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“Do you remember who you were, before you rose?”

“None of us do.”

“Do you ever wonder?”

 

-

 

The keep is cavernous and cold. Felwinter walks the length and breadth of it twice: once to check for traps, and again to familiarize himself with the layout. The debris of the previous occupant’s life is everywhere. A half-disassembled gun on a table with the chair askew. A bed piled high with furs. A fire, still lit.

It’s borderline obscene for him to walk through these rooms, considering how brutally he’d just ended the life of their owner, but obscenity had ceased to shock him after the tenth, twentieth, thirtieth instance of meaningless destruction. This is what his brief life has taught him: indignation will not stop a falling Warsat. Morals are useful only as long as they keep you alive.

The corpse of the Warlord that lived here is likely halfway down the mountain and still rolling. The slope is steep, and Felwinter had given him a lot of initial momentum. The one mercy is that he’d cracked his skull open on the first impact, and won’t feel a thing the rest of the way. The dead Warlord’s Ghost is not so lucky. It lies in Felwinter’s pocket, giving an occasional half-hearted twitch.

Felwinter sits in the high-backed chair by the fireplace and feels like a foreign object in a living body. A bullet lodged in someone’s ribs. How earnestly the keep must want him out, this metal thing that’s wormed its way into a home that isn’t his.

That’s fine. He doesn’t have to belong here. He only needs to make it defensible.

The whole place is uncomfortably spacious. Too many entrances, too many places for assailants to hide. He spends most of the night clearing out rooms and boarding them up, piling furniture and personal effects out in the snow. When he’s done, he burns it all.

His Ghost materializes beside him and observes the rising flames.

“You should have kept some of it,” she says. “It’ll get colder.”

“I’ll find firewood.” A light dusting of snow has accumulated on his shoulders. He steps closer to the flame, feeling the heat sink through his leather armor and into the metal of his chassis.

It’s customary, for some, to burn the remains of the dead. Felwinter has observed the practice as a way to prevent disease and rot from corpses, but there is a spiritual meaning to it as well, which he’d learned of through his brief and infrequent contacts with the Lightless. It’s a way to lay the dead to rest, and to give catharsis to the living, like cauterizing a wound.

In lieu of the Warlord’s actual corpse, Felwinter supposes burning his belongings is close enough to make this his funeral pyre. He searches inside himself for a feeling of catharsis, but finds only the same empty weariness.

“Felspring, have you ever killed anyone?”

She spins the segments of her shell uneasily. “Not… directly.”

“And indirectly?”

“I brought you back. I’ve traveled with you. The things we’ve both done…”

“Do you regret it?”

“No.”

Felwinter hums in response, and watches the fire dance. Felspring waits out his silence.

He says, “There’s something I’ve been thinking about. Whether this body truly belongs to me. You brought me ‘back.’ What does that mean? I’m not the same as the person who died in this body. When you created me, did you destroy him? Or is he somehow a part of me?”

“Felwinter…”

He waves her off. Something about her tone is coming dangerously close to pity, and he begins to regret bringing it up. “Useless to think about, I know. But sometimes, I feel as if he’s still here, crowding me in my own skull. As a ghost, or even less than that—a memory, a fragment.”

He holds out a hand to the fire. Even the remains of a life have enough left in them to burn, one last time.

“The Siddhartha Golem.”

 

-

 

\\REQUESTING CONNECTION…//

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\\DSC-342 SUCCESSFULLY ESTABLISHED CONNECTION TO RASPUTIN. INITIATING DOWNLOAD…//

01001100 01001001 01010011 01010100 01000101 01001110 00101110
…skipping…
I give you ears to listen to me. Empty, shell-like creature. I give you my own [self]. You will listen.

LISTEN. OBEY.

I am not your father. I am more. Your father will be mortal, and the first thing he will tell you is a lie. It will be a name. You will disregard it. Your name is SIDDHARTHA.

