Business had been slow for the Protectors of Antiquity in the aftermath of the attacks. Still uncertain in his new position of power and trying to pick up the pieces like everyone else in the city, Riyad hadn’t really minded. But now, with the Impulse’s face flashing all over the CommNet and the man in question still missing, he felt restless. Ath’ran’s office--it was still hard to think of it as his own--felt confining, but there was nothing to work on at his normal station in the kitchen.
He had killed some time cooking and cleaning, but with only three people left in the compound, there wasn’t as much to do. Making lists of things to do, questions he needed answered, resources he could tap into, had only taken up so much of his time, and he could only go through their supplies so many times before he knew the amounts by heart. Wandering around the compound was just as pointless: it wasn’t big enough to really consume a significant portion of his time. And that was part of why he found himself hovering over Jin’s shoulder in the hum and stale electronic smell of the latter’s corner of the front room while the smaller man looked through the book they had borrowed from Alan.
“That...is so annoying.”
Riyad shifted to one side, leaning back against the workstation. He offered Jin a sheepish smile in response to the remonstration, grasping the edge of the countertop and stretching his legs out in front of him.
“D’you know where Nyr is?”
Jin didn’t look up from the thick volume he was leafing through. He replied absently, “He’s sleeping, I think. Not much else for him to do.”
“I checked his room.” He hadn’t been there. The bedclothes hadn’t even been wrinkled.
“Nah, he’s in Du’shan’s room.” Jin still didn’t look up. “Likes the smell of his bed, I guess.”
Riyad grimaced. He missed Du’shan’s presence--found himself turning to ask the dead man questions, only to remember he wasn’t there to answer them. But Nyr’s mourning seemed unhealthy and unnatural to him. Rather than letting Du’shan go, he was clinging to every last scrap of him that was left in the living world.
A few weeks before, shortly after the funeral, Nyr had found the small, stone box that Du’shan had kept his old poems in. Surprised and dismayed to discover a facet of his friend that he hadn’t been aware of, the former priest had bought an Arcadian dictionary and writing guide--the kind second generation Arcadian children used to learn their parents’ language.
He’d spent the next few days trying to interpret the poems, with only limited success. Riyad had finally taken pity on him, and had translated the verses for him, explaining Du’shan’s clever word play and the Arcadian habit of expression by omission.
It hadn’t seemed to help. Apparently, the poems hadn’t brought Du’shan closer in death; instead they made him seem even further away in life. Nyr had cried several times during Riyad’s readings of the poems. With his face hidden behind his hands, he had brokenly tried to explain that he had never known these things about his friend--that if he had known, things could have been different.
Riyad didn’t see how. Du’shan was Du’shan, and he was Arcadian. Nothing could have changed him enough to make him disclose his past and his thoughts to anyone, let alone an outsider. As dear as they all considered Nyr and Jin to be to them, the fact remained that they just could not understand certain things. Which, Riyad though wearily, was really more of a blessing to them than anything else.
“Have you noticed how fast we’ve been going through Nemurol lately?”
Jin’s question snapped Riyad out of his thoughts. He looked down at the Xifengese, who was still turning pages in the book with little regard for how old and brittle the volume was.
“Yeah, I didn’t think so.” Jin didn’t look up from his examination of an illustration. “You don’t pay attention to my order forms, after all. And I wouldn’t have noticed either except drugs are hard to get now, with the hospitals so full and manufacturing down.”
Riyad pushed his hair out of his eyes and gave his friend a quizzical look. “Jin, I don’t know what you’re--”
Jin heaved a sigh and looked up, his glance reproving. “Nemurol. It’s a painkiller--a weak muscle relaxant. We keep it in stock in the infirmary. And it’s been disappearing more quickly than it has any right to, considering no one here is injured.”
Riyad peered at Jin curiously for several moments while he mentally connected the dots, and then looked sharply in the direction of Du’shan’s room.
“He’s such an emotional guy. Let him deal however he needs to.” Jin’s eyes were back on the book.
Unsure how he was supposed to look the other way while his friend was having so much trouble, Riyad heaved a sigh. Arcadians were private by nature, but they also spoke with their silences. Solacians didn’t do that. Their silences very rarely said anything, and Riyad had learned to pry during the years he’d lived in the city.
“Okay.” Jin sat back in his chair bonelessly and scowled at the book in front of him. “This is not working.”
Jin shot him an incredulous look through his bangs. “You are just all over this being in charge thing aren’t you?”
Riyad scowled, but Jin didn’t give him a chance to speak. He pointed at the terminal screen in front of him and the scanned image floating there.
