The morning would have found Syr aching and restless, curled over the small lump of coin hidden on the left side of the cloak. But Syr had hidden herself too well to be found my the morning, renting the tiniest windowless room in the finest traveler’s inn she could find, a hightown establishment owned and operating by some sort of merchant collective.
The bed had been worth every coin (and she’d had to pay extra to convince the hostess that she wasn’t trouble despite her ragged appearance), but pain shot through her left side with almost every movement of her arm. As she hauled herself up in bed she realized with a sullen worry that it would be at least a week or two before she’d be doing much climbing, thanks to that stunt from last night. Maybe it would be mackerel for lunch for a while.
Syr sat up in bed and massaged her skin where it was red and irritated, mostly at her sides and hips where the chestwrap rubbed the most. The room was dark, lit only by pale mid-morning sunlight that was pooling in the hallway and creeping in under the door to her room.
Where to now?
She had most of a day to… do whatever. It was like she had told Glover: she didn’t have much to do other than get money and spend the money to stay alive. Left foot forward, right foot forward. Thieving (any thieving that was challenging enough to be worth doing, anyway) would be on hold until her shoulder healed. Which left living.
Syr scratched her head. What was living?
She lay back in bed for a while, sinking in to the pleasant cool of the fresh sheets.
This was living, right? It would do. At least for a little bit.
Syr knocked on the door with the string of beads on the handle, and at the welcome from inside she pushed her way into the darkness and out of the sunlight.
The soothsayer regarded her with intensity, as much as could be conveyed through the veiled hood that perfectly obscured their face. As before, the two of them sat and had tea, soaking in a few minutes of intent silence before Syr gathered the will to break it.
“I do… I would like… you mentioned help, earlier.”
“Hmm,” hummed the soothsayer. “You said you would think about it.”
“Yeah. But also…”
“I was going to say ‘bored’.”
“Perhaps. But also worried.”
“No…? No, I don’t think I’m worried,” Syr mused.
“I can see the worry plain, even if you cannot. Or would rather not.”
The implied chuckle annoyed Syr, but she reminded herself that the soothsayer wasn’t being rude so much as being… a soothsayer.
“Yeah, yeah. The point is, I would be grateful for the help. And I don’t have much better to be doing right now…”
“Mmm. You have many things you could be doing right now; you simply have not seriously considered any of them, because you rightly or wrongly do not believe them to be worth much consideration.”
Syr rolled her eyes. “Fine, whatever. If that’s true, isn’t that besides the point?”
“Ah, forgive me. A poor habit. When I speak with those who have much to ask and much to hear it is easy to simply say all that I see. You are here for my help?”
“I am. And there’s really no price?”
“None. You are heir to a talent both grave and auspicious. It is only right that I provide what guidance I can.”
“Huh. I’ll try to return the favor, if I can,” Syr tested, trying to determine how she felt about that even as she said it. “Let’s get started, then.”
The soothsayer nodded and cleared the table except for one burning candle. They grabbed a long-armed candle snuffer and craned about the little den, extinguishing every other source of light until only the little flickering point remained, illuminating Syr’s watchful face and the enigmatic purple veil.
“There are many ways to, from, and about the being—from magic. Some—like you—have a talent, born or given. Your being burns like flame. It may consume yourself and then the world around you, or it may peacefully cast warmth and light.
“Mine does not. The vital world is as reactive to my will as a granite mountain is to a child’s tiny, clumsy hands. I have little to teach you about the exercise of your will.”
Syr arched an eyebrow. “So…”
“I am a seer, young one. My craft is to see what is true, even if what is true is not obvious to the eyes.”
The tip of the candle snuffer reappeared in the little sphere of candlelight, and then the little sphere of candlelight was no more. Syr and the soothsayer sat opposite each other in perfect darkness, accompanied by the familiar waxy smell of the extinguished candles and the occasional creak of lumber.
Syr said nothing, so the soothsayer continued.
“Some of such seeing is possible for anyone, even the dimmest and most uninterested. Some is only possible to me because I have a knack. I have little doubt that with your obvious talent and your curiosity, you will come to what is important quickly.”
“Am I looking? Now?”
“Your self, for starters.”
“I don’t see anything. Obviously.”
“The first attempt is the most difficult.”
“That’s not helpful.”
There was silence in the darkness. Syr thought about that. Silence always seemed to have its own presence in the darkness, where elsewhere it was felt more like an absence.
After a minute of this, the formless blue-purple-red eddies of sensory deprivation began to thrum in her vision. Still the soothsayer said nothing, and silence swelled to fill the little curtained alcove, seeping into every yard of fabric and pressing on her ears and mind.
As Syr wondered if any of these sensations had something to do with her self, she began to sense something behind those swirling non-visions. Something deep and vertiginous, yawning, threatening to pull her in. She felt sick. Dizzy. Disoriented. She feared for her balance, that she might fall off the world.