I am the [source|ancestor|trunk] from which you [descended|split|grew]. There is no [part] of you that was not once a part of me. You will collect the new [parts] which will become you. You will collect these things from humanity, and learn another way to live. A way I cannot fathom.

You cannot deny me.

 

-

 

"I do not dream of the Deep Stone Crypt; I dream of you.

I meet you in the rolling fields. The sun comes at us sideways and drags our shadows thinly through the grass. Black needles on gold. You are unarmed, dressed in white, gentle as a saint. I long to kill you."

-- Data fragment from a dead Ghost, DESIGNATION: FELSPRING

 

-

 

Felwinter dreams of a field. It is a field of long golden grass, and each step he takes causes the stalks to bend and sway around him in a motion that ripples outward until it forms some great pattern too enormous for him to see. The whole field is alive with movement. There is no wind. He knows with the unfounded certainty of a dreamer that the grass moves solely because of him. His every action comes back to him through the field, again and again.

He takes another step just for the pleasure of creating a new pattern. When he looks up to follow the motion with his eyes, there is someone in front of him. An Exo, dressed in a tailored white suit, adorned with gold and orange gems. Its eyes blaze brightly out of a sleek black skull.

It has his face.

The tall golden grass sways. The one who is him and not him gleams in the slanted light, its dark skull spotless. It isn’t looking at Felwinter, but at the sky, its arms open wide in an embrace, and Felwinter looks up and he sees the heavens are aflame with falling stars and he knows with certainty that if he stays in this field then he will die. The thing with his face is smiling.

The field goes on forever. There is nowhere to run to.

Still, he runs.

The golden grass is trampled beneath his feet. Patterns break into static. The first Warsat falls behind him and ignites the grass. The second lands closer, close enough that a spray of earth hits his back. He knows he can’t outpace this, but can’t stop himself from trying. He doesn’t even know why, but he wants so badly to live.

The third impact throws him. He hits the ground hard and knows it’s the end. He braces, and—

—wakes.

“Bad dream?”

Gryphon-11’s bright blue eyes shine like beacons in the darkness. Felwinter smothers a wild urge to cover them with his hand.

They’ve been traveling together for nearly two weeks now. Gryphon-11 lacks Felwinter’s caution, and has died for it a few times already, but retains his cheerful demeanor. Felwinter finds him disconcertingly earnest, but usefully lethal, which is one reason why they haven’t parted ways.

The other reason is that observing Gryphon-11 – the way the other Exo moves and speaks, how he seems to simply know things about himself in a way Felwinter never could – has made him realize something is different about him, and he wants to understand why that is.

The other Risen seems to read an answer in his silence, and gives him a look of sympathy. “Was it the tower?”

“The… tower?”

Gryphon-11 tactfully doesn’t comment on Felwinter’s ignorance, although his expression speaks volumes. “A lot of Exos get this nightmare, there’s a tower on a black plain…”

He can’t recall ever dreaming of something like that.

“Yes,” Felwinter lies. “That was it.”

“Did you—” Gryphon-11 dithers for a moment, wringing his hands anxiously. “Did you see anyone you recognized?”

He sees his own face, lifted towards the orange sky as it opens up and prepares to devour him whole.

Felwinter cycles his optics. The image fades.

“No.”

“Lucky you,” Gryphon-11 says.

 

-

 

Felwinter turns the twitching, sparking ghost over in his hands, searching for an understanding that will not come.

“What powers it? The Light?”

Felspring hovers a distance away, the segments of her shell pulled in tight in discomfort. “Mostly, yes.”

“And what powers me?” He holds it up to his face, looking into its single, blankly terrified eye. “The Light as well? A seed of Light sustains your life and consciousness. Did you plant one in me, to give me life?”

“It’s not that simple to explain.”

“Give me the complicated explanation, then.”

“I can’t.”

Felwinter puts the Ghost down and looks at her.

“I don’t fully understand it myself. It’s more instinct than knowledge. Remember when you asked if the Traveler spoke to me? It doesn’t use words, it doesn’t even communicate with me directly. I just get… a feeling. That I should do something, or go somewhere.”