“The symbol Julian copied down for us? I’ve been trying to match it to the ones in this book and I’m not finding it.” Jin crossed his arms over his chest. “Alan swore it’d be in this book, but it’s not there. The closest I’ve come are symbol that look like parts of the one Julian gave us. Like that loopy part at the top? It’s almost identical to a warding symbol, but the spiky part at the bottom is a totally different symbol meant to summon. So how do you ward something off and summon it at the same time? Yeah, I don’t know either.”
There were times when Riyad was pleased at how little work he had to do in a conversation with Jin. The Xifengese man had taken answering his own questions to a whole new, artistic level.
“Besides, I tried to replicate these symbols myself. Both of them require multiple strokes--I mean, you have to lift your hand up and put it down again. But the one Julian drew for us is all one line. Hell, I can’t even tell where you’re supposed to start drawing it.”
This was interesting, but didn’t mean much to Riyad. “What’re you trying to tell me, Jin?”
“That we don’t know shit about what’s going on here.” Jin swiveled his chair back and forth, and chewed on the inside of his lip in thought. “All we know about this symbol is it was all over the ruined buildings and it acted as a gateway. But only after the first monster had already come through.”
“So it wasn’t actually the initial gateway.”
“Right. That was Quinn, based on what Alan and Rabbit told us. Which means that whoever made these symbols--and they swear up and down demon boy didn’t do it himself in order to get in touch with the extended family--had to rely on the fluke of existence that is Quinn for the whole thing to work. So it was someone who knew about him, but out of the handful of people we know of who do, I can’t think of anyone who would have wanted all of that shit to happen.”
Riyad sighed and looked at the ceiling. “So we basically have nothing.”
“Right. We don’t know who did this or why. And we don’t know who stopped it or how, either. All we know is that it’s one ri-goddamned-diculous coincidence that it could be put in motion now.”
The Arcadian was silent for several moments, breathing in the stale electrical scent of the terminals around them. They knew almost nothing about the circumstances surrounding the demon attacks. There were still four of the seven Shards to be found and Riyad had no idea what to do if they ever managed to identify all seven; on top of that, they’d lost track of one of the three they knew. They had no answers. All they had were hints--he couldn’t even really call any of the data they had evidence--and questions.
He wondered if Ath’ran would know what to do and, not for the first time, considered calling his friend and asking for guidance. What could he say, though? He had no information that would help the other Arcadian draw conclusions, and if he was totally honest with himself, he knew that Ath’ran didn’t have the time to devote to these problems, no matter how much he might want to.
Letting out a sigh, Riyad pushed himself away from Jin’s workstation. He was frustrated at their collective ignorance, at Jin’s practiced nonchalance, at Nyr’s inability to move on, at Ath’ran having things to do other than help him, at Du’shan’s absence, and above all, at himself for not knowing what to do and for being frustrated in the first place. He knew if he could just find some answers--even just to his own shortcomings--he could lead the now-three-man-team into solving some of the mysteries they had uncovered. His mind was like cloudy water, though: every time he tried to let everything muddying his thoughts settle, something happened to shake him up again.
“Do what you can. Take notes of what you’ve noticed, and we’ll see what we can do from there.” He ran a hand through his hair as he turned to go back to the office. “Maybe Nyr will see something we haven’t. Or we can ask Alan and Quinn what they think again.”
Jin made a noncommittal noise and started to leaf through the book again. Riyad had just gotten to the mouth of the hallway when the dry buzz of the intercom crackled through the room. He paused and looked back at the door curiously as Jin punched a button to respond.
“Wei?” Riyad grimaced at how bored Jin sounded.
There was a brief silence, though Riyad could have sworn he could hear amusement in it. Finally, a sleepy, serene voice asked, “This is where the Protectors of Antiquity are based, right?”
Jin’s eyebrows shot up and he looked over at Riyad. The Arcadian nodded and turned to join him again at his workstation.
“It is,” Jin answered as he approached. His voice was livelier now, and he squirmed somewhat in curiosity. “What can we do for you?”
“I’d like to come in and talk,” was the answer. The speaker paused, then added dryly, “If you have the time, that is.”
Riyad nodded and Jin tapped a command into his terminal. They could both hear the door unbolt from where they were, and they turned simultaneously as Jin said, “We’ve got it. Come on in.”
It seemed like an hour passed as the door opened. Riyad gripped the back of Jin’s chair, not daring to blink. He didn’t now why, but after weeks of nothing to do and no leads, their first unannounced visitor seemed somehow momentous.
The man who entered was something of a letdown after even such a short build up of anticipation. His hair was mussed, as though he hadn’t bothered to comb it in the last week, and he continually pulled his sleeves down over his hands in fidgety motions. But he smiled with a serenity that Riyad had never experienced in anyone else--the closest he had seen anyone approach it was Anusvar, and her serene expressions were not nearly this benevolent.
He let the door swing shut behind him and faced the two of them from the entrance.
“I’m the Oracle. I thought it was time we met.”