“RROOOAARGHWAKE UP” I heard someone yell. I could feel my body being jostled around, I opened my eyes to Varmint Khan, gripping my shoulders and shaking me wildly.
Groggily: “Ahh, I’m awake, What?” I asked. He cast me aside, I skidded along the dirt floor, sore and confused. “What is wrong with you Hûm? Do you not dream?” He asked intensely.
I wasn’t sure how to respond, I wasn’t sure how to react. I looked over to my friends, Mikado and Czarina were passed out still, mumbling seemingly incoherent nothings into the cool air. Varm sitting very closely, listening to them, seemingly tasting their dreams as the sniffed It was then that it hit me. “YOU POISONED US!” I screamed, as I tried to stand. My legs felt like twigs under a boulder, I fell back to the floor. “What have you done to us? I queried, rubbing my head.
Varmint Khan crouched in front of me, and calmly he said: “The Varm have a ritual. It is meant to reveal the true character and nature of anyone’s intentions. All who live with us must endure it; you drink, then sleep, and when you sleep, you talk of the true journey you wish to take your life on. But you, you were silent, nothing came from your mouth. Never has this happened.”
He stood and began pacing in front of me “Where did you go? If not to the dreamland. TELL ME!” He bellowed “WHERE?!”
I didn’t answer. I looked away. I tried to invent a story he would believe, but gave up when the memory of his lie detecting sniff came to mind. He grabbed me by my shirt and pulled me up to my shaky feet. I stared into his eyes and could tell he was afraid of the uncertainty of my inability to dream.
For a fraction of a second I thought he was going to bite my head clean off. I gave in and told him “I go to a room of impeccable design, in a foreign land, where I am trapped, and can do nothing but record my exploits on a device known by the inhabitants as a computer. When I wake, I return here to my quest. To end the Sovereignty of the Sphere.”
The Khan sniffed at my words, and I could see in his eyes, he saw no flaw to my speech. He knew I was telling the truth, though he still looked me over trying not to, then angrily let me go. There was denial in the air, and his Varm were curious of their Khan’s intentions.
The Beta spoke up “Varmint Khan! We must not trust him, he failed the ritual, his purpose is turbid…”
“SILENCE!” The Khan barked. Beta Khan snarled to a murmur. “Tell me Hûm? Do you wish to know the path of your companions? Their dreams? Their desires?” He asked. At first the idea excited me, my eyes widened at the prospect, but a second thought came to mind. “No, they won’t know my thoughts, only what I tell them, the same with you and the Varm, so no, I don’t want to know”
“Fool!” The Beta Khan scoffed “Tell me then Hûm, why do you wish to end sovereignty? Why not rule the sphere and mold it to your mind’s image?” He asked. I thought about my words carefully, I didn’t want him to miss-understand me.
“Take a look at your family, your people. Do they look happy to you? Healthy? How long have you been living like this? And how many members have you lost because of Sovereign law? How many other families have been lost to the tyranny of a Sovereign leader?”
My heart was racing by this point, and all I could see when I looked to the Varm, was each of them reminiscing about a loved one; passed.
Beta Khan rebutted “And you think ending it will solve all of our troubles? We will still be hungry, and the Hûms will still lust for power. All you will do, is take away the laws that keep them from miss-behaving, but once they are gone, you watch! Watch the bad turn evil and the good turn bad and anyone else not brave enough to stand will be slaughtered for food by their neighbor.”
“NO!” I told him “We’ve lived without a leader for seventy years. Believe me, the people of the sphere are fine without a leader, even outside of the walls of Tor, I’ve witnessed this so-called lawlessness first hand, and sure, there’s thievery and violence, but the incidences are few and far between. I’ve seen more unity in the tribes of Hûms outside the walls of Tor than I have within your own ranks.”