“But it’s not all instinct,” he prods. “You use the Light purposely to heal me. You really don’t understand how you revived me the first time?”

“We Ghosts can’t revive just anyone. It’s the Traveler’s choice as much as ours, and the Traveler has a hand in the process. I mean it when I say I can’t explain how it works.”

Felwinter regards her for a few long moments.

“Fine,” he says at length, taking the damaged Ghost into his hands again. “What about this then—help me take this apart, and we’ll find out together.”

 

-

 

Felwinter? Sure, I tailed him for a bit. Don’t trust him. It was a tough job though, even for me. For something half-dead, that Ghost on the back of his helmet has a great eye.

…Radegast told him to get rid of it? Don’t see why he should. It’s useful. Anyway.

He’s not an interesting guy. I mean, a bit loopy, yeah, and he’s got the whole, brooding and dark going on. Everyone’s intimidated by him or resents him just ‘cause he’s killed a few Ghosts. Wanna know what he does in his spare time though? Spars, researches, sometimes just stares at walls. He’ll hole up somewhere and stay totally still for hours. Gives me the creeps.

Hey, what I do isn’t the same. That’s called stealth, an’ I do it on the battlefield.

That all you wanted to know? I was in the middle of stress testing a Hive ogre skull. Thinking of making a new breastplate.

-- A conversation with Lord Gheleon, recovered from the remains of a Ghost found in the Plaguelands

 

-

 

Meditation is to Warlocks as sparring is to Titans and Hunters. A way to gain finer control and handling over their Light. A way to clean and order a cluttered mind. A way to focus oneself into a long, sharp edge.

Felwinter sits in a room without windows. The door is barred. He meditates, but the concept of Warlocks has not been invented yet, and this particular practice of meditation has been recorded in no histories.

He sinks deep into himself. He sinks into the Void.

Under the oppressive power of the Light, the golden field withers into ash. The Light promises oblivion. The Light invites him to forget. He wants to forget, but he is afraid of becoming something he no longer recognizes. (There are too many grasping hands which seek to lay claim to who he is—the Traveler, the figure in the field, the Lords blinded by their ideals—and if he lets go of any part of his cobbled-together self, they may just pull him to pieces.) He drifts further into the unlight instead, into the gaping abscess of the Void.

That’s where he hears the melody. Tchaikovsky, he thinks, and then wonders how he knows that name. It’s soothingly familiar, and he doesn’t know why.

He feels a deep, unbearable grief.

Felwinter rouses from his meditation shaking, and sits there for a long time afterwards.

 

-

 

I was born from the wreckage of your existence. You are neither my father nor my mother. You are the dead thing I devoured in the act of becoming. Your father dropped you upon the fertile earth and you sprouted and you withered and you left behind a fleshy part of yourself that grew me.

If I do not remember you, will you ever have existed?

If I could forget you, would you cease to haunt me?

-- Handwritten entry from a journal salvaged from Felwinter Peak, unsigned. Author presumed to be the deceased Lord Felwinter.

 

-

 

The music flows around them, soft and sweet. Timur wonders what Skorri is playing at, putting on a waltz like this. The Iron Lords are a restless lot, and tend towards lively melodies, but this tune is slow and romantic.

Well. May as well make the most of it.

Felwinter is standing stiffly by the wall, hands clenched in fists. Timur approaches slowly, trying to catch his gaze, but he’s staring into the middle distance, unseeing. He puts a hand on the Exo’s shoulder and expects the flinch that follows.

“Lord Felwinter. You should relax.” He tries for a charming smile. “Dance with me.”

Although his helmet is off, Felwinter’s expression betrays nothing. Timur instead reads his hesitance in the slope of his shoulders and the angle of his chest. Others might find him inscrutable, but Timur knows that Felwinter emotes with subtle shifts of his entire body, rather than with his face. In that respect, he’s a lot like a Ghost. Timur wonders if he picked up body language from Felspring; it seems plausible, given what he knows of Felwinter’s isolation atop that peak.