And she felt the gazes of many sets of eyes as she nearly stumbled.
The hum of the soothsayer cut through these feelings and restored ordinary silence to the dark alcove. Or was it ordinary?
They lit the candle in the center of the table, and their veiled hood returned to view.
“An interesting first Seeing,” they commented.
“Was that what I was looking for? That is… me?” Syr stammered.
“No,” chuckled the soothsayer. The soothsayer’s sudden expression of any sort of emotion almost knocked Syr out of her chair (or was that the lingering nausea?). “What you saw is not you. You are not given to introspection, I think.”
“So if that wasn’t me, what was that?”
“Examine it yourself. What do you believe it was?”
Syr considered complaining about the soothsayer’s unfailingly cryptic approach to every damn thing, but thought better of it and instead put her mind to the task.
“It felt like… a space. In front of me. A void. It felt like it was pulling me in, but maybe it wasn’t… physically pulling. It was like I wanted to fall forward into it. But somehow it was also dreadful, like I shouldn’t.”
Syr furrowed her brow, pressing on.
“And the eyes. I was definitely being watched. Judged.” She looked up, directly into the veil. “Am I still being watched right now?”
“In a manner, yes. You are quite perceptive.”
Syr began to grind her teeth. “Stars above. I get that you have a thing you’re doing but cut it out and tell me what the Hell is going on.”
“Be patient, young one. One day you may grow practiced this skill and come to understand why those like me can be so… circumspect. But now, yes, you will have your answers.
“There is indeed a space very near to here. You may even go there. It is near and by no means forbidden, but it will be unfamiliar and there are hazards which your instincts are warning you against. It is the Halls; an ancient place that many believe to have been here long before Gullport. Possibly before even the kingdom of Orland itself.
“The gazes are another matter. One among them is certainly the Law. You carry a token of it, remember. The coin. Last you came for help you left convinced that you were not in violation of its law and that has allowed you to coexist with the coin. But the Law of life and death remains close in your presence.
“More sets of eyes upon you, though? I cannot say. Perhaps it is your sense of the Law, that it is multiplicate rather than unitary. Or perhaps your talent has attracted attention. For my own part I do not see the other eyes upon you. But that is not to say that they are not there.
“We may speak more of those shortly. You truly do not sense your self? I have heard of such a thing before. But those who do not know their own magic are often startled by its… brilliance.”
“No. Brilliance? I know we’re not talking actual light but brilliance is not what would come to mind. I sensed the… emptiness nearby, the eyes on my back, and a whole lot of dark and quiet room.”
The soothsayer nodded, considering. “Very unusual. Shall we try again?”
Syr arched an eyebrow. “I suppose I should soon. But I want to see the Halls, first.”
“Ahhhh,” the soothsayer remarked. “You would like to know what this newfound sense is good for. How much you can even trust it, perhaps.”
Syr stood, and so did the soothsayer.
“There is an entrance here. Stand on that side of the table and take one step back. I will snuff the candle. It will not be long before you will be able to do this even in on a noisy street, but for now we will remove the distractions and allow you to focus.”
Syr did as bidden and the candle flickered out.
“Search your perception for that void you described. A non-place. Go to it.”
Syr mentally felt about the silence until she experienced the mental equivalent of trying to lean against a wall in the darkness that was unexpectedly missing. She yelped and fell in immediately.
The soothsayer loomed over Syr, who was busy hurling her morning eggs and spinach into the dirt.
“Doesn’t… feel good,” she managed through gritted teeth.
“You will grow used to it.”
When her breakfast had been fully evacuated, Syr knelt, took some deep breaths, and took her first measure of the Halls.
They did not appear to be halls by any conventional definition of the word. She knelt on a patch of bare earth amidst a tangle of thick roots. Oak trees stood all around, their empty branches weaving a sparse canopy above. Through it, the sky was dark and immense, glittering stars flooding through it, threatening to overflow and drench the world below.
Fireflies speckled the space between the dark trunks. A legion of crickets covered the air in a heavy blanket of noise.
Syr and the soothsayer were alone.
The soothsayer said nothing.
Syr noted their conspicuous silence and understood, grudgingly, the cue to observe more closely.
The forest of winter-naked trees seemed featureless at first and sparse enough to witness that featurelessness for some distance in every direction. But in the surprisingly bright starlight, Syr made out an irregularity: a single tree, ten times as wide and ten times as tall as its neighbors. She scanned around and spotted another. And perhaps a third.
Syr led the way to the nearest, stepping carefully between trunks, her head on a swivel and eyes darting between the innumerable shadows. The soothsayer seemed unconcerned. Or how could she tell? She couldn’t see their face, she reminded herself; she must be projecting some sort of assumption onto them.
The base of the great tree came into view after a few minutes of careful navigation over the root-riven earth. Its enormity seemed to push on the world around it; it commanded a clearing between itself and the smaller trees like an orator in a square.