The Beta Khan snarled away my words, he knew exactly how they smelled. He turned to his Khan. “Varmint Khan! We’ve heard enough of these Hûms, end this diplomacy and we will take the Sovereignty for ourselves. The soil in Sovereign City is bountiful, we will thrive there.” The Beta was panting after his own monologue. I felt like he had been holding such an argument inside of his head, changing it word by word over the many nights he’s pondered about taking control of the Varm.
“Khan, the other Hûms are waking” one of the calmer Varm said. Varmint Khan was being pressed for a response, but from what I could see, his composure was solid. If his kind could sweat, he was showing no signs of it. He simply walked over to his Beta; the only one showing any defiance to his regime, he wrapped his arm around his shoulder and coerced him away from the group. They walked and talked privately for about nine paces. I could hear them murmuring in their native tongue, but couldn’t guess what they were saying.
The talking stopped abruptly. Beta pushed Varmint Khan away. The Varm swarmed to their location, dividing un-evenly into two groups. I was surprised to see Varmint Khan with the smaller group to his back. I suppose when your fellow Varm can smell the intention of your words, you learn to keep your tongue still.
Beta clawed at Varmint Khan’s throat repeatedly, and repeatedly he missed. They exchanged blows, swift arms flew. It was hard to keep up with their motions.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the wriggling of my companions. “Reks? What’s going on?” Mikado asked. “AARRGH” Czarina screamed, clambering for a hiding spot behind Mikado. Her mind must’ve still been affected by the drool. I turned back to the fight and witnessed the crowd tighten the circle around Varmint Khan and his Beta. “What did they do to us?” Mikado queried.
“They drugged us to see our dreams” I told him. “Those rat bastards!” He replied, almost loud enough to catch the attention of the nearest Varm. Sketchily looking around the room, Czarina urged: “We have to get out of here, while they’re still distracted”
No reply was necessary, we were of the same mind and as a huddled group we casually walked to the cave’s exit. I didn’t take my eyes off the fight as Mikado and Czarina led us out, then I saw a Varm turn to us, he snarled to his nearest comrade, who was deeply invested in the fight.
The Varm ripped his friend from the spectacle to give chase to us. “GO, RUN!” I said. We dashed and skidded and slipped in the dirt trying to gain traction. The bright afternoon sun attacked our eyes through a pocket opening in the canopy. It went as quick as it came and when my eyes adjusted, I found myself running alone with one of the Varm still chasing me.
At the time I was too fixated on running to wonder if Mikado and Czarina had abandoned me on purpose. Maybe I could no longer be trusted, or maybe they thought their trust in me would bring them more danger than anything the Varm could do. All I knew at that time, was my lungs hurt, and anytime I looked back to see the Varm chase me, he would fade in and out of my vision as he passed through varying grades of shadow. He was gaining on me. I couldn’t out run him, I had to fight, and if I took another step I wouldn’t have enough stamina to beat him.
I skidded to a halt and propelled myself backwards, pivoting off a root sticking out of the ground, my hand steadily gripped around my diamond dagger, ready to strike. But the second I locked onto my target I could see there wasn’t one Varm, but two, and the other Varm was Varmint Khan; he’d caught up to my pursuer, and subdued him within a few seconds. He then turned his eyes to me, I put up my guard, but he raised his palm to me “Reks! I do not want you dead” He spoke with a plea in his tone. “I have been cast out, I am no longer Khan of the Varm.” His head hung low and I could tell he felt shame and sadness at the events that had transpired.
“What do want from me then?” I asked. He paced closer “Your allegiance, your leadership, your will power. Beta Khan will destroy everything the old Khans have built, everything my father and I have built. He will war us into extinction, but not before he brings ruin to the Hûms. I cannot allow it Reks, we have to stop him.” Just as Varmint Khan could smell the lie to a word, I could sense the sincerity in his. “Can you lead me through the last Diamond Gates?”
A devious grin split his mouth in two “All the true Diamond Gates? Yes, I will. “There was some part of the diamond gate history I was missing. “True gates? What are you talking about?” My hand has not left my dagger yet. I felt like something was off with what Varmint Khan was saying. “There is one missing, and one that takes its place along the path to Sovereign City.” Even if he was trying to trick me, I couldn’t risk going through the wrong Diamond Gate. I had to ally with Varmint Khan. “Alright, we’ll help each other, but what do I call you now that you’re not Khan?”
He scratched his head and looked like he was trying to remember something. “Veek, you can call me Veek, until the second I am reinstated as Khan” “Let’s move Veek, we have to hurry and find my friends, please, lead the way to the next Diamond Gate.” He nodded and promptly dashed away. I could barely keep up. If it weren’t for the rays of light spearing down on him through the canopy every few seconds, I’d have lost sight of him.
We ran the rest of the day dark before we made it to the sixth Diamond Gate. “Look Veek, tracks! They were here” I said. “Your friends are heavy-footed” He remarked, sniffing the air. “The Varm have not come this way, but I would not rule it out, they know how to move around without even me detecting them.” I tried to rush in the direction of the tracks, but Veek caught me by the collar. “No Reks, if your companions are smart, they would have made camp by now. We should do the same, lest we wish to be caught in the Night Mist.”
I had learned at an early age about this Night Mist, sometimes it would creep into Tor on the coldest of nights, we would kick it around and play hide and seek. But in this landscape, it would have been folly to go through. “I can’t afford to get lost, not now. We should camp, I’ll take the first watch. I’ll wake you when we swap.”
Veek nestled himself into a nook of twisted roots at the base of a fat-trunked tree. He looked so peaceful as he lay there. Even though I bet his mind was running amok with the un-foreseeable events of today. He was probably thinking of how he could have done better or different to keep his Varm.
Or maybe the Varm don’t work that way, maybe they can simply shut out that part of their mind, to do the more important task; sleep. All I knew at that point was that I couldn’t sleep, because I didn’t want to end up here again, and despite my best efforts I did anyway, but not before I stayed up watching Veek scratch every phantom itch while he slept.
I tried to meditate my body into a sort of stasis, so I could get some kind of reprieve from the chaos of the sphere, and the silent solitude of this room. But nothing could stop my thoughts from clawing into my head space. I thought about Sephina first. I imagined our lives together after all this was over, and I worried that her view of me would change when she came to know the consequences of my actions. I thought she might even try to kill me right there at our first meeting since our last. I hoped she would understand. I hoped she would forgive me.
I sighed, trying to expel my wandering thoughts of her into the cool wind of the forest. And then the night mist rolled through. It enveloped the immediate area, I could still see Veek, but only barely. So I moved to sit right next to him. With the change of place came a change of thought. I wondered what had happened to my school rival Victor. Until then the occurrences of my journey had blotted out his existence from my mind. But here in the mist, where the closest things are thoughts, I pondered about why I hadn’t seen him yet. Did he take another route? Did he even make it out of Tor?
Parts of me wanted him to be waiting for me at the last Diamond Gate to Sovereign City. So I can prove to him… No! So I can prove to myself that I am better, stronger and smarter. The other parts of me were hoping he wasn’t, because I’m scared to face him, I truly am, and if he wasn’t there when I arrived, then I would know I was better without needing to beat him. I know it’s cowardly, I know a lot of Hûms that would say it’s weak to wish for an outcome like that, but not all battles won are battles survived, and cowardice can be a great companion in a war against your fears.
It was at the end of that thought that I spotted the moon perched right above my head, bathing the mist in its green glow. This was my signal to swap with Veek, but I let him rest for a few more minutes. And for those minutes I got my reprieve, I attained serenity.
And then, I woke up Veek. He nearly bit my arm off, but after seeing my face he calmed. We exchanged places and I laid in his nook. The warmth he left behind made it easy for me to fall asleep, and after I arrived here; in this room, I felt as though my burden had lightened, or maybe I grew stronger today and the same old weight of the sphere was easier to lift.