“You bring a human here?” the esper in front of the Magiciterium hissed, rearing up and lifting her feathery crest.
Madonna never ceased to marvel at the sheer diversity of shapes and sizes in which espers came. Both human and esper legends had it that the espers had been created from humans, but many of them showed little or none of their human heritage. The esper before them—Madonna couldn't remember ever being introduced to her, though she vaguely remembered seeing her out and about—appeared to be a large golden serpent with broad wings, a crest of feathers on her head, and patches of feathers scattered among her scales.
“I bring my guest, someone who I care for very much, and trust completely,” said Maduin, drawing himself up to his full height. “I wish to introduce her to my ancestors. As is my right. Stand aside.”
The esper narrowed her eyes, but after a moment of tense silence, the serpent-esper drew back. “Do as you will, then.” She snorted, turning away.
Placing a steadying hand on Madonna's back, Maduin guided her down the stairs into the Magiciterium and through the long hallway that led to a wider room full of shelving.
The building was set into the ground, for good reason; though Madonna was given to understand that magicite was relatively small... as morbid as it was to put it that way, the supply was constantly increasing. This way, when additional room was needed, more space could be dug, horizontally or vertically, without impinging too much on the space used for above-ground buildings—and magic could be used to reinforce the structure as they went, to prevent any possibility of cave-ins.
Though Maduin had told her that some espers chose to keep the magicite of their relatives in their homes, especially those more recently departed—but by and large, most of their dead rested here, reunited with their ancestors, generations upon generations stretching back to when the realm of espers had first been created.
With the ease of someone who'd been here many times before, Maduin walked through what, to Madonna, seemed a hopelessly complex maze of shelves filled with drawers lit by magic-powered lights in the ceiling—and it still seemed terribly strange, and a touch unsettling, how much magic—that thing of legend—was integrated into even the most mundane parts of esper life.
“Here,” said Maduin, stopping at last, touching a small drawer at chest-height for him—which meant shoulder-height for Madonna. “My maternal grandparents, my grandmother's parents, and my grandmother's brother.” Gently, reverently, he pulled the drawer open.
Standing up on her tiptoes, Madonna looked down to see the five shimmering crystals within, each set into a little indentation, with a label beside each one.
They didn't seem like bodies, to her. It was hard to imagine any of the espers she saw every day becoming... this.
She glanced at Maduin, and had the sudden, morbid thought of him in one of these drawers.
Not for a long time.
Perhaps not ever while I live.
Some espers, she'd learned, lived long, long lives—there were some elders still living who recalled the War of the Magi. Others had lifespans no greater than an ordinary human's.
She didn't know which group Maduin fell into. It wasn't the sort of thing she felt she could just come out and ask.
Maduin reached into the drawer and drew out a pale red crystal—and as ever, Madonna still marveled at how marvelously delicate he could be with such long claws. He held the crystal out to her. “Take it. But be gentle.”
Madonna hesitated. But under Maduin's expectant gaze, after a few heartbeats, she took the magicite.
Immediately, her fingertips began to tingle with a strange warmth—then a momentary coldness, and then a faint static crackling.
“My grandmother, Aralin,” said Maduin, softly.
She felt... she couldn't find the words to describe quite what. Not haunted, precisely... but she felt something. Someone. Not at all malevolent—no restless ghost, this—but...
A stranger, certainly.
Maduin cupped his hands around Madonna's, and Madonna felt a surge of recognition, followed by a quick pulse of love... and perhaps a certain understanding took hold, for the presence in the magicite seemed—unless it was Madonna's imagination—to look on Madonna with new interest.
“I think she would have liked you,” said Maduin. “I wish you could have met her in life.”
Madonna foundered for words for a few moments. “I do, too,” she said.
As she cradled the magicite in her hands, she began to feel something else, as well—a sense of a strange power trickling into her, flowing through her skin, into her veins...
Perhaps it was just her imagination. But...
