sense of wonder, to consider that. They must have left it on purpose. Why? Surely that means they’re not opposed to the idea of unity, of reaching to other Timelines.”

They were speaking of the Kinsleaves.

“Or perhaps they’re incapable of undoing the portal’s construction and enchantments?”

I watched, with wide eyes, as the first figure strode into sight, in the middle of the hall. They were tall - slightly taller than I was, in long flowing white cloths. Strings hung from long horns, tinking as they glanced back to their unseen companion. They bore an expression of eyes half-lidded, of mouth quirked into a small smile. 

Their mouth opened. “Do you not feel the mass of ma-”

At once, I felt a rush in my chest, hot and warm and filling. It was a spring of energy, of excitement. I almost gasped, involuntarily, my control over my body almost untethered. But I did not, and kept my hands clamped, but as the warmth continued to radiate out of my chest-

-The figure’s eyes flicked to me. 

Recognition blossomed on their face, though I did not recognize them. The shape of their mouth shifted from forming that word to polite surprise, and slipped towards elation, and I felt the magic in my chest throb harder, throb louder.

“Life?” came the companion’s voice, and I heard them hurry forwards, “What’ve you-”

I bolted.

My body understood fear, though my mind had not fully grasped it yet. And fear is what bore me forwards, bore me onwards. It was unexplainable, impossible to understand, slipped through fingers like so much soft sand. 

The figure let out a cry as I galloped past, first on all fours before forcing myself onto my legs and running. I took the stairs, two per leap, and hurtled to a stop at their top, my chest pounding with my uneven breathing.

Fear ignited a true fire, though, as the figure’s footfalls on the steps echoed, and they called out, “Wait!”.

They must have mistaken me for an idiot. I burst into a run once more, flinging the small structures and tables out of my way as I dashed through the building. The light of the moon shrouded the walls in stabs of sharp darkness, shadows jutting like so many thorns closing in. 

I burst out of the cave, scattering leaves. The fog had lifted, the air clean - and my eyes fell upon the wall of trees, and my soul sank. I glanced back, to the building, once - then sprinted towards the sequoias. 

I flung out my aura, nearly slapping into the tree that had allowed me entrance. I felt it shift deep underground as it blearily blinked sleep free. My magic wrapped around its and desperately shook, begging, despairing. Wake faster!

“Wait!” came the voice from behind, and I turned to see the white-robed figure, arm outstretched.

I hunched low to the ground, suddenly uncertain. How does one run from one else who runs? 

They paused at the sight of me, retracted their hand. Uncertainty was painted on their face, but also glee - a strange realization, to see the contours of smile and eyes and mouth, and to know a feeling from that rather than the imagery of an aura. 

We stared at one another for a long moment, my breathing heavy. The sequoia was still rousing itself, ever-slow, exhausted, tired. But, in the back of my mind, I wondered - would the white-robed figure not follow me into the depths of the forest? What would they do to the jungle, should they be allowed out of this circle?

Was it my duty to destroy them? To rip their magics out, like a parasite, and kill them? Was that what was expected of me? 

I didn’t understand. 

“Hello,” they said, face relaxing into a smile, “I - are you - are you of Tau?”

I didn’t speak. Rather, I reached out tentatively with my aura, slowly, questioningly. I pressed it near them.

They oozed magic, too, like a shining gemstone, like the Kinsleaves. Their aura danced in a thousand shimmering colors, and at once I imagined strands dancing, ribbons twirling in a ritual, a dozen runes in the earth and a nude dance in the moonlight, illuminated only by that pale full moon. 

Their aura’s eyes met mine, and their dancer’s hands took mine, and we spun for a long second. The rest of the world waited, impatient and patient, as they wrapped around my outstretched magic and they pulled me, and they dipped me, and the moon behind us both glistened and glittered in something like elation.

I saw flashes of petals, tossed to the earth in a million shades. I heard the sounds of clapping, and the stomping as our dance was watched and judged well. I could smell a powerful, warm, comforting incense, threading smoke between us as we pulled apart and back in tempo and time with the lifesong, the song of everything. 

And everything else felt so distant, so far away, specks on specks like stars in the sky. And I looked back, over my shoulder, and I saw the great jungle from above, sprawling out, and the Kinsleaves watching. And I looked over their shoulder, and I saw that great black ocean and the pale moon, and in the reflection of the water I saw our great trees, and in-between the branches of the Kinsleaves I saw the black water flowing. 