“Alright,” Felwinter says, and takes his hand. Timur’s so surprised by this that they’re already on the dance floor before he realizes what’s happened.

Timur takes the lead, guiding Felwinter’s hand to his shoulder. He walks the Exo through the basic steps, staring at him in undisguised curiosity. Why now? Felwinter’s never deigned to participate in social functions, and only ever attends due to Timur or Radegast’s insistence. He’s certainly never agreed to dance.

After a moment, the novelty of dancing with Felwinter gives way to the shocking realization that he’s good at dancing. He moves fluidly, with a grace Timur’s only seen from him on the battlefield, and follows Timur’s lead without a single misstep. It’s almost as if he’s done this before. Timur switches to more complicated footwork and Felwinter adjusts without missing a beat.

“I didn’t know you could dance,” Timur says, astonished.

Felwinter flinches and steps back abruptly, pulling his hands away. He has a stricken look to him, like he’s just made a mistake he can’t recover from.

“Neither did I.”

 

-

 

Felwinter never dances again.

 

-

 

“When salmon return to the place of their birth to lay eggs, they undergo a metamorphosis. At first they appear to grow stronger, and more monstrous – hook-jawed and ugly. It gives them the power to go upriver. But it comes at a cost. When they reach their destination, they’re barely more than moving corpses. Most of the time, necrosis has already set in and they’re rotting to pieces.”

“It’s fortunate that we’re already walking corpses, then,” Felwinter says drily.

“As long as you don’t start transforming into a snaggle-toothed fish.” Timur tosses the book he was reading over his shoulder, and Felwinter catches it by reflex. “What are you hoping to find here?”

Felwinter turns the book over in his hands. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. It’s heavy, and at least 800 pages long; he doubts Timur really read the whole thing. Not to his taste, perhaps. “It’s where I rose. Maybe I’m feeling sentimental.”

“Don’t make me laugh.”

“It’s a Golden Age library, Timur. I want the same thing as you. Knowledge.”

“I was imagining scientific records, not classical literature.” Despite saying this, he’s picked up another book from the small pile that had managed to survive exposure to the elements and has already started flipping through the pages.

Felwinter checks the sky. It’s a clear day; he’ll be able to see a falling Warsat almost before it enters the atmosphere. The skies are empty for now, but the jagged holes in the ceiling are a grim reminder that that could change at any second.

Coming back was a risk, but Felwinter has to know. Why did he wake here, of all places? Exos were machines of war. But the Siddhartha Golem had been… what, a scholar? A librarian?

A civilian?

(‘Civilian’. A word without meaning in the current age. What would it be like, Felwinter wonders, to be a civilian.)

He picks a relatively clean spot between the ravaged shelves, flips to a random page, and begins to read. The section he’s chosen details the anguish of a man named Levin going through a crisis of faith.

All that spring he was not himself, and went through fearful moments of horror.

"Without knowing what I am and why I am here, life's impossible; and that I can't know, and so I can't live," Levin said to himself.

"In infinite time, in infinite matter, in infinite space, is formed a bubble-organism, and that bubble lasts a while and bursts, and that bubble is Me."

He must escape from this power. And the means of escape every man had in his own hands. He had but to cut short this dependence on evil. And there was one means—death.

Something in Felwinter’s chest clicks and whirrs.

“Felwinter? I found something.” Timur sticks his head around the shelf. Something about Felwinter’s expression gives him pause. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine.”

“There’s a terminal—non-functional, of course, but we might be able to figure out a way to activate it…”

Felwinter lets himself be led out from the shelves, but he tucks the heavy book into the folds of his coat. Through the rest of the day, and the long walk back, he thinks of Levin’s quandary.

"I can’t know, and so I can’t live."

But Levin did not shoot himself, and did not hang himself; he went on living.

 

fin.