She remembered the old legends of the War of the Magi—of humans who sought to steal the espers' power—who had been willing to kill for it.
Madonna had the sudden impression that if... if she truly willed it, flames might fly from the tips of her fingers, burning whatever she touched.
Other humans, a thousand years ago, had stood above the remains of the espers they had slain—had scooped magicite up from the ground—had perhaps held their fallen enemy, just as she now held Aralin's magicite—had gotten just a taste of power, and found it to their liking—
“Madonna, what's wrong?” Maduin asked.
“I...” She looked around the room.
So many little drawers.
So much magicite.
To the espers, their beloved dead.
Weapons. Tools of destruction. Things worth killing for.
She had little love of humanity. She'd seen too much of its darker side.
She'd had nothing holding her to that world—no ties of love or kinship. She'd had blood relations, yes, but... none worth holding to. None worth returning to the human world for.
“If humans saw this...” Madonna whispered. Her hands trembled.
And she had a sudden, horrible realization of the whole reason for this centralized place for their dead. It wasn't simply a graveyard, as humans had.
It would be easier to defend the precious magicite from power-hungry invaders if it were all in one place--and now that Madonna thought of it, that long entryway they'd gone through would be the sort of place where a few esper warriors could hold off a larger number of humans, since the humans would be forced to come through a few at a time.
“A human has seen it, now,” said Maduin, softly. He took the magicite back from Madonna, then gently brushed a strand of hair out of Madonna's face. “I know the stories. I've heard them from espers who lived through the war. I know you aren't hungry for power. I know you don't intend any evil. I wouldn't have brought you here if I didn't trust you.”
But Madonna's mind was awhirl with the thoughts of these twisting halls full of soldiers, tearing open drawers, looting, shattering some of the precious magicite in their carelessness...
Maduin placed his hand on Madonna's shoulder. “Are you all right? Would you like to go back outside?”
Mutely, Madonna nodded. She wanted to get away from here. It was a relief not to be holding the magicite any longer—but a strange warmth still lingered in her fingertips, even if she no longer had that uncanny sense that she could set things aflame with her will alone.
“All right,” said Maduin.
He set the magicite back in its place, closed the drawer, and guided her back out.
In the fresh air, she felt a bit better. She rubbed her fingertips against the fabric of her skirt, still unsettled.
“I felt... I felt power, in that magicite,” said Madonna, quietly, after a few minutes.
“Magicite is crystallized magic. For us... though it's not commonly done, an esper's magicite can offer a bit of strength to spells that the sort of spells that esper knew in life. It's as if our friends and families who have passed are still able to teach us, to help us, even beyond death. I always found the thought comforting,” said Maduin.
“For humans...” Madonna trailed off. “It's more, I think. We can't... use magic. But when I held the magicite, I felt as if... I could do the sort of magic you can. And that's what caused the war. That's why humans hunted you, killed you, drove you to hide away here.” She took a deep breath. “As much as I wish I weren't, sometimes, I'm human. I'm one of them. And I...”
“You are nothing like the humans who hunted us,” said Maduin, firmly. He took her hands in his own. “I know you're kind, and gentle, and nothing I've ever seen you do or say has given me any cause for fear. I know that some of my fellow espers fear you for your humanity, but if there is evil among your kind, I know that there is good, as well. Espers are not so different, in that.”
“Perhaps you're right,” said Madonna, after a moment. “But... I'm glad that humans don't know about your Magiciterium.”
Maduin paused, then gave a slight nod. “I'm glad those who would steal our power are far away from us. But... I'm glad that you're here.”
Madonna gave him a small smile. “I'm glad I'm here, too. I'm... sorry I got a bit spooked. Perhaps... another time, I could go back, if you wanted to... introduce me to anyone else.” A strange word to use for the dead, but for espers, it seemed, something of them lived on in their magicite.
“Another day, then,” said Maduin.
Hand in hand, the human and esper walked back home.