Dear Big D,
I’m not sure where to start, as so much has happened since I last saw you. No, that’s not true. I know where to begin.
I am sorry.
I’m sorry that my problems spilled over into your camping trip, and that my disappearance (along with the others) caused you hardship. Bliz and Tremine gave me a glimpse into how difficult your situation became, and I feel horrible about it.
I’m also sorry about not delivering this letter myself. I feel like every step I take creates more responsibility and burdens. Maybe that’s just what becoming an adult means. Regardless, previous obligations keep me from seeing you in person.
I feel especially bad about not meeting you because I want to discuss a favor.
You’ve probably heard about New Eiru by now. To make a long story short, I’ve found myself in charge here.
Your thoughts on fairness and equality resonated with me. In New Eiru, I wish to balance fairness, equality, and personal profit. We are slowly reviving seven hundred thousand more people. This will have an enormous impact on the entire southern portion of Uru’s lands.
I’m telling you all this because I’ve come up with a plan that I hope addresses many of the issues we both care about. I’ve attached the details of my plan to this letter.
New Eiru has a Council of Elders. They fight more than Deepwell’s city council, maybe because New Eiru’s problems are bigger. Hamma will be in town for a little while, and she can answer questions about some of the challenges we’ve faced.
The Elders will focus on the city and immediate surroundings. The city’s rebuilding will be difficult, and while important, pales in comparison to the immense amount of work all the communities outside of New Eiru will require.
Organizing such a vast undertaking is unprecedented and without proper guidance, doomed to failure.
You can probably see where this is going.
Before you decide, I want to clarify the power structure.
The current city council will manage and govern new Eiru and its immediate surroundings. Attached to this letter is a document granting you full and sole authority for all thirty communities outside of New Eiru while construction is taking place. Once the communities are stable, we will give them a seat on the council.
I’m open to changing some of these plans. My intent is to give everyone a voice, take care of the basics, and encourage growth.
New Eiru’s Temple currently disallows binding to anyone from Deepwell or Stone Harbor. You, and any you designate, will be exceptions.
You are probably wondering how I can say such things with any authority. The answer to that is best done in person the next time we meet.
In Deepwell you gave me the quest Shooting Stars. It was a challenge to load supplies from the main warehouse quickly enough to put us back on schedule for the camping trip. As a reward, I received a favor from you.
I am not using this favor as leverage for your help. The task around New Eiru is staggering in its complexity, and far outweighs loading supplies in under five minutes. But, if you decide to help me, know that I would consider this favor redeemed.
I feel ashamed to write this letter. My actions have caused you great harm, and now I’m asking you to give more.
The people in New Eiru are good, especially the Worker Elder Yana. I know you two see things in a similar way.
But I don’t trust any of them like I trust you.
So even though I’m ashamed, guilty, and embarrassed by this letter, I’m forcing myself to write it anyway.
Because when it comes to caring about people, organizing the impossible, and doing what’s right, only you remain.
Again, I am sorry for the trouble I caused.
Even if you don’t accept, I will come and visit you when I can. You deserve to hear my apology in person.
Your favorite Band,
Sift stood on the beach, studying the lake next to New Eiru. He wanted to take his shoes off and scrunch his toes in the sand, but Ky already wore her grumpy face, and he didn’t want to get yelled at.
“We are leaving from here?” Xavier asked.
Sift faced the glowing rod. Xavier had nothing to do on the heist, but Sift knew the Celestial Remnant wanted to stay near Rami. Sift had figured that out pretty fast and came up with a job for him: guarding the transportation.
Shelly didn’t need guarding, but Sift felt a little sorry for Xavier, and wanted to include him. Xavier had spent decades trapped in a dungeon with oppressive parents, just like Sift.
Sift smiled. “Yes, and it will blow your mind.”
Sift spent a moment wondering if Xavier had a mind, and decided he must, even though Sift couldn’t see it.
“Can you hurry it up?” Ky asked Sift.