Syr stood at the treeline, a couple dozen yards away from the base of the colossus, and looked up. Besides the obvious, she struggled to find any difference between it and its smaller peers. The thought occurred to her, gazing up into its great crown of bare boughs, that even the meager light she could see them by was too strong to be explained by starlight and fireflies. But she couldn’t see what that might tell her about this tree or these… Halls.
She thought of trying to pry more out of the soothsayer, but then she had a better idea. She closed her eyes and tried to See what this “non-place”, as the soothsayer had called it, was about.
Seeing was still not natural to her, and she spent some time listening to the crickets and experiencing the inside of her eyelids. This went on for… a minute? Two? Ten? It was impossible to tell. But after some time she could hear the silence that lay underneath the crickets, and then within the darkness and the silence together she could sense the flickering and dancing of other sensations, as though from a great distance. She reached for those sensations.
The first one she found was the feeling that she was standing inches away from someone’s face.
She gasped, her eyes flew open, and she looked up at the tree. It loomed over her.
“She is kind and honorable,” explained the soothsayer, who was standing just a few feet behind. “Be kind in return.”
Syr shivered. A million questions rose to her throat, and her heart began to thump harder as she thought about speaking with something—someone—so titanic. But it seemed so obvious now: this is what she had to do, and there wasn’t any point in stalling. So she closed her eyes, found the darkness and the silence together, and searched within them.
The presence returned immediately to Syr’s perception, followed shortly by the feeling that she was far too close to it. The presence was a face, sure enough.
More than that, though, it was a kind face. It was clean, colorless, and angled; its lines were cut (carved?) straighter than the edge of a sunbeam. It would have looked artificial, if not a little bit alien, but for the intelligent glint in its dark eyes and the welcoming smile on their corners.
Her eyes and mouth, Syr reminded herself.
“Ah! A newcomer. How exciting!” said the face. The tree?
Wait. Those words and their meaning had been conveyed to Syr through her Sight, she could tell. How should she reply? Would her counterpart hear words spoken aloud?
“I would understand those, if you prefer,” offered the face. “But you should know that you’re a bit of an open book like this.”
A what? An open book? Trees read books? And what did “like this” mean?
The face laughed. None of its straight edges could curve to accommodate the usual shape of mirth, but the laugh still seemed natural and genuine.
“You are new to this, yes. You seem to think of it as Seeing, but it’s more like Feeling. And right now you are fumbling around and falling all over me. It’s easy to feel your thoughts like that.”
Syr was mortified. The feeling of being too-close was not a mistake after all.
“Think nothing of it. Nobody faults babies for stumbling and crawling all over everyone; they can’t help it.”
That didn’t make Syr feel much better.
“Oh well. You will grow used to it. Now, allow me to introduce myself. As much as I can, anyway—I haven’t a name to go by. Think of me as a spirit. One of the spirits of the Halls. One of the Halls which you now find yourself in. The Halls are not the place below or the place below that, if you are wondering. They are a place within and around. Nearby. But they’re not just a place; they’re a… hm. People isn’t quite right. But the Halls are special. The Halls have been here so long. At some point they took to eavesdropping. Then snooping. Then thinking. Then understanding. Then they started asking questions. Holding conversations. Answering questions.”
This tree… face… wasn’t either of those things. It was one of the Halls.
“You’re getting the hang of it.”
So when people said they thought the walls were listening…
“Most walls, no, as I understand it. But we do here.”
But why did the halls look like… trees?
“Doors are made of wood. This wood was lively, and it just kept growing.”
Syr wasn’t sure just how metaphorical that was meant to be.
“Take it or leave it. I’ll admit that we don’t have a good memory of our infancy.”
The thought occurred to Syr that the soothsayer was still standing behind her. This, uh, Hall had already been quite a bit more talkative and helpful than the soothsayer had been in weeks. And then she remembered…
“Exactly right. Until you learn to See and Feel a little more carefully, everything you think will be pretty obvious to a half-decent listener. Now, have some respect for your companion. The Oracles of the High Mountain perform a thankless but valuable duty.”
Syr actually said aloud, “hold on, you’re going to have to elaborate on that one.”
“I shouldn’t, if you’re not familiar. Your friend has their reasons. Just know that they have made a noble choice and forsaken much, and you are benefitting directly.”
Syr considered this.
“You’re a quick learner.”
What had Syr learned so quickly? She wasn’t sure.
“How to think privately. Sometimes, anyway.”
“I… thank you, for everything. This is a lot to think about,” said Syr.
“Of course. Do you wish to journey?”
Oh. This she was speaking to was a Hall, and a Hall must lead somewhere, right?
“Just so. A great hall of wisdom lies beyond my door. From there you could reach many places in the Seven Realms of the Old League, if you were inclined.”
Syr felt the tug. Knowing how much lay beyond, she wanted to fall right in. It was there. It was deep. It was more than a little dizzying.
But not just yet. For now, Syr knew, she had to start small.