Unbearable Hope

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Act II: Exierunt ut Vinceret | In Memoria, Adytum

Unbearable Hope

"I'm sorry, I just can't bear it anymore."

I still remember Lovataar's words when she came to me, eyes glistening with tears, weariness wrapped about her like a shroud. It wasn't a surprise when she came to me, not really. I grieved as well when Ion fell. I was still grieving then, when she came to me. More than a century had passed since we'd established the Cloister, and already the village that would one day become Prague had grown up above it.

If I'm honest, I still grieve, all these centuries later.

We were children, dreaming impossible dreams, suddenly given a gift more precious than anything we could ever imagine. When Ion freed us from the chains that bound us to the dirt, they did so with such gentleness, such kindness. Ion didn't just free our bodies, but unleashed our minds and souls in ways that I simply do not have the words to describe. Ion gave us hope that tomorrow would be better, that those impossible dreams would someday become real.

But everything comes with a price. None of us then could have imagined the grief that could come with such incredible hope.

"I am sorry, my niŋä. I can not carry this any longer." Her quiet words broke the stillness of the cloister, and Nadox looked up at his sister. The anguish in her face was writ plainly in the spiderweb of lines at the corners of her eyes that hadn't been there before, the way her hand trembled slightly as she reached for him. Her entire being looked shrunken, old.

The Flower of Adí-üm was wilting.

"I know. It is always hard, when the wheel turns and the Day of Mourning draws neigh once again." He sighed and set aside his quill, careful not to let the nib drip on the parchment. "But, bear it we must, for Ion asked such of us."

She shook her head and looked away. For a moment, she just stood there, huddled in on herself, looking away from him and off into the shadows of his library. Nadox watched her, giving her the time she needed. Finally, she reached up with a shockingly fragile hand and wiped moisture from her eye.

"No, my niŋä. You misunderstand me. I have carried this grief for over a century, and the weight of it only grows. I… have come to the end of my strength." A shudder passed through her body, and Nadox prepared to leap across the space between them and catch her as she fell.

But she didn't. Instead, she took a deep, ragged breath, straightening to once more look her brother-husband in the eye. Their shared grief and loss flooded the space between them; but where it should have brought them closer, it only revealed a vast, still-eroding gulf.

Nadox sighed and sank back into his chair. "I see."

Lovataar nodded quietly at him, but said nothing, allowing that widening chasm to speak for her.

Ultimately, it was Nadox who was the first to turn away, his own grief welling up within him, deepening again as the nascent form of loneliness slipped in to join it. "Where will you go?"

"I want to see my homeland again." She wrapped her arms about her, as if the chill of the high steppes had crawled back into her bones for the first time in an age. "There is not much left, but the old magic still sings among the rocks. I shall abide there for a time."

"You will not stay there. Though it may have been the first place you opened your eyes to at your birth, it was never your home."

She smiled then, and for a moment, Nadox could see the echo of the woman she had been, proud and tall, so full of life and love that it paled even her immaculate beauty. But that brief memory was immediately overshadowed as it bled into the memory of the one who had stood beside her, stood beside us all. He looked down, unwilling to darken this rare and precious moment of her joy.

He should have known that she would notice, and the gulf between them seemed to narrow as she stepped near and gently drew him into an embrace. She held him close for what seemed like a long time, gently stroking his hair. He let himself relax into her embrace, his arms slipping around her hips to hold her close, and he found himself wishing that he would never have to let her go.

But, with the inevitability that such moments often have, Lovataar pulled slightly apart from him before running her fingers lightly down the side of his face. "Kalākāran has made a place for himself in the south. After I leave the highlands, I will return to him there. We will finish our part of the Plan, before I go to my rest." She smiled again at him before kissing him gently on the mouth.

"I am sorry that I cannot remain with you, my love, but I cannot remain and finish my part of the task that Ion laid upon us. I need the sky, and there is no sky here in this dark place."

She smiled wistfully at him, holding him close once more. This time, neither of them wiped the tears that dripped down their cheeks. Then, she simply kissed him again and left.

After several minutes of gazing into the space where she had been, Nadox straightened his shoulders and returned to his writing, the tears still wet upon his face.

"I must go and prepare the way. My children must have a catalyst to spur their apotheosis."

Orok's admission felt like an excuse, even though I knew it was anything but. Even so, at the time it came as a shock that he would go to his end so abruptly. He had been such an ardent defender of the Plan. It had been his strength that rallied us at the Fall, that kept us together as we fled that dreadful place, that helped us settle here and begin the long, slow process that would see Ion's Great Plan come to fruition. And then, without any warning, it was gone.

We had argued at length about how to build the core of the new halkostänä. Lovataar and Kalākāran offered to gestate a special gene seed just for this purpose, but part of me always knew that Orok would never allow his children to rely on something other than himself. It was his way. He led from the front. In the beginning he trained with every warrior in the halkostänä, and even after it grew too large for such an individual touch, he was always there among the horde, and he always seemed to know everyone's name. He was the beating heart of our family, and his was the blood that flowed through the veins of everyone that followed.

I know now that his grief at Ion's fall was felt as keenly as any of the rest of us, but with the added stab of failure. Back then, we all knew what was coming, we all knew that Ion had to fall, that it was part of the Plan, but I hadn't counted on Orok seeing the Fall as a personal failure.