Tremine placed a hand on Ky’s shoulder, and she sighed. “Please.”
Sift considered himself an expert on the language of love, and he figured Tremine and Ky had something going on. That, or Tremine was a complete idiot for risking his life by touching Ky when she had her grumpy face.
Lylan grabbed Sift’s hand and squeezed it. Sift’s heart thumped harder, and his thoughts went fuzzy. What had he been doing?
“What do you think Shelly eats?” Hamma asked.
Sift turned to Hamma. “Carrots and lettuce. Nothing good.”
Hamma shook her head. “I meant when she’s big.”
“Our transportation is organic?” Xavier asked.
Sift nodded. “Just wait, it won’t be long.”
“I do not like surprises,” Xavier said.
Rami floated closer to Xavier in her Celestial Remnant form. “Look at the thermal inflection around the temple?”
Xavier rotated and pulsed. “Fascinating.”
Sift didn’t think anyone could be less fun than Ruwen, but Xavier came close.
Surprises aren’t always fun, Io said over their mental link.
That’s true, Sift replied. Findley once tricked me by using raisins instead of chocolate chips.
Raisins look weird, Io said.
Yeah, like all the life and fun has been squeezed out of them. We’re surrounded by raisins.
“Are you trying to find Shelly?” Ky asked. “Or having another dumb conversation with Io?”
Sift faced Ky. “They’re not dumb.”
Ky raised her eyebrows.
“Fine,” Sift said. “I’ll try again.”
She is really crabby today, Io said.
Yeah, and it’s Ruwen’s fault. He owes us big time.
Sift tried again to speak with Shelly. Shelly, this is Sift. I’m on the beach. He stomped on the ground three times. Did you hear that?
Talking with Io took no effort at all, but Sift had never had a conversation like that with Shelly. Instead, feelings and impressions would appear in his mind, but never words.
Sift wondered if he needed to stomp more, but the glare from Ky made him hesitate.
Shelly erupted from the water, and before Sift could even smile in victory, the Elder Star Tortoise lowered its giant head, opened its mouth, and swallowed Xavier.
Intense satisfaction flowed into Sift’s mind from Shelly. Similar to how he felt after spending an hour at the dinner buffet.
Sift waved his arms. “No, Shelly. Bad Shelly. Spit him out!”
Shelly slowly turned her head until one giant eye met his gaze. She didn’t look sorry.
“You can’t eat my friends!” Sift yelled.
Shelly opened her mouth, but Xavier had disappeared.
“Oh no,” Sift said.
Rami laughed as she returned to her bookwyrm form. “I should have expected that, actually.”
Rami flew over to Shelly and hovered in front of the giant beaked nose. After a few seconds, Rami nodded and touched her nose to Shelly’s. “Thank you, Shelly.”
Rami had better success communicating with Shelly than Sift did. He needed to talk with Rami and get some pointers.
Rami returned to her Celestial Remnant form and yelled. “It’s okay now, Xavier. She promises not to eat you again.”
Io spoke. That glowing guy’s okay, but I wouldn’t eat him.
I agree. Shelly has some weird tastes.
You think that’s weird? Io continued. At the monarch’s palace I met this…
Sift focused on Xavier as the remnant floated out of Shelly’s side.
Shelly turned her head toward the Celestial Remnant.
“No!” Sift yelled. “No eat.”
Hamma looked at Sift. “Is that something we need to worry about?”
“No,” Rami said. “Xavier consists mostly of exotic plasma, similar to the center of large stars, and Shelly’s kind eat suns.”
“Oh,” Sift said. “So Xavier is like a donut ball.”
“I am not a snack!” Xavier said, his color an angry white.
Sift waved his hands. “No, it’s a good thing. Findley makes these donuts where the frosting is in the center of a ball. Just like your exoticness is like the center of a sun. They’re both the best part.” Sift walked up and patted Shelly’s leg. “I understand now,” he whispered.