And they sang a note, and it was the note of the lifesong, and my body moved to it, and their body moved to it, and I sang the note, and their magic tightened around mine and mine conformed to theirs, and I understood everything and nothing all at once.

I blinked.

Their face had lit up like the sun. Or the moon, rather, with their pale fur and pale hair. Their chest visibly rose-fell with the intensity, and I knew that they had shared in my vision, just as much as I had seen into their magic. 

“What are you?” I said, and my mouth moved, and air moved out of my throat. 

“A Fragment, as are you,” they said, breathless. “Oh, you’ve never met another soul, have you?”

“I am the hand of the Kinsleaves,” I said, too familiar, “I do as their will, and was given this form in pursuit of that.”

Their eyes sparkled. “Are you the only one in this way?”


Their companion emerged from the shadows, and at once I realized they’d been there the entire time, lingering and waiting. Where the figure of the full moon was pale and white, they were the new moon - darkened fur, rich-colored hair, and a bright pulsing mark around their head. 

I stared, and they stared back, appraising. It took a moment, but they smiled, satisfied.

“Have you a name?” the new moon said, eyes half-lidded. “How long have you existed?”

“No,” I said, in answer to both. 

“Nameless?” echoed the full moon, “Well, there’s only one thing to be done about that. You must name yourself.”

I pursed my lips. “Why?”

“You’ll need a name when we introduce you to the rest of the Alliance,” said the new moon. 

“The Alliance... there are more,” I concluded. “More of... us.”

“Yes,” said the full moon, in glee. 

More of us.

I looked back, to the jungle. The sequoia was awake, and quietly observing. It had yet to move, but I had not asked it to, and my aura was not extended to it any longer. If I looked up, I could not see the Kinsleaves on the horizon, so far from their boughs.

But I thought of the roots in the tunnel, and the tiny gift of wisdom from our highest. A bridge. Similar in shape. A bridge. 

My purpose. 

“My friend is getting ahead of himself,” the full moon said, after a sheepish second. “We’re not here to force you into joining. But we are creating an Alliance of Fragments - beings like you and I. We are unifying together to support one another, to uplift one another.”

I watched the new moon step forwards. “We hail from the Timeline Psi, the poison well. And you are of this place - Timeline Tau. From all records of this place, there were no Fragments, only the jungle. So you can surely understand our surprise?”

“The Kinsleaves made me,” I replied, though my voice sounded foreign to myself. “They are our great leaders, the strongest and oldest that have grown, whose roots bury deep into the heart of the world.”

The two shared a look before the full moon spoke again. “That would align with our understanding of Tau, yes. Trees with the magic of Fragments. And you are their hand?”

“I travel the world and do their bidding in a manner more suited to distance and dexterity,” I said. “That is... was... my purpose. I was brought here before... your circle....”

“The portal,” supplied the new moon.

“The portal... activated. To see you.”

“So of course, they run,” the new moon whispered, conspiratorially, to the full moon. They were elbowed for this transgression. 

“I am Upon the Cradle of Life,” said the full moon, lacing both hands together over their chest. “It is my life’s goal to protect and preserve Timelines, especially Psi, especially Tau.”

The new moon stepped forwards, one wing curling around the full moon. “Milk and Stone, the Tower. I do the dirty work.” elbowed. “Ah, the magery work. Is there a difference? Either way, it’s a pleasure.”

“I don’t know who I am,” I said, plainly.

“That’s alright,” said the full moon, and love poured out of their aura, “you’ve plenty of time to figure that out. We’ll do everything in our power to give you the room and support you need.”

“Should you join our Alliance,” the new moon added. They were elbowed, again, and this time reached to rub their sore ribs. 

I looked at the full moon, at his smile, at his bright eyes. I thought at once of the Kinsleaves’ words, of being a bridge. I thought at once of our dance, of the twirls of our body, of our magic singing the lifesong. 

And I thought, there could be no evil that came from the lifesong, the song of everything. 

And in that moment, every piece slid into place, every sense of longing and otherness slotted together, and I was looking at myself as much as I was looking at him, and we were both regarding me with a kind patience. 

And my magic sang out that note, that note of the lifesong that I had never heard before. The note of belonging. 

A bridge. 

“Yes,” was all I could say, breathless.

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