But the abiru's isolation cannot last forever. As of late, there have been tremendous shifts in the Clarity - the Force that connects all life. The wider universe will soon take notice of Ruu-113, and the abiru with it. And as the Eye of Clarity stirs, it may once again determine the fate of all abiru peoples.
The Abiru Chronicles is a fan continuation of Deborah Chester's Alien Chronicles, crossing over with the Star Wars universe. Alien Chronicles spun out of Robert J Sawyer's planned novel Alien Exodus, which would have explored humanity's origins in the Star Wars universe. While the project ultimately became an original IP under Chester, it received several references in the pre-Disney canon, implying a shared universe.
Given to Ampris by Israi as a parting gift, the Viis viewed the Eye as no more than an aged medallion from the Aaroun’s long-lost culture. But as Ampris learned in forbidden lessons from the palace’s Myal archivists, the Eye was more than a mere trinket. The Eyes of Clarity were conduits of a wider force that connected all life, and appeared throughout the histories of several abiru peoples during times of great need. They were symbols of hope to those who struggled against oppression, and sources of wisdom to those deemed worthy to wield them.
And so Ampris proved herself by laying the seeds of rebellion that grew from the desperate toil of the abiru. The Eye provided her with great wisdom through visions of the future, along with other powers shrouded in myth. But above all, it gave her with the strength to lead in the face of all she had endured. Amidst tyranny, hardship and loss, Ampris and her Freedom Network slowly grew in strength before striking a crippling blow to the Empire. By tricking them into thinking that the much-feared Dancing Death plague had returned, the Freedom Network brought anarchy to the Imperial homeworld of Viismyel. With revolt already spreading throughout the colonies and trade breaking down from sabotage of jump gates, the Viis Empire fell. Amidst the chaos, Ampris and her followers led a great exodus to the secluded paradise world of Ruu-113 to build a new homeworld for all abiru. But Ampris’ ordeals and sacrifices had pushed her health too far, leaving her to pass away peacefully shortly after planetfall.
The struggles of the abiru did not end there. Under the leadership of Ampris’ Kelth friend Elrabin, they struggled to colonize the new world with little more than the ships they arrived in, the knowledge of the surviving Myal archivists, and the Eye of Clarity. It took centuries before the abiru were able to re-establish spaceflight, and in that time disagreement and division were common. But the memories of Viis oppression did not fade, and their possible return has long been a unifying threat. Even as the abiru spread throughout the Ruu system, the jump gate to the Viis Empire remains silent, and the Viis Empire’s fate shrouded in mystery. Yet something beyond the gate has caused the Clarity to stir. And once more, the Eye turns its gaze to a most unlikely wielder…
As the late evening gloom settled upon the Memorial Gardens, Cobar crept after his friend as she began her ghost hunt.
By day, the Gardens were a majestic sight. Statues immortalizing the heroes of the abiru stood tall and proud statues amidst flowerbeds blooming with every conceivable colour. Some of the heroes had been key figures in the Great Emancipation, while others were early leaders of the free abiru. It was the statue of Ampris that stood the tallest, and not by a small margin. Hers had been erected over her grave at the very edge of the Gardens, right by an overlook commanding magnificent views of First Landing. In one hand she held a parvalleh hammer-axe aloft triumphantly, while her other hand tenderly grasped a replica Eye of Clarity around her neck.
But by night, the gardens were chilling to behold.
Only the faintest lamps lit the gravel paths, casting gently-glowing rivers of light between the flowerbeds. Stronger lights illuminated the statues, whose polished forms practically shone as a result. The night air was cold and silent, filled only with the sounds of insects and the wind in the trees. For the first time since setting off up their trek up the mountain, Cobar felt a weight of dread settle over him. Surveying the gardens – with its statues looking for all the world like spirits returned to the land of the living – he realized that they were seeking forces far beyond their comprehension. Though that was assuming they found anything to begin with.