Tremine shook his head at Sift. “Did you just compare a Celestial Remnant to a pastry?”
“Donut,” Sift said. “Totally different. Don’t get me started on pastries.”
Sift focused back on Io who had talked the entire time.
That is how the monarch ended up with pink appahs, Io said. Pink is such a weird color. It’s like a lazy red.
Yeah, pink needs to get a job. Whenever Findley ruins a frosting color, he makes up words like Ruwen. He once called a frosting mauve.
Io laughed. Mauve your butt and give me some more donuts. Am I right?
Sift laughed as well. Exactly.
Io paused for a moment and then continued. If this group had a filling it would be air.
Hot air, Sift said.
They laughed at the joke and Ky snapped her finger. “What are you doing?”
“Thinking,” Sift said.
“What” Sift asked.
“Let’s go,” Ky said, pointing at the others who had already started up Shelly’s leg toward the opening in her shell.
Ky and Tremine strode toward the Elder Star Tortoise as Rami charmed Xavier into still coming.
“Are you okay?” Lylan asked Sift.
Sift winked at Lylan and she smiled.
“Come on,” Lylan said, pulling his hand. “You need to pilot this ship.”
Sift tapped his temple. “Preparing as we speak.”
“I bet,” Lylan said, and moved toward Shelly.
Sift followed her.
If Ky was a pastry filling, what flavor would she be? Io asked.
Oh, I’ve already spent a bunch of time thinking about this, Sift responded. Peppers.
Yeah, Io said. And not like black pepper, but like venom peppers.
Exactly! Sift said. Thankful at least one person here was capable of an interesting conversation. Without Io, this would be a long trip.
Sift studied the prophet’s chapel just off the inner sanctum of the Wenquian Temple. Shakers covered the walls, ceiling, and floor, their bright light eliminating every shadow around the book.
Ky stood next to Sift, her head bowed, and Tremine did the same just past her. They waited in the rear of the abnormally full inner sanctum.
Wenquian’s Temple, just like the one in New Eiru, didn’t have any windows. But this temple didn’t stick up in the air. It lay on its side, as if it had fallen over. The prophet’s chapel was a thirty-by-thirty cube off the main worshiping area, and fifteen priestesses, all in white robes, kneeled around the book praying.
The book itself sat in a roped off glass container in the center of the chapel. The book appeared made from leaves, which seemed like a really dumb thing to write a book on.
Tremine had verified that the book on display was the one they wanted, and six female guards stood at the chapel’s only entrance and another four guarded the inner sanctum exit. The guards wore red robes, and they all held spears.
Ky had told them the chapel and inner sanctum contained Spirit and Mana sensors and any detected magic would trigger a security gate that sealed the chapel and temple. She’d also told them she couldn’t use her abilities to snatch the book, but didn’t say why.
Another roped off area, outside the ring of praying priestesses, allowed for visitors to view the prophet’s book. Everyone inside the temple wore the same itchy robes, and the color signified if you were a priestess, visitor, or guard.
The priestesses called themselves the Wives of Gladreum, and they forced everyone to endure a cleansing ceremony with smoke and chanting before being allowed into the temple. Sift could still smell the hickory and incense, and it made him crave bacon even though he wasn’t hungry.
Male visitors to Wenquian’s Temple couldn’t go to the inner sanctum or prophet’s alcove. From what Ky had told them, the Wenquian priestesses believed the spirit of their prophet still walked among them. Tiny bells filled the worship area, and the priestesses believed the prophet rang the chimes to remind them of his love as he pleaded with the great Wenquian to bless them. That all sounded crazy to Sift. But he’d seen plenty of worse superstitions in the Black Pyramid.
Once inside the temple, Ky had given them all white priestess robes to wear, and they’d stowed their brown visitor's robes. Ky had coached Hamma on the ceremonies of the Wenquian priestesses on the way here, and Hamma now kneeled with a group of temple priestesses near the book. Rami perched behind Hamma’s ear as an extra set of eyes to help with stealing the book.
But that was on hold while they figured out how to handle the complication.
Sift shifted his arms, trying to minimize the contact with the wool robe he wore. His back hurt from slouching, but if he stood up straight, the robe only came to his knees. And Ky assured him the hairy legs and man feet would be a dead giveaway he wasn’t a priestess.
Sift picked out Lylan from those walking around the chapel’s inner wall. Seeing her caused his heart to speed up, and he smiled. A painted statue of Gladreum stood outside the chapel, and the inscription read Grand Prophet and Most Holy Sage of the Hidden Mysteries.
The statue had golden eyes, just like Sift, and Lylan had teased him about the similarities.
Sift looked away from the chapel and toward the front of the worship area. A lady wearing the same white robe they wore chanted with her hands outstretched, and fifty more priestesses kneeled behind her. Evidently, star alignments had created an especially great time to speak with the dead prophet, which had tanked Ky’s plan.
Now, instead of a mostly empty chapel, it was filled with priestesses urgently trying to contact the prophet.
They couldn’t even use Chat in the temple, and Lylan signed to them in Shade Speak as she passed into view. Three. Rotation. More.
They were running out of time. Ky had made a fake of the book, and Hamma held it under her robe. They had planned to create a small diversion and give Hamma time to swap the fake book for the real one. But this star alignment gathering had ruined Ky’s plan.
Sift knew once Lylan had to leave the chapel, Ky would call it, and they’d need to come back tomorrow, assuming the stars had moved enough to make all these people leave. He would have to sit here all day in this itchy robe, again. And he really wanted a piece of bacon. Curse that incense.
The plan could still work. They just needed a bigger distraction. Sift looked around at all the bells in the worship area, and an idea formed. A good one. And it would give him some relief from this terrible itching.
When Lylan came into view again, Sift signaled her. Distraction. Soon. Prepare.
Lylan signed back. Understood.
Confused. Ky signed. Many. People. Team. Return. Tomorrow.
Sift signed back. Big. Distraction. Now. Me. Good. Plan.
Sift locked eyes with Ky and he winked at her. She frowned, closed her eyes, and shook her head.
Sift pushed away from the wall before Ky could stop him. He would not slouch in this robe for another day.
The Black Pyramid had given Sift thousands of opportunities to use his sifting ability. For over a decade, he’d used it to find hidden enemies in his surroundings and even to hide himself from view.
Sift smiled at his own genius. Between the chapel and main worship area, nearly fifty women prayed intently, literally pleading for their prophet to arrive.
Lylan’s comment about Sift’s similarity to the statue had triggered the idea. He could become the prophet and flick a few bells to create a distraction big enough for Hamma to swap the books unseen. And the best part was he could use his sifting ability to do the entire thing while invisible. His sifting wouldn’t trigger the Mana or Spirit detectors, and he would appear to everyone else as an invisible ghost.
Sift activated his sifting like he’d done tens of thousands of times, flexing it like a muscle to one hundred percent. Information poured into his mind as everything passed through him, including light.
Kneeling down, Sift made himself as small as possible. With a quick look around to verify no one had noticed him, he pulled off his robe and underclothes. Invisibility didn’t work with clothing.
Looking down, Sift’s own body appeared natural, but he knew to anyone else he’d become invisible. He’d used this trick thousands of times.
Sift stood and walked confidently toward the front of the inner sanctum and the praying high priestess on the dais. He brushed past kneeling priestesses as he stepped onto the raised platform.
Stopping next to the high priestess, Sift gently touched the nearest bell.
A soft chime vibrated in the air, barely audible over the chanting. The praying near Sift stopped as he hurried away, using his Step training to move easily around the kneeling women.
Sift struck another bell, and jumped ten feet to yet another, tapping it before the sound of the previous bell had stopped.
The chants and prayers stopped and Sift smiled as his plan unfolded exactly like he’d expected. He stood on the raised platform, the entire inner sanctum before him.
