Chapter 1: The Courtyard Pagoda
The Eighty-Eighth annual Vision Scholar Awards were split into four categories: history, technology, language arts, and the sciences, but Evolice Nadima was unsure where her proof of the human soul fit in.
Evolice arrived at the Westkemper Conference Center at precisely sixth hour, just as the sun was painting the sky in peach and pink. The invitation she clutched in both hands read, "Exhibitors must arrive no later than 8th hour," but Evolice knew that the woman typing had actually meant, "for my sanity, and the sanity of everyone working here, please arrive well before the listed time." Evolice always knew these things.
Evolice ran a hand through her cocoa brown curls, gazing in awe around the inside of the Westkemper Conference Center; the grand hall truly lived up to its name. An exquisite chandelier hung from the dusk blue ceiling, four stories overhead. It was over ten feet wide and twice that in height. Speckled gemstones hung from its spindly silver arms, casting prismed lights across the polished marble walls. A second-story mezzanine, with a long bronze railing, wrapped from the stairs at the far end of the hall around the walls and over the entryway where Evolice now stood. A banner hung above the stairs of the great room reading:
The Convention for Visionary Youth
88th Annual Vision Scholar Awards
Evolice hadn't expected the center to be too busy this early, but she also hadn't guessed it would be so lifeless. Against one wall was a desk where a tall uniformed man was nodding sympathetically to an irate teen boy, but other than them, there wasn't a soul in the spacious hall.
Not seeing any indication of where to check-in, Evolice approached the desk where the teen boy was bickering with the friendly-looking employee. The man behind the counter was a decent size, both tall and round, with a fancy black name tag reading: J. Ivony, Junior Greeter. His deep black beard was thick but well-trimmed, with the occasional grey streak. He nodded patiently to the boy, whose frustration echoed across the mostly empty hall.
"Noko Innit pikka ma," said the boy, balling his fists at his side. He had dark skin and thin buzzed hair, with an intricate floral pattern shaved into one side. If Evolice had to guess, she'd say he was probably sixteen, just a year younger than herself. He had a black flower with a blue stem pinned to the lapel of his oversized blazer, and the muddy ends of his baggy pant legs looked as though they had been repeatedly trampled beneath his aged dress shoes.
"Son, I've said before, I have no idea what it is you're trying to tell me," responded Mr. Ivony, gripping his belt so hard his knuckles began to turn white. "If you'll just wait a moment. I've called for Ms. Lapour, she'll be right down to help."
"Noko Innit pikka ma," the boy repeated loudly, his voice cracking. Evolice quickly recognized the words as an Innit dialect.
"Jen mo ti a ta?" called Evolice.
The boy spun quickly to face her, a smile of relief settling across his lips. "Kopo bano!"
"Napo Evolice," she introduced herself.
"Napo Kyrillis," he responded.
"Oh no, not another," groaned Mr. Ivony, running a hand down his face. "What's this then, a prank? Did Jet put you up to this?"
"It's not a prank," said Evolice, "it's Innit. He says his name is Kyrllis, and I'd wager he's from somewhere in Innit'Ro"
The boy, Kyrillis, perked up at the mention of Innit'Ro.
"Well I'll be," said Mr. Ivony with an awkward smile. "Can you tell him I'm sorry? I've met folks from just about everywhere, but I ain't ever met no Innit before." The man looked quite embarrassed, as he began nervously tapping his desk with a pen. "Check-in... check-in," he said, suddenly shifting the conversation, "that's why you're here isn't it? I don't think the booths are quite set up yet. If you'll just wait a moment for Ms. Lapour, she's the event organizer, I'm sure she'll get you sorted."
Evolice conveyed the message to Kyrillis, whose temper had cooled with her arrival. While they waited, Evolice acted as a translator for Mr. Ivony and Kyrillis. Mr. Ivony was very curious about Innit'Ro. As he put it, "Hadn't ever thought there'd be folks livin' all the way down there. Goes to show what you know."
Kyrillis seemed to love the spotlight Mr. Ivony gave him. He told them a bit about his tribe, that lived almost entirely without modern technology, and his vision project, modifying the genetics of a fruit bush to survive the tundras of Innit'Ro.
"Ivito min votro kimil mat Lyza bru. Nutri tompos lek vorto tu va tek," he said.