It was surprising that he and Tanni were being remotely stealthy. Neither of their respective species were known for their subtlety. Tanni was an Aaroun – a proud and mighty folk, with tall and bulky frames covered in lush fur. The only other species on Ruu-113 with a comparable physique was his own, the Toth. His kind had a small advantage in height as well as musculature, though their bodies lacked the same graceful curves. Their pelts were also much thinner besides their bushy heads. Predictably, Cobar stood half a head taller than Tanni, though it would be hard to compare as the two hunched low. They crept through the undergrowth of the forest flanking the Memorial Gardens, slowly nearing the statue of Ampris.
“How much further?” Cobar whispered. “My legs are killing me.”
Tanni waved her hand reassuringly. “Not far now. There’s a good spot up ahead. Concealed, but it’ll give us a good view of Ampris’ grave.”
“You sure we won’t get in trouble?”
“For what? We’re not in the Gardens. We’re in the forest next to it. Nothing illegal against that.” Pausing, Tanni glanced over her back, flashing him a smile that practically gleaned in the low light. “It’ll be fine. Trust me.”
There was something about Tanni’s smile that always comforted Cobar. He chalked it up to her Aaroun features: powerful jaw, short muzzle, tall triangular ears, and wide, expressive eyes. All accompanied by a light and sandy coat of lush fur. Nothing like his own appearance. He was plain even by the standards of the Toth, who could charitably be described as ‘homely’. His face was as broad as it was flat, graced with big nostrils and small eyes flanked by his kind’s usual long and floppy ears. His stubby pelt was a dark grey, further darkening to black as it reached his particularly unkept head of black hair. At least he never let it get dirty – if there was one Toth stereotype he rejected with a passion, it was uncleanliness.
“Smell that?” Tanni asked, slowing down. “Incense. Faint, probably a day or two old. I told you we’re not the only ones who come up here to commune.”
Cobar shrugged. “Yeah, but does anyone ever actually see any ghosts up here?”
Tanni looked back at him, without so much as a trace of doubt in her eyes. “Elrabin saw Ampris’ spirit. After she died, he came up here all the time to visit her grave. There are accounts from multiple people saying they saw him talking as if she was replying.”
“So? Maybe the Kelth just lost his mind in his old age.”
“Never!” Tanni replied, almost offended. “He was a great leader! Right up until the end!”
Cobar raised his hands defensively. “Okay, so maybe it was because of the Eye of Clarity? She gave it to him when she died, right? That thing’s been giving out visions since long before Ampris wore it. Maybe it lets people talk to the dead.”
“Could be, but I reckon there’s more to it. Remember the whole fight between Nashmarl and Foloth when Elrabin named Nashmarl the next leader?”
Cobar ducked under a branch, making sure not to lose his footing in the evening gloom. “Yeah. Elrabin said the Eye showed him a son of Ampris leading the abiru to greatness.”
Tanni nodded eagerly. “Except that could have meant either of them. Everyone thought it was Nashmarl, but Foloth craved power. Real piece of work. Snatched the Eye right from Elrabin on his deathbed! And you know what? They still found Nashmarl up on the mountain talking to his mother afterwards. So, what does that mean?”
Cobar shrugged. As much as everyone knew the story of Ampris and her sons, he’d never been much of a history student. Not like Tanni, who lived and breathed the stuff. “That we don’t need the Eye to see Ampris?”
“Hopefully!” Tanni said, grinning broadly. “We might even get to see her tonight!”
Cobar looked back in the Memorial Gardens. They were about as close as they could get without climbing over the perimeter fence. “But why, Tanni? I get that Ampris means a lot to you. She’s our greatest hero. But this seems… unlike you.”
Tanni chuckled. “You got me. Alright, I admit it’s a longshot, but I heard a rumour that someone else tried this. And not only did they see something up here, but the Order of Clarity came by to see them the next day. Didn’t even get in trouble! I reckon they saw Ampris. No better way to prove your connection to the Clarity than by seeing her spirit, I’d say.”