The head priestess said something in his direction, but Sift didn’t understand her language. Murmuring spread quickly, and just as he’d hoped, priestesses exited the prophet’s chapel that contained the book. Soon Hamma and Rami would be alone and could swap the books.
No doubt, Sift had proved once again he was a super genius.
Sift brushed another bell, walked across the dais, and struck another.
Almost fifty priestesses stared up at Sift now, and he frowned. It looked like they were staring right at him. He jumped to a bell eight feet away, struck it, and leaped back.
Instead of staring at the sound of the bell, all the women had followed Sift. It was almost like they could see him.
Hamma exited the chapel and flashed the complete signal to Ky. She looked up at the platform and her eyes widened. Even from here, Sift could see her blush.
Lylan stepped out of the Chapel and followed the gaze of everyone else. She looked right at Sift and shook her head.
You. See. Me. Sift signaled to Lylan in Shade Speak.
The head priestess asked another question, only louder this time. Sift only understood the word Gladreum.
Ky signaled everyone to leave, and as Lylan followed Ky, Tremine, Rami, and Hamma out of the inner sanctum, she signaled. You. Extra. Trouble.
Why would Lylan say that?
The High Priestess asked Sift another question and stepped toward him. Her voice had gotten softer, and her eyes had an intense look. In fact, as Sift looked around, he realized all the women had an almost hungry look in their eyes.
Sift wondered what he’d done wrong. How could they see him? As fifty women pulled off their robes, he understood.
For seventeen years, Sift’s body had worked the same. Less than a month ago, Ruwen had shoved a dirt covered root into Sift’s body in a desperate attempt to connect Sift’s center to his Air Meridian.
And after they’d left the Spirit Realm, Sift discovered it had worked. But there had been very little time to practice with his center, Core, and Air Meridian. So little, in fact, he sometimes forgot he even had it. Not to mention the seventeen years of memories that had made this plan a simple decision.
But things had changed, and the working path to Sift’s Air Meridian made his sifting fifty percent less effective. And he realized now, he probably looked like a translucent person, or maybe like a ghost.
And Sift eyes gave him a passing resemblance to the prophet Gladreum.
“Oh, no,” Sift whispered.
Fifty naked women raised their arms toward Sift and chanted in a language he didn’t understand.
Sift held up his hands. “I’m not Gladreum!”
At the name of Gladreum the women gasped, and they surged toward Sift.
Word had spread and more priestesses entered from the only exit. The High Priestess reached Sift, and he used his Step training to avoid her grasp.
All the nakedness made it very hard to concentrate. Sift knew he needed to make it to the exit, but soon so many priestesses would be in this room, that avoiding their grasping hands would become impossible.
Sift frowned. He knew a thousand ways to incapacitate these women, but he didn’t want to hurt them. If he didn’t start knocking some of them out soon, though, he wouldn’t have any room to be gentle.
Sift used the softest attack he knew that still resulted in a blackout. As the High Priestess reached him, he grasped her cheeks, wrapping his fingers around her ear and neck.
The High Priestess moaned as Sift applied pressure on a nerve bundle behind her left ear. In a blink, she collapsed.
Instead of discouraging the remaining women, it seemed to excite them, and they rushed forward.
Sift waded through them, leaving a trail of unconscious women in his wake, and it took over five minutes to finish. He stood in the inner sanctum’s exit and looked back at over one hundred fifty unconscious women.
This had turned out as bad as one of Ruwen’s ideas.
When Lylan had signed “you,” “extra,” “trouble,” she hadn’t been warning Sift that more trouble was coming. She had wanted him to know how much trouble he’d find once he’d escaped.
Sift shook his head and whispered to himself. “This is a thousand times worse than the Plague Siren.”
The High Priestess groaned as she returned to consciousness. “Gladreum. Gladreum.”
Sift grabbed a robe from the floor, wrapped it around his waist, and sprinted for the temple exit.