In retrospect, I suppose that it was only natural, really. None of us could have known what would happen when we were just a group of the condemned, running from Daevite hunters. Ion might have, but even they couldn't have been certain that this was where their path would lead. Our path was one of survival, running and fighting first the Daevites, then the Mekhanites. We wanted to live when so many arrayed themselves against us, and time and again Orok would step into the breach to defend that right, never flinching, never questioning, always the steady hand that held back the tide to give us the time to step forward towards that goal.

He had always been the strongest of us, and not just in the way everyone else remembers. So how must have it felt to him, to face a thing that he was utterly powerless to prevent? Ion fell, Adí-üm in ashes, the dream falling to ash around us. And Orok could only stand and watch as everything that we had worked so hard to achieve was wiped away under a relentless tide.

I understand that now, even if I didn't then.

"I must go and prepare the way. My children must have a catalyst to spur their apotheosis."

Orok's presence usually filled the room, but this time something was missing, gaps gnawed in the tapestry of his looming essence eroded by long hours alone with anxiety and grief that would not abate. For a long moment they sat in silence, with only the soft susurration of Nadox' breathing breaking the stillness of the room.

"Well," Orok's tone was uncharacteristically uncertain and he shifted from side to side, not meeting Nadox' gaze. "You've started your metamorphosis. You can protect this place better than I could." He gestured out and away from the cloister. "Zhìzào Shāng is almost finished with your homunculi, so…" He shrugged. "You don't really need me here anymore."

Nadox looked over at him from his chrysalis, tendrils of flesh snaking off of him in every direction. His awareness already reached throughout the entirety of the Cloister, even into the growing city far above. He shuddered in pain as he pulled his arm free from the wall and gestured the other to draw closer.

"Orok, my love, must you leave now?"

Orok drew closer and leaned in to rest his forehead against Nadox's. He sighed deeply as Nadox gently stroked his cheek. "Helyna's thirst for violence has grown too great, and she grows restless at the end of the chain I have wrought for her. I must attend to it, and see that the seeds planted in Kievan Rus' bear the right fruit." He trembled under Nadox' fingers, and he lifted his own to cup his hand about them, holding them to his face.

"This is not my place anymore, Nadií. I can't sit and watch things happen, not anymore. Not again. I should have died defending Ion, but instead, I have had to stand and watch, let others fall in battles I should have been there to prevent." He tilted his head up to place a kiss against Nadox' forehead before settling back on his haunches. "We both have parts to play, and I cannot just let proxies do mine, not anymore. So I will go to my children, and I shall give of myself to them until there is nothing left."

He smiled again, and Nadox could see a peace in Orok's eyes that hadn't been there before. At last, the other Klavigar drew himself up and stood. He reached out with a hand to once again gently touch Nadox's cheek. "Worry not, my love. We will meet again, in Adí-üm That Will Be."

Nadox left his hand extended, maintaining the contact with Orok as long as he could, but he knew that the other Klavigar was right. "Together, in the end, with Ion." He whispered, mostly to himself, though he knew that Orok's sharp hearing would pick it up.

"Yes. With our beloved."

I spent the centuries after that alone. I had a great deal of work to accomplish, and the great organism that the Plan had developed into needed a brain, needed me where I was, so that all the spies and agents had a place to return to.

Saarn would return for a time, but only long enough to rest and recoup before fading back into the world above to continue her own work. Manipulating the rise of nations was no longer difficult, but it nonetheless needed constant attention. Even when I summoned Ban Yongsun to attend me, those visits were but brief interludes between long stretches of silence.

I loathed having to send him away each time, and I knew he would have stayed in the Cloister with me if I had but asked. But his part in the Plan needed a direct touch, so I made do with the all too brief visits and the long, lonely gaps between them.

Secrecy was the Cloister's greatest defense, so often my emissaries in the world above never even know for whom they worked. I had established many different safehouses in the city above, places where my agents could meet with one of my homunculi, never certain of who they were meeting. I couldn't allow even those agents I trusted most to know of the Cloister, for the world moved around us above, and the Mekhanite Pogroms continued unabated.

More than once we had to make adjustments for their hate-fueled campaigns. As the tide of advancement marched ever on, it only became more important that I keep the secrets of the Cloister safe. And my brief visits from those few I could trust became ever more infrequent.

It has kept me safe for millennia, but it has also kept me isolated and alone.

At its root, Adí-üm was about freedom, Ion was our guiding light, and for the Klavigar, they were our lover, our friend, our niŋä. We survived Ion's fall, survived having a piece of our soul torn from our bodies, we survived because we were all niŋä, for each other.

When the nälikä nearly drove us mad at the fall, we endured together. In the chaos of the first days of the Diaspora, we stuck together despite having to send so many away. We survived the Daevite hunters and then the Mekhanites, and all along we had each other to lean on. Then, as the long night of the Plan began to stretch its darkness across our lives, one by one, we all slipped apart. But, even then, I have endured because at my core beats the burning furnace of Ion's love, Ion's Great Plan. I endure the solitude, the loneliness, because I wasn't alone at first. Each step hurt, but the scars could heal before another was raked across my soul.

I can't imagine how unbearable it would have been to do it alone from the beginning. The sudden and horrific shattering of the family that we had become. The thought alone causes my soul to weep in terror, for I know that I never had to face it alone.

Not like Ion had to.

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