Cobar was hesitant to believe it. The Order of the Clarity had been founded early in Nashmarl’s rule, intended to protect the Eye of Clarity from misuse while harnessing its powers for the good of the abiru. They were a secretive bunch, but had helped the abiru weather many a crisis over the centuries. From time to time, they offered acolyteships to youngsters with a particularly strong connection to the Clarity – the force that connected all things, channelled strongest through the Eye of Clarity. Cobar had never felt a spark of it, whereas Tanni had a routine of daily meditations she claimed would help her tune into the Clarity. She’d never actually specified if it was working.
“You really want to join the Order?” Cobar asked.
Tanni nodded eagerly. “Of course! Without the Eye of Clarity, Ampris might not have succeeded in the Great Emancipation. Even if she had, think of all the times its visions have saved our people. Disasters we were able to prepare for. Long-lost knowledge returned to us. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?” Tanni let her gaze drift upwards. “Especially now that we’re back in space. The Viis might still be out there. We need to be ready.”
A chill went down Cobar’s spine at the thought. The prospect of the Viis discovering Ruu-113 had loomed over the free abiru since the Great Emancipation. Evacuation plans and secret hideouts had been established in the early days. Military research had always a high priority. Even the first abiru-built starship to enter orbit had been a prototype starfighter. But for all the assurances of the politicians in the Free Abiru Assembly, Cobar suspected it would be in vain. Even if only a fraction of the old Viis Empire had survived, it would be able to subjugate Ruu-113 with ease.
But the Viis never had a connection to the Clarity. They certainly never knew of the Eye’s power. Maybe, just maybe, that was all they needed.
Tanni guided Cobar to her vantage point – one close to the cliff overlook, leaving them just adjacent to the statue of Ampris. Cobar got to work pitching a tent and unpacking the food he’d prepared for dinner. As he worked, Tanni produced a prayer mat and some incense from her pack and readied herself to meditate. By the time Cobar had finished, the scent of incense was filling his nose, and Tanni was deep in her thoughts.
Tempted as he was to snack while his friend meditated, Cobar remained still and silent to let her concentrate better. For a time, Tanni knelt silently, breathing in the incense deeply as it burned in tiny pots to either side of her. Soon, she began to gently murmur an Aaroun prayer-song. The words were beyond Cobar, being in the ancient language of the Heva Clan rather than the shared abiru patois. But Tanni had a lovely singing voice that he could have listened to for hours, regardless of his ability to understand it. And that night, he did just that.
He had heard a few Aaroun prayer-songs before. Mostly at festivals and celebrations shared by all the abiru species. They were triumphant and energetic melodies, almost defying the sounds one would expect to come from such a powerful-looking people. But he’d always known them to have a deeply emotional side, and Tanni’s songs only proved it. There was a definite sadness to her song. A bittersweetness, perhaps. He recognized Ampris’ name among the lyrics several times. Glancing across at the Memorial Gardens, he saw no sign of her spirit. Or anything out of the ordinary, for that matter.
At least until sudden movement erupted in the branches above them.
Tanni yelped in surprise, falling from her kneeling position towards Cobar. Equally caught off guard, he caught her easily, holding her close as he glanced about the treetops in panic. He quickly spotted the culprit – a bird, already spooked off by the sudden movement below. It took flight, disappearing against the night sky.
“Stupid bird,” Tanni spat, climbing back onto her prayer mat. “Sorry, Cobar. Got lost in thought.”
“It’s okay,” Cobar said, settling back into his spot. “So… are you feeling anything? I haven’t seen any spirits so far.”
Tanni gave a deep sigh, which tapered off into shakiness. Her expression fell, just as she slumped back into a sitting position while drawing her knees up to her chin.
“I can’t feel the Clarity,” she whispered.
Cobar blinked. “What?”
“I can’t feel it!” Tanni cried, looking to him with yellow eyes wide in panic. “Nothing! I’ve done the meditations for years, and nothing! I’ve studied all the texts I can get my hands on, and they’ve got nothing!”
“Hey, easy, easy,” he said, putting a comforting hand on her shoulder. “Remember what they said in school? Everyone’s connected to the Clarity.”
“Everyone’s connected to the Clarity, yes, but a true talent for it… the ability to command it…” Tanni drew a shaky breath, trying to calm herself. “Only a few have it. I mean… I always knew that. I knew that I probably didn’t. But I thought there had to be some way to forge it…”
“Maybe it’s just an age thing?” Cobar asked, grasping at straws.
Tanni shook her head. “We’re almost twenty, Cobar. Most people with a talent for the Clarity display it long before now.”
“Then maybe it’s just not to be,” Cobar said, moving to put an arm around her. “It’s not your fault, Tanni. It doesn’t make you a lesser person. There are lots of people out there – people through our history – who have never felt the Clarity. Doesn’t make their work any less important.”
“You’ll work out something, Tanni. You’re smart. Smarter than I’ll ever be. Maybe the Order will take you on anyway, and find some other way you can help them. What about becoming an Archivist?”
“You know most Archivists are Myal, right?” Tanni asked. “What a sight that’d be. They’re maybe half my height at most.”
Cobar shrugged. “That just means you’ll stand head and shoulder over the other applicants.”
Tanni chuckled lightly, a smile returning to her lips. “Thanks, Cobar. Sorry to dump all this on you. I hoped tonight I could prove to myself that I truly had a talent for the Clarity in me. But maybe you’re right. Maybe it’s not to be.”
“No need to apologize, Tanni. I’m here for you, Clarity or no.”
Smile widening, Tanni turned her attention to her satchel. “You’re too kind, Cobar,” she said, pulling out a greasy paper-wrapped bundle and handing it to him. “But don’t think I expected you to get dragged up here out of the kindness of your heart. I brought a whole bag of those meat pasties you like.”
Cobar had already picked up the scent. “From that Kelth bakery? I don’t know what it is with the Kelth and their meat, but they can work miracles with the stuff. Aaroun cuisine’s a close second, of course.”
“It’s all in the spices,” Tanni said, her smile taking on a playful angle as she took a bite from one of the pasties. “The Toth should consider using it for once.”
“Hey, our food may be simple, but it’ll fill you up like nothing else,” Cobar said, reaching into his own pack. “Speaking of, I brought a few things myself. My kinfolk had a big elekara fruit harvest last week. Saved you a few of the choice bulbs.”
“My favourite!” Tanni exclaimed. “We really should do this more often.”
“I’m game. But next time, let’s go somewhere that’s not on top of a mountain.”
“Fine by me!”
With renewed spirits and full stomachs, it was hardly surprising the pair slept well. Despite the cold mountain air, the tent’s cosiness helped stave off the chill even if – or perhaps because – its confines were cramped. Saying that a tent could accommodate two people could mean very different things on a planet home to numerous species varying from three to seven feet in height. Cobar and Tanni were packed in shoulder to shoulder in their respective bedrolls, but neither of them complained. Not when it meant that they could share their warmth beneath a single blanket.
Which only made it more surprising for Cobar when he woke up to find that the tent was gone.
Tanni’s disappearance was what disturbed him more. He leapt to his feet, looking around in panic. The mountain was bathed in the warm glow of the morning sun, leaving the pristine woods radiant with the colours of leaves and flowers. And yet the forest looked… wrong. It took Cobar a moment to realize what else was missing – the Memorial Gardens. There was no sign of them at all. Not a single statue. Not a single pathway. Just wild, untouched nature.
Cobar looked over to the cliff, and saw that the tallest buildings of First Landing were nowhere to be seen. Moving closer, it was clear that the entire city was absent. The only sign of civilization was a collection of starships landed by the Great River, with a handful of tents and huts hastily erected around them. He recognized the ships, too. Not only had he seen them in his history textbooks, but some of them had been cannibalized to form the oldest buildings in First Landing. They were the same vessels that had ferried the Great Exodus to freedom.
For a while, Cobar could only stare dumbfounded. He had to be dreaming. There was no other explanation. But there was still a certain rightness to his surroundings. Drawing his courage, he took a few hesitant steps closer to Ampris’ burial site, trying to peer through the foliage to see if it was there. If he remembered correctly, Elrabin had laid her to rest on the overlook the day after Planetfall. And sure enough, he quickly spotted a pile of disturbed earth and makeshift grave marker, strewn with a handful of flowers.
But there was also a golden-furred Aaroun standing at the nearby precipice, surveying the landed vessels far below her.
Cobar recognized her immediately. Even if he hadn’t seen recordings dating back to the Great Emancipation, her face adorned posters and shrines on every corner of Ruu-113. Yet none of it came close to seeing the majesty of her pelt in person. Golden fur was already rare for the Aaroun, but there was a reason she was known as the Golden One.
“Ampris,” Cobar whispered.
She turned to face him, removing any doubt who she was. Ampris stood tall and strong even by Aaroun standards, just as if she was in the heyday of her time as a gladiator. But her stance was relaxed, despite the inherent confidence. She wasn’t clad in her old gladiator outfit, either, instead wearing robes that wouldn’t look out of place among the average abiru. A smile had already formed on her short muzzle, while her brown, soulful eyes held only friendliness.
“Greetings!” she said warmly. “Don’t be afraid. Come, join me.”
Cobar didn’t even hesitate to approach her, standing next to Ampris as she looked him up and down. It was clear that he was in the midst of something more than a dream. Was he speaking to Ampris’ spirit after all? He wished Tanni was there to help him figure out just what was happening. Or just to help him think of what to say – how was he supposed to address the greatest hero the abiru had ever known?
“What’s your name?” Ampris asked.
“Cobar. It’s… an honour to meet you, Ampris. You’re a hero to us all.”
Ampris’ smile only widened. “It is an honour to meet you too, Cobar. I must say, I regret not knowing many Toths in life. We only had a handful in the Freedom Network. Under the Viis, so many Toth turned to crime or working as enforcers.”
Cobar almost winced. It was a painful chapter of Toth history, inasmuch as his people even had a history. “We’re not all like that,” he said. “I mean… some still are, but most of us want to be a part of the abiru. To prove ourselves after what the Viis reduced our people to.”
“I know that feeling. I still mourn to think what the Aaroun could have become had the Viis not enslaved us. To them, we were no more than labourers. They cared only for the strength of our bodies, not the sharpness of our minds or the fire in our hearts.”
“At least now your people have a second chance,” Cobar said.
“Some do,” Ampris agreed, turning her eyes skyward. “But so many were left behind. The Empire was falling last we saw of it, but what became of it and the people who couldn’t join the Great Exodus… even I don’t know.”
“But you’re… a ghost? Part of the Clarity? You can’t just… fly there?”
Ampris laughed. “I would if I could, Cobar. But no. My place is here, watching my people and offering wisdom to those deserving. Including you, it would seem.”
Sighing, Cobar shook his head. “That can’t be right, Ampris. I’m nobody. My kinfolk are farmers. It’s a line of work that suits me fine. Really, it’s my friend Tanni you should talk to. She’s smart. She’s brave. Only reason I even came up the mountain was to keep her company while she tried to commune with you.”
As much as Ampris maintained her smile, a tinge of sadness crept into it. “It’s the will of the Clarity that we’re speaking. I sensed your friend’s presence, and I appreciate her attempts to reach out to me. But she doesn’t have the talent for the Clarity within her. Not like you.”
“No,” Cobar said, taking a step back. “That’s not possible. I’m not sensitive to it.”
“You are. Very, very faintly. Enough that you could have led your entire life without knowing of it. Now I don’t know if that’s just you, or if the Toth aren’t as attuned to the Clarity as others, but it doesn’t matter. I’m a part of the Clarity now, Cobar. And I can sense that fate is guiding you.”
A deathly chill settled over Cobar. He wanted to believe he was dreaming, but he couldn’t bring himself to it. But he didn’t feel any different. No connection to the Clarity. Certainly no guiding hand of fate. He was a farmer. He was happy to keep being a farmer. The thought of being anything more – not least of all against his will – was nerve-wracking.
Ampris seemed well aware of his discomfort, placing a hand on his shoulder. It felt perfectly real. “I know it’s a lot to take in,” she said. “But don’t worry. I’m not a stranger to the Order of the Clarity. They’ll help you.”
“But why?” Cobar asked. “What fate? I don’t… I don’t know anything. I wasn’t planning on doing anything.”
“I don’t know,” Ampris admitted. “I cannot see the future. But there have been great shifts in the Clarity since my passing. Far, far beyond Ruu. Some for the worse. More recently, the better. Whatever it means, I fear that our peaceful isolation cannot last forever. And when that changes, I imagine you’re going to play a role.”
Cobar couldn’t find the words at first. His throat was tight with anxiety, and it took a couple of deep breaths to calm himself. “Is it the Viis? Are they coming back?”
“I don’t think it was them. No, this is something much, much bigger. Something involving the Clarity.”
“But what am I supposed to do? I told you, I’m nobody. What can I possibly do?”
Ampris took a step closer to him, drawing him into a hug. Every part of it, from her touch to her warmth, felt utterly real. Any lingering thought that he was dreaming evaporated in an instant.
“I wish I knew enough to tell you,” she whispered. “But I can see that you’ve got a good heart. Whatever may lay in your path, or in the future of the abiru, I have faith in you.”
Cobar closed his eyes, nodding. “Thank you… but I…”
In a heartbeat, Cobar felt his surroundings changed. He opened his eyes again, and he was back in the tent.
Nothing was amiss. The sun was yet to rise. The forest was silent. Tanni lay beside him, dozing peacefully. He sat up slowly, cradling his head. Fear gripped him too tightly to think straight. Over and over, his exchange with Ampris replayed in his head. Cobar wanted to accept his initial suspicions. To believe it had all been a dream. But deep down he knew something extraordinary had happened.
The movement must have woken Tanni, who stirred from her sleep beside him. “Cobar?” she said groggily. “You alright?”
“Yeah. I just… I had some sort of dream. I think.”
Tanni propped herself up on her elbow. “You think?”
“Yeah. It was like I was back at planetfall, overlooking the ships down by the river. Ampris was there, and we talked. It felt… real.” He looked over to her, barely able to make out her form in the darkness. “It can’t have been, can it? It’s impossible.”
Tanni sat up slowly, shuffling along the tent so that she could face him.
“Not if it was a vision from the Clarity,” she said quietly.
Cobar shook his head. “It can’t be, Tanni. I’m too old. I’m not… I don’t feel it.”
“You’re sure it wasn’t a dream?”
“I… I don’t think so.”
“Okay,” Tanni said, fumbling through her pack for a portable light. She switched it on, illuminating the tent with a comforting glow. “Tell me what happened. All of it.”
Cobar obliged. He spared no detail, sharing everything he remembered. And as someone who frequently forgot the reason he entered rooms, it was astonishing just how clear his memories were. Tanni listened on in fascination, which quickly elevated to fixation as Cobar recounted his conversation with Ampris. She hung on every word that the ghostly Aaroun had spoken, and mulled them over long after Cobar had finished.
“I believe you, Cobar,” she said. “I’ve heard accounts of Ampris coming to people in visions. It’s rare, and the accounts might not be entirely credible, but… I believe you.”
Cobar exhaled, though he felt only the slightest relief. “So, I’m not crazy, then?”
“Not at all,” Tanni said, giving him a small smile. “I know you, Cobar. I know you wouldn’t be saying these things without good reason.”
Nodding, Cobar lowered his eyes. The anxiety of the whole situation was starting to grow an entirely new facet. One that only weighed on him more under Tanni’s kindness.
“It should have been you, Tanni. You should have been the one to see her.”
Tanni was silent for a few moments. Her eyes were downcast, lost deep in her thoughts. “It’s not your fault, Cobar. I wouldn’t have had you pegged as sensitive to the Clarity. Best we can do now is go to the Order and tell them what happened.”
“I don’t think we’ll need to go to them,” Cobar said, staring at a faint light that had appeared on the tent canvas.
The pair stumbled out of the tent, quickly spotting the light moving towards them. Several, in fact. As Tanni held up her own light, a trio of figures became clear in the gloom. Each was clad in simple robes with a small torch affixed to their bandolier. Though it was hard to tell based on the robes they wore, one had the stature of an Aaroun and another of a Kelth. The species of the third figure was harder to place, but it was clear enough who they were.
Keepers of the Clarity.
Even in the darkness, they walked tall and confident. Their robes were plain and humble, with the only ornamentation being the replica Eyes of Clarity slung around their necks. The Aaroun and the Kelth each wielded the traditional quarterstaff like walking sticks, though they had much fiercer-looking blaster pistols strapped to their hips. The pair halted a few paces from Tanni and Cobar, while their compatriot continued to approach.
“Ah, what have we here?” he said, voice shrill. “Visitors up the mountain after hours. Trying to summon Ampris, perhaps?”
Cobar realized the speaker’s species just as the man threw back his hood. He was a Zrhel, with a particularly long beak and greying plumage. The man regarded the pair with dark eyes, but there was a deceptive keenness to them despite his age. It wasn’t a surprise to see a Zrheli Keeper – they had a greater affinity for the Clarity than most abiru species. But that didn’t make their avian appearance any less unnerving.
“We mean no harm, Keeper,” Tanni said, bowing. “I sought her guidance. My friend is just here for company.”
The Zrhel gave a squawkish laugh. “No need to apologize, Aaroun. You’re not the first to camp out here, nor will you be the last. Though it would seem that things didn’t quite go as you expected.” The Zrhel looked up at Cobar. “Isn’t that right, young man?”
Cobar swallowed nervously. “You know it was me?”
“Of course!” the Zrhel said. “Ampris told me was much herself. You’re not the only one she’s spoken to tonight.”
The other two Keepers glanced at each other, with one making a whispered comment. The Zrhel turned to them, giving an inquisitive trill.
“You have something to say, Keeper Taren?”
The Aaroun Keeper bowed his head. “No, High Keeper Qrooth. I’m just… surprised.”
“I don’t see why you ought to be. We’ve had Samparese Keepers. Phivean Keepers. Even Gorlican Keepers. Is a Toth that surprising?”
“It’s still a first,” Keeper Taren said. “It’s long been held that his kind has a weak connection the Clarity, if any. Toth, if you don’t mind my asking, have you felt anything that you would consider a connection to the Clarity until now?”
“No,” Cobar said. “I… I didn’t know until tonight.”
Taren nodded, looking back to High Keeper Qrooth. “I don’t doubt you or Ampris. But I still find this very anomalous. Especially when he’s already older than most new acolytes.”
Qrooth nodded curtly. “Noted. But remember that everyone has a connection to the Clarity, whether they have the talent to wield it or not. Perhaps the Toth feel it differently than others. I’m sure this young man’s experiences will help illuminate matters. But I will not see him denied opportunity because of his species, or for his age.”
“Of course not, High Keeper,” Taren said, bowing his head once more.
Turning back to Cobar, Qrooth walked around him, looking him up and down. Cobar watched him nervously, casting the odd glance at the other Keepers. They stood still – almost reverently so – but he could practically feel the stares emanating from beneath their hoods. He didn’t the Clarity to sense their doubt.
“Keeper Taren does raise a pertinent point,” Qrooth said. “The Order has never had a Toth Keeper. That would put a lot of eyes on you. Still, there’s a first time for everything. Ampris is one with the Clarity, and she’s never set us wrong in her guidance. Especially on the occasions she’s pointed us towards new acolytes.”
Qrooth circled around him once more, coming to a stop before him. “You have potential. But I sense that your connection to the Clarity is quite weak. Even by the standards of prospective acolytes.”
Somehow, that information did little to assure Cobar. “Am I worth training, then?” he asked.
“Cobar!” Tanni whispered.
“Yes, don’t discredit yourself, young man,” Qrooth agreed. “You’re not obliged to join us, of course. There’s no penalty for declining, though we may check up on you from time to time to make sure your abilities aren’t being abused. Though it’s most likely that your talent will simply languish, untapped and unused. Otherwise, our door is open to you. You need not decide now, but you are already older than our usual acolytes. I would see you begin training sooner rather than later.”
Cobar was at a loss. He could say no. He could go back home, and get on with a life of simple, honest labour. A life spent working hard alongside his kinsfolk to keep the abiru fed. Each day ending with him curling up in bed with aching muscles and a good book. Far from a glamorous life, but he was content enough with it and appreciated its importance.
But what would Ampris think of him turning his back on what she thought was his calling? What would Tanni think of him turning down the opportunity she so desperately wanted herself? He might not share her admiration for the Order, but he certainly respected them. If he joined, he could help the abiru in ways he never would have imagined. Especially if Ampris’ omen proved true. Perhaps he could even help prove that the Toth had moved on from their past once and for all. That was something his parents had always instilled in him, and he felt they would understand his decision if that was what it would mean.
He glanced at Tanni, trying to gauge where she stood. She seemed to know where his thoughts lay, and she gave him an encouraging nod. “You can do it, Cobar,” she said quietly. “I know you can.”
Cobar exhaled, looking back to Qrooth. “Okay. I’ll try it. If it doesn’t go well…”
Qrooth nodded. “You won’t be obliged to stay. Besides, you’ll still see your family on your rest days. Same with your friend here.”
Tanni chuckled. “I was thinking about becoming an Archivist, anyway.”
Clapping his clawlike hands, Qrooth chuckled delightedly. “Ah, an aspirant scholar! Seems you’re in good company… Cobar, was it?”
“Yes, High Keeper.”
“In that case, Acolyte Cobar, you have a long journey ahead of you. One that I will help guide you on personally. If the Order is to see its first Toth Keeper, I’d see that your acolyteship is handled properly.”
Cobar bowed to Qrooth, and not entirely out of etiquette. The High Keepers formed the inner circle of the Order’s leadership, making them highly respected even by the Order’s standards. It was rare for them to directly undertake mentorships. As much as Cobar felt honoured, he also felt the grip of anxiety tighten in his gut.
“I’m honoured, High Keeper,” Cobar said.
Qrooth returned the bow, turning to survey the horizon. Dawn had arrived, brightening the forest with its orange light. “Well, we have a long day ahead of us, then. Family to inform, introductions to make. A Keeper’s life is a busy one, but rewarding all the same.”
Cobar hoped that would prove true. He wasted no time helping Tanni break down the tent, before divvying up a quick breakfast from the previous night’s leftovers. The pair ate as they walked, the Keepers having turned down the offer of food. In fact, Keeper Taren and his compatriot remained silent as the group set off, even as Qrooth and Tanni discussed the Order’s Archivist wing and its recruitment process. Considering how impressed Qrooth sounded by Tanni’s knowledge of the organization, Cobar had little doubt she’d be successful.
As he made his way through the forest after the group, Cobar spared one last look behind him at the Memorial Gardens before they disappeared from view. Ampris’ statue was already meeting the sun, shining like a beacon that would be visible far below at First Landing. It was a symbol of hope to all abiru, and a reminder of what he would be standing for as a Keeper. Something that might just make it all worthwhile.
But Cobar stopped in his tracks as he spotted a figure standing by the base of the statue. He recognized who it was immediately. Ampris, her form taking on an ethereal blue glow, was watching him leave with a proud smile on her face. As their eyes locked, she offered him a reassuring wave, before fading away into the brightening sunlight.