"With the scholarship I can take my work beyond the Lyza Bush," Evolice translated. "I can find a real solution to our food scarcity." It wasn't until the words left her mouth that it dawned on her, Kyrillis was her competition. There were four scholarships, one given out for each discipline, so depending on what Hall they placed her in, Evolice could be pitted against Kyrillis for the prize. A sudden guilt washed over her, sapping her excitement and awe for the conference. If she won, would that mean stopping Kyrillis from aiding his people? How many other teens here had worthy causes like his?
Fortunately, Evolice's fretting was cut short by a small cough behind her. Evolice turned to find a woman in a thick maroon turtleneck and black dress pants. She wore pointed black sunglasses, and her dark hair had been pulled back into a bun.
"Evolice Nadima and Kyrillis Ma-Ikkut, a dream connection," said the woman, her speech quick and perfectly punctuated, "I am Ms. Lapour and— oh dear, I nearly forgot." Ms. Lapour rummaged in her pant pocket and retrieved what looked like a silver earpiece with a short microphone extension. She offered it to Kyrillis.
Kyrillis took the device and fit it over one ear. "Aptu al?" he said, asking if it was working.
"You need to— oh, here," said Ms. Lapour, reaching around the side of his head to flip a switch on the earpiece. "Can you understand us now?"
"Absolute Magic," said Kyrillis, clearly impressed, "I can understand you perfectly."
"And us, you," said Ms. Lapour with pride. "The audolopod intercepts both inbound and outbound soundwaves, providing real-time vocally-mimicked translations to both parties. It's slated for release next year, but these are the perks of a Vision nominee."
Kyrillis gave Evolice a starstruck grin.
"And have you two linked your professional accounts yet?" asked Ms. Lapour excitedly?
Evolice shook her head.
"Well don't worry, you're plenty early. There'll be time enough for that once we get you checked in" said the energetic woman. She tapped a small glass lens sewn into the left breast of her sweater. "Index, check in Evolice Nadima and Kyrillis Ma-Ikkut, then give us a map."
The lens on Ms. Lapour's shirt flickered to life, projecting a holographic image of the Westkemper Conference Center in the air between them. Kyrillis, you will be here," she said, pointing to the eastern wing, "Booth two-o-seven in the Hall of Sciences. It's just a short walk up the stairs," she said, pointing towards the grand staircase at the end of the hall, "Take a right then head up a second set of stairs and follow the passage to a large set of doors. You'll know it when you see it."
"Up the stairs, to the right, more stairs, doors at the end of the hall, sounds easy enough," said Kyrillis. "Thanks for all the help, Evolice."
"It's really my pleasure," said Evolice warmly. "Seeing as we're so early, maybe I'll swing by once I've settled in. I'd love to hear more about your Lyza bushes."
"Oh yeah, that'd be great," grinned Kyrillis. He thanked Evolice and Ms. Lapour one last time and skipped off with a wave.
"Now, as for you," said Ms. Lapour, studying her diagram, "That's odd, this shows you're not registered to a specific Hall."
"Oh yeah," said Evolice nervously. The moment of truth had come. "I wasn't quite sure where my presentation fit in. It's a proof, like in science, but it involves literature, and really that's at the heart of it—"
"It's no worry at all dear," said Ms. Lapour, cutting her off. "Let's see here. Index, pull up Evolice's submission."
The hologram in the air shifted, the map melted away, and a long document took its place. Ms. Lapour scrolled through the document, her eyes flicking across the page as she scrolled.
"I see," she said, coming to its end, "a proof of the human soul. A truly visionary undertaking if ever one existed." As she looked back to Evolice a sly smile crept across her lips. "On one hand, I could certainly see you in the Hall of Science," she said, "but to be blunt, the competition is fierce."
"So you're not putting me in science then?" asked Evolice hopefully. The last thing she wanted was to go up against Kyrillis.
"Well, I'll ultimately leave the choice to you," said Ms. Lapour, "but I might recommend the Hall of Language Arts. I'd hate to break my image of impartiality, but I was a big fan of your presentation on Garey Mosey's show last month."
Evolice's cheeks flushed red. "You saw that?" The popular viznet program had reached out to her after a local talent show. In truth, she didn't realize the scale of it until she arrived at the studio to find dozens of cameras and a full production team.
"Honey, half the nation watches Garey Mosey. You had to have known you'd get some attention," Ms. Lapour placed a hand on Evolice's shoulder. There was a reassuring warmth to her touch. "A polyglot as young and accomplished as you in a hall of linguists? You'll be playing to their hearts. And, if there's any merit to your claim..." She winked at the girl. "So what'll it be?"
Evolice didn't know how to handle the shower of compliments from this strange woman, but the answer to her question couldn't be more clear. "The Hall of Language Arts," said Evolice, "definitely Language Arts."
"Smart girl," said Ms. Lapour, giving her an endearing smile. "Come along then, I'll show you to your hall."
Ms. Lapour led Evolice across the grand hall towards the wide staircase at its far end. The stairs were parted down the center by a series of decorative fountains. They were tan marble, trimmed in gold, with dozens of coins sitting in their wrist-deep waters. As Ms. Lapour began to climb, spurts of multi-color water followed her upward, leaping like glimmering snakes from pool to pool.
Ms. Lapour turned to Evolice. "I must say, your eyes are an incredible shade of blue. I thought it was the vizcaster playing tricks with the light, but they are just as extraordinary in person."
"Oh, thanks!" said Evolice, finding herself blushing again.
"Okay, enough flattery," said Ms. Lapour, sounding almost giddy, "I want to see your talent in action. I mean, if that's okay with you."
"Sure," said Evolice politely.
They had now reached a small landing at the top of the steps. On their right, a second stairway proceeded upward to the Hall of Science, where Kyrillis was no doubt preparing his booth. To their left, a second staircase led to a long hallway, ending in a set of massive double doors. It was the landing's far wall, however, that captured Evolice's awestruck gaze.
The wall was one enormous window, top to bottom, spanning the width of the landing and following the passages on either side. Outside, Evolice could see the peaks of many colorful tents scattered about a spacious courtyard. Past the courtyard was the north wing of the convention center, also wrapped in a wall of seamless windows, reflecting the brilliant orange glow of the early morning sun. An enclosed passage led over the courtyard, serving as a bridge to the north wing of the conference center.
As they crossed the landing, Ms. Lapour paused at the entrance to the skybridge, tapping the glass on her sweater.
"Index, will you pull up the transcript I loaded this morning?"
The glass lens began to shine. In the air between Evolice and Ms. Lapour was what looked like a note scribbled in the lopsided handwriting of a child. As far as Evolice could tell, it wasn't written in any language she'd seen before.
"Go on then," Ms. Lapour smiled cheekily.
"I work better with original drafts," said Evolice hesitantly, "but let me see what I can do."
Evolice raised one hand to her grandmother's blue-stone necklace, resting on a silver chain around her neck. With her other hand, she began tracing the letters of the projected paper. As her fingers followed the messy curls of the strange letters, a pencil-thin rainbow light followed her movements. It wasn't a product of the projection, and Evolice knew Ms. Lapour couldn't see it; no one ever could. With the light came a voice. It spoke only in her head, as if part of her inner monologue, but the voice wasn't her own. It belonged to a young girl.
"This is a letter from a girl to her childhood friend," said Evolice, focusing on the voice in her mind. "She's moving— No... her friend is moving away. She's terrified. Life seems as though it's come to an end. Will she ever see her friend again? Who else will she share her secret language with?"
The voice suddenly disappeared as Evolice finished tracing the last word.
"Absolutely marvelous," said Ms. Lapour, mouth agape. "Of course, the language itself isn't terribly complex. I created it as a young child to speak with my best friend in secret. However, the note never mentions her moving; I couldn't bring myself to write about it. I simply told her how much she meant to me and that I'd never forget her. Even if you guessed the move, how did you know it was her moving and not me?"
Evolice's chest grew tight. She wasn't sure how much to say, but Ms. Lapour didn't seem the type to judge. "Language is more than just words. It ties us all together," she began, choosing her words carefully. "I've found the more I understand language, the better I understand the people around me. It's hard to describe what I see when I read. It's like a light between the words. Every author leaves a bit of their soul on the page, their meaning and emotions, beyond the words themselves."
"It sounds like religious babble to me," said Ms. Lapour, betraying a hint of cynicism in her voice.
"It's not about faith or religion," Evolice quickly fired back. "It's spirituality. Science and just about every religion on the planet have been at odds for ages, with spirituality caught in the center. If I can prove the soul leaves a mark on the page, maybe the two sides can come together to try and understand what exactly the soul is. It'd mean a whole new branch of study." She took a breath to balance herself. She couldn't be too frustrated with Ms. Lapour's view on the matter; the woman couldn't hear what Evolice heard.
"The proof of the human soul," Ms. Lapour concluded, although she didn't sound convinced. "Speaking of, we should get you to your booth."
They walked the rest of the skybridge in silence. Through the windows on either side, Evolice got a better view of the tents below. Men and women in colorful outfits hurried from tent to tent. A pair of gymnasts had set up a long balance beam and were expertly bounding over each other as they crossed in opposite directions. Out to her right, Evolice could see a man in a fanciful red and black jacket standing in front of a terrifying beast. It looked much like a rat but was larger than any dog Evolice had ever seen. It had four eyes, locked upon its master's every movement, and Evolice could swear that as long as she watched the beast, its rear eyes never once blinked.
Off to the left, beyond the tents and the conference center's north wing, Evolice could see the crystal blue waters of Lake Nuva, with hundreds of sleek glass skyscrapers lining its coast. The lake was so large that Evolice could just barely make out the tips of the towers on its farthest shores. Even this early, dozens of ferries, yachts, sailboats, and more skimmed across the waters under a cloudless summer sky.
Finally reaching the end of the skybridge, Evolice and Ms. Lapour came to another similar looking landing, with a wide set of double doors in front of them and a stairway leading down to their right.
"This is the Hall of Technology," said Ms. Lapour, motioning towards the double doors before leading Evolice down the steps to their right. "You'll be down this way." At the bottom was another passage with several smaller doors spaced along the left wall and a wide expanse of window on the right. At the end of the hall was a similar set of double doors, which Ms. Lapour tugged open and motioned for Evolice to proceed.
Entering the Hall of Language Arts was like stepping into another world. Evolice found herself in a marketplace, with wide spans of different colored cloth draped overhead. Although Evolice and Ms. Lapour appeared to be the only two people in the hall, it was far from lifeless. Translucent letters hung in the air, like summertime lightning flies, dancing around each other until they formed words or passages and quickly disbanded again. As Evolice stepped past the first few market stalls, a cluster of letters descended on her, spelling out:
It was not the treasure Hawk sought.
"This is a passage from Deity, isn't it?" asked Evolice. She had just read the most recent book in the series. It was then that the run-down stalls and stacked wooden boxes around her clicked into place in her mind. "We're in the covered markets of Bruhm!"
"Indeed," said Ms. Lapour. "I take it you're a fan of the series? This hall is changed annually to reflect the year's best seller. It is designed by chief architect Movro Makoy, if you recognize the name."
"I've never heard of him, but... it's wonderful," said Evolice, watching a dozen silver letters flutter past a seam in the hanging tarps overhead.
"Oh, you haven't even seen the half of it," beamed Ms. Lapour with pride. "But, I'm afraid, this is where we part for now. You see those objects on the booths?" Each of the market stalls had a fist-sized black pyramid propped in the center. "Those are index stations. This hall is first come, first serve. Once you find a stall to your liking, its index will take care of the rest. It was a genuine pleasure getting to know you. If I might leave you with a piece of advice?"
"Of course," said Evolice.
"I think your mastery of language alone is more than enough to claim the scholarship," said Ms. Lapour, "but this talk of the soul and spirits isn't helping you in this competition. Now, I understand it's genuine and for a noble cause, but this scholarship is for visionaries and scientists, not prophets."
"I understand," said Evolice sullenly. Despite Ms. Lapour's warm smile, Evolice couldn't help but feel cold inside.
"Remember, once the floor opens, you won't know the judges from the rest," said Ms. Lapour. "Keep to the basics, the mastery of language that got you here, and you'll come out on top." The woman offered a hand, which Evolice shook weakly, and then disappeared out of the hall.
Evolice's sullen state couldn't last long as she flitted through the covered stalls. The Hall of Language Arts was wondrous at every turn. The passage Evolice followed through the market quickly widened, and the stalls were soon replaced with broken stone walls and rubble. Evolice recognized the location as the Fallen City of Karst, recreated in perfect detail. The squat, square, single-story structures each had several counters inside, with index stations at their center. The path ended at a set of stairs, leading up to the great temple of Karst. It was a three-story structure, shrunk down to fit within the limitations of the hall. Rather than enter the temple, Evolice was drawn to a courtyard she could see beyond a dilapidated wall to her right.
Chapter 2: The Other Kytra
Over the next two hours, the stream of teenagers trickling into the Hall of Science grew dense and hurried. As the start of the convention ticked closer, families scuttled up and down rows of booths in search of their teen's number. Evolice and Kyrillis soon found themselves packed tight by the frantic mob while they explored the many exhibits coming to life all around them.
The crowd, bathed in blue from the fish-filled waters above, had a current of its own. Evolice could barely read the complex scientific titles of the strange and varied exhibits before she was swept on to the next booth. She quickly found herself separated from Kyrillis by a family of six and had to stand on her toes just to catch a glimpse of him beyond the well-built father with his youngest daughter on his shoulders. By the time she came to the end of the row, Evolice had lost Kyrillis among the sea of people.
"Evolice, over here!"
She followed the voice to an open area near the wall and saw a hand waving above the crowd.
"Sorry for getting dragged off like that," said Kyrillis as she joined him. His loose fit pants had fallen back beneath his ragged shoes, and his button up had come untucked. "Absolute chaos in here, isn't it?"
"It'll be calmer once all the parents leave," Evolice assured him. "They're kicking 'em all out at nine, and that should be any time now."
~Ring Ding Ding~
As if on cue, the sound of bells chimed from index stations across the room, drowning out all chatter in the hall. Then came a voice, bass and boisterous.
"Welcome families, welcome friends," the voice spoke, and the whole hall stopped moving. Even the fish in the waters above looked attentive, "but most importantly, welcome to the many contestants of the Eighty-Eighth Annual Vision Scholar Awards."
Cheering erupted in the hall as teens were showered in nudges, pats, and prideful whoop's from their parents.
"My name is Doctor Jeromy T. Hawberk, and I will be your host today. You may know me from my time at the University of Ebenterry or my recent book, A Rotation to Understand Everything. But, we're not here today to talk about me. You are our future, and before anything else, I would simply like to say that I am proud of each and every one of you for coming this far."
Again, cheering broke out. Doctor Hawberk seemed to expect it as he paused and waited for the noise to settle.
"Your tale is far from over, however, and just as we celebrate how far you've come, we must look to the path forward. You are the very best your generation has to offer, but among you, only four will claim the title of Vision Scholar. Vision Scholars are more than inventors, more than authors, more than scientists or historians. Vision Scholars define the future for their communities and their world."
"In just thirty minutes the doors will open, and the world's greatest minds will enter these halls. Many will ask you questions, but only three will be your judges, true experts in their field. Over the course of the day, you will be tested by these judges. You will not know them, but they will know you. Keep your mind sharp and ready; they could come at any moment."
A silent excitement stirred in the hall, as feet shifted and eyes brightened.
"Now, we would ask that family and friends finish up and prepare to take your leave. We offer you our thanks for all your help in bringing these champions this far, but today is their day to shine. Presenters, please find your booths and prepare yourselves. Your moment is very nearly at hand."
At that, the voice cut out. There was a moment of silence then a wave of chatter all at once.
"Go on," said Kyrillis. "You'll definitely want to beat the crowd."
"Yeah, good idea," said Evolice. She ran a hand through her hair to ensure the Lyza flower hadn't fallen out in all the chaos, and her fingers met its soft petals. "It was awesome meeting you. Thanks again for the flower."
"No, thank you," said Kyrillis with a genuine grin. "I would've socked that ass if not for you. Say, would you want to maybe meet up for lunch later... It doesn't have to be just us or anything. Bring whoever... you know?"
"Oh, sure," said Evolice. "I'll see you at lunch then.”
"Magic! Oh, and good luck." He offered her his hand.
"Good luck to you, too, Kyrillis," she said, ignoring his hand and giving him a hug. Evolice then left the blushing boy and the Hall of Science behind her.
At first, the passage back was fairly empty, and Evolice thought she'd beaten the crowd. By the time she reached the bridge to the North Wing, however, there was hardly enough room to fit everyone, and Evolice was fighting a sea of families all trying to leave at once. Jostled, out of breath, but determined, Evolice fought the stream of proud mothers and bored siblings all the way to the Hall of Language Arts. She was met in the doorway by a swarm of silver letters that buzzed around each other until they formed a sentence.
She was welcome, always in that place.
Just as they formed, the letters dispersed, buzzing away into the covered markets. The once empty marketplace now burst with energy. The exhibits here were artful and splashed in color, and the red-cloth tarps covering the streets provided the perfect level of shade for reading. For every book cover, abstract animation, or painting of words, was an artist, just as eccentric and very much part of their display. Soft melodies of harp and flute floated throughout the markets, setting a calm and curious mood, despite the heavy crowds.
As parents gave their teens last hugs and shuffled other children out the exit, Evolice pushed her way towards the back of the hall. By the time she reached the ruins area of the hall, most of the families were gone. Inside the sandstone walls of the broken-down structures, Evolice could see boys and girls fiddling with their index displays or adjusting towers of hardcover books. The great temple at the end of the road was bustling as well; Evolice caught a glimpse of some twenty or so presenters chatting with each other and gesturing towards their displays.
The walled off garden beside the temple, however, was the quietest spot in the whole hall. It appeared no one else had thought to come back here, or if they had, they'd found the only display was already claimed. Evolice tread along the narrow sand trail through the flower-filled lawn. The wooden pagoda at the center of the courtyard sat atop a clear-water pond and was shaded by the great white-leafed boughs of the Deity Tree. As Evolice crossed the short span of bridge leading to the pagoda, she saw a pair of teal and black splotched fish swim out from under the structure. She hadn't noticed them before.
"Hello friends," she said down at the fish, as one chased the other beneath the bridge and back out the other side. "Looks like you're my only neighbors today."
She watched them play for a few minutes before entering into the pagoda. Its half-walls provided a perfect view of the courtyard's stone arch entryway.
"Index— erm, sorry. ID-249," said Evolice, as she approached the round wooden table in the middle of the pagoda.
"Yes, Miss Nadima," came a cheery voice as the pyramid at the center of the table flickered on.
"Go ahead and load up my display," said Evolice.
"Right away, ma'am," ID-249 chimed back. "Could I say, your timing is impeccable. The doors will open to guests in exactly seven and a half seconds."
As ID-249 spoke, the air above the table began to glow, and a large sphere took shape. It was a globe of Inya, the whole world. On one side, the two continents of man were divided up into different colored regions. The smaller continent, Irasil, in the south had only two major areas, navy blue in the west and a sandy yellow-brown in the east. The Northern continent, Karkatta, was spotted in dozens of different colored territories. At the southern pole sprawled a massive icy continent. Its only light belonged to Innit'Ro, a silvery blue speck on its northernmost peninsula. Across the world from the continents of man, surrounded only by the sea, was the capillum owned continent, Roana. It, too, glowed, a solid forest green across the whole landmass.
Evolice's eyes rested on Roana. Though Doctor Hawberk hadn't said anything about a grand prize, Evolice could just picture it, a chance to visit the fabled treetop city of Gau, to meet the capillum council, and learn about the most reclusive culture in the world. It was the prize she never knew she wanted, so far outside the realm of possibility that it had never entered her wildest imaginings. And crazy as it was, deep down, she was sure Garrett wasn't lying. As her mother would say, "That gut of yours knows people better than they know themselves." Evolice shook herself from her thoughts. The judges could arrive any moment.
"ID-249, how do I look?" she asked. "Anything in my teeth?" Evolice smiled wide towards the device.
"Properly, professionally, perfectly presentable," said the device.
"249, you flatterer," she teased, glancing around to the stone archway leading off towards the temple. Not a single person had stepped foot in the courtyard since Evolice arrived. The only sound she heard was a soft ambient chatter and a faint melody over the garden walls.
"So, the guests and judges, they're let in now, right?" Evolice asked, tapping her foot in time with the music. "Probably checking-in."
"Yes ma'am," piped ID-249, "several have already made their way to this hall."
"Any minute now then," she said. Going to the front of the pagoda, she stood on the bridge and struck a professional pose. She held like that for several minutes, before her feet began to hurt. Her shoes were flat and hard, providing next to no support. She shifted her weight a couple times, hoping that would help, then gave up and went back into the structure.
"Miss Evolice? I'm detecting common indicators of anxiousness," said ID-249 sounding concerned. "Would you perhaps wish to remain seated until the guests arrive? These benches might not be optimized for comfort, but they should serve well enough. I can inform you should anyone enter the courtyard."
"That's okay, I'd rather stand," said Evolice, tapping her foot faster.
Over the next half hour, the hall grew louder. Despite the busy sounds from the market, Evolice hadn't seen a soul in the courtyard. She was beginning to think she should have chosen a stall in the market or a snug spot in the ruins, when, suddenly, a portly man waddled confidently through the stone arch entryway. He was short, round, and looked very much at home among the ruins of the ancient fantasy city.
The man's simple brown tunic hung loosely over his belly. It was secured over his coarse pants by a twisted rope belt, the frayed ends of which hung just above his pudgy sandaled feet. He had a wide nose, bushy brows, and the strangest haircut Evolice had ever seen. The top of his head was entirely bald, while curtains of straight chestnut hair draped from just above his ears, down below his shoulders. In one arm he held an enormous tome, easily several thousand pages long. Every step he took was fueled by purpose, a purpose that brought him straight to Evolice's pagoda. He waved awkwardly, as he struggled to fit his belly through the narrow entryway.
"Ms. Nadima?" He asked, but didn't wait for an answer. "No doubt. I am Byron Brystal. You've heard of me? Or not. A poet am I. These are my words. Wound together. Made to stick." He held up his mighty tome. "One a day for fifty years. Many languages. Many words. Zi fuis wi naut? Cofro lu Ho? Szjin Qwi? Do you know what I ask?"
"Yes," said Evolice, standing straight and proper. This man was definitely judge material. "You asked the same question in several languages, 'Will you accept my challenge?' I don't understand though, you never specified the challenge."
"A battle of words. A contest of meanings," his stubby fingers wriggled excitedly as he spoke. "Which polyglot is superior?" He swung open his tome and began leafing through the pages. "Here," he said, jamming his finger into a short passage near the top of a page.
Evolice hesitated a moment, but Byron waved her over. She stood beside him, staring down at the passage.
"A clue perhaps? But only one. Use it wisely," said Byron.
"That's okay, I don't need it," said Evolice. "This is Salduni, an older form, maybe second millennia."
"Oh wonderful," Byron snapped the fingers of his free hand vigorously.
"It's a poem," Evolice continued. "My daughter sleeps beneath the soil, and me, upon a spear. For she would never know of purpose, me, never of fear."
Byron snapped again.
"Wonderful. Wonderful. It is now your turn." He looked at her expectantly.
Evolice turned to the globe ID-249 was projecting. Inspired by that morning's events, she knew exactly how she'd fool Byron. Confidently, Evolice tapped the small silvery-blue dot of Innit'Ro. The globe flickered, and a blown-up document took its place. The manuscript was covered in curious scrawling.
"Oh, ho. What's this." Byron waddled closer, his brown eyes tracing over the letters. "Aim to fool me? Harsh luck. This is Innit, no doubt. Tale of the great sea serpent."
"Impressive," said Evolice, a bit shaken. If he knew Innit, what could she possibly trump him with?
For the next ten minutes, the two went back and forth. He tried to catch her off guard with Roani, the capillum tongue. She countered with Iprit, a long dead language from Karkatta. It wasn't until Byron flipped to the very rear of his book that Evolice found herself stumped.
"This page, if you please." Byron pointed to a loose page tucked into the very rear cover of the tome as he wore a triumphant smile, revealing his yellow teeth. "Not an original. A work I collected."
The letters on this page were tiny and chaotic. They didn't resemble anything Evolice had encountered, so she knew it must be a very old language. She didn't panic; however, instead, Evolice reached one hand to her blue-stone necklace. The other rested softly on the tome that Byron held open for her. Evolice's fingers traced the letters, and a pearly light followed every movement. Evolice saw Byron's unchanged stare and knew that he couldn't see the light; no one could but her.
The voice started quiet in her mind, but quickly it grew louder. It was a girl about Evolice's age.
"I sat in the back of the hut. I should have been at the front, but I didn't want his mother to see me. I would have broken. I would have shown them I'm weak without him. I have to be strong without him. When the flames ate his body, I could smell his death... I will smell it for the rest of my life, but that may not be much longer. If I am not strong, I will be left behind, but I cannot stop my tears."
By the time Evolice pulled her hand from the page, her eyes were drenched in the woman's sadness and the smell of burning flesh filled her nose.
"Even ancient Piacean? Your expression tells all," gasped Byron, clearly impressed. "I must declare stalemate. A first. You are truly gifted. Well beyond myself at your age."
"Thank you," said Evolice weakly, wiping the tears from her cheeks.
"What you understand, I've always sought to know," he said, though Evolice wasn't quite sure what he meant. "Your heart is human. Just incredible." Without another word, he spun right around and waddled away, leaving Evolice teary-eyed and speechless.
For the next half hour Evolice mulled over her encounter with Byron in silence. The horrible sadness of the woman in his book was etched into the corners of her mind. Evolice breathed in and out. Remembering where she was, remembering who she was, just as her mother taught her.
She sat back onto a bench and collected herself. Byron could have been a judge. It made sense; he was the only person to wander into her garden all morning. Plus, his polyglot challenge was hardly subtle. If he was a judge, then she was confident she nailed his test. The thought began to cheer her up. That left only two more judges, and after Byron, she felt she could tackle anything.
Unlike the loud and lively markets, the Courtyard got no busier as the morning went on. At one point, a pair of women came to the entrance and peaked inside, only to shuffle off when they locked eyes with Evolice, alone in the pagoda. Minutes turned to hours, and Evolice paced about the pagoda, each step in time with the carefree melodies that drifted over the walls.
"Congratulations, Ms. Nadima, you've reached your ten thousandth step for the day," chimed ID-249, suddenly breaking the silence.
"Oh— thanks," Said Evolice, snapping out of her thoughts. Her mind had calmed, but her feet were starting to ache from all the laps around the hardwood floor. "You know, 249," she said. "I'm going to take you up on that seat. Just let me know if someone comes by, alright?"
"Of course," said ID-249 helpfully. "And should I alert you to your current guest, or just guests in the future?"
"My current— what?" Evolice spun sharply towards the stone arch entryway to find an older woman hobbling towards her. The woman had an arched back supported by a stubby wooden walking stick. In her other hand was a long metal cane that she tapped back and forth in front of every step. Between the cane and her oversized sunglasses, Evolice guessed the woman must be blind, so she rushed from the pagoda to meet her along the trail.
"Excuse me, ma'am, can I—?" Evolice began to say as she reached the blind old woman, but suddenly, a strange feeling rushed over her, like a word at the tip of her tongue that she simply couldn't find. She was certain she knew this woman, but had no idea how.
"I'm sorry," said Evolice. "This might sound silly, but have we met before?" Though Evolice couldn't place where, she knew beyond a doubt this wasn't her first encounter with the blind woman.
"My dear, you must be mistaken," the woman's voice was quiet and raspy. She spoke with a smile on her thin lips and, despite her blindness, met Evolice's gaze with her own. "You must have seen my face on one of my novels."
"No, it's not that," said Evolice, prodding the corners of her mind. Something told her it was a recent encounter. "Maybe on our class trip to the seven cities?"
The woman shook her head.
"I know it sounds crazy..." said Evolice confidently. "But I'm never wrong about these things. I just know." She wasn't about to distrust her ability after it won over Byron. That said, she could do without the still lingering smell of death.
"My girl, I appreciate your enthusiasm," said the tiny woman, "but I can assure you, this is the first time I've left my estate in years. After all, one does not get out much when writing the twelfth novel of Deity." She swayed back and forth on her walking stick triumphantly.
"You're Annalaide Martin," gasped Evolice, her cheeks burning an abyssal red. Evolice had never been so glad for someone being blind. For the first time in as long as she could remember, Evolice's gut had failed her. To make matters worse, not only had she just embarrassed herself, she had done so in front of a personal hero whose imaginings this whole hall was designed after.
"A.L. Martin in the flesh," crowed the woman. "But do not worry dear, it appears I, too, am mistaken. I was searching for a particular exhibit, Proof of the Human Soul. My index— damn thing— is reporting that no such display exists."
Evolice's heart jumped. This was judge number two, no doubt. It was a rough start, but there was still time to turn this around. She steadied herself and remembered Ms. Lapour's words: no more talk of knowing things.
"No-no, you're in just the right place," said Evolice, overly pleasant. "Proof of the human soul was the old name. It's called 'The Universal Language' now. Last minute change, but my display is just—" she began pointing back to the pagoda then stopped, remembering the woman was blind. "You know, I can just tell you about that right here."
"Oh, well alright," said Annalaide, looking quite amused, "but before you get lost in it, can I maybe just ask a question?""
"Yes, of course," said Evolice.
"Now, I've heard all about your translating act..." she said, "very impressive by the way."
"That's all great, but it was your original title that piqued my interest," said Annalaide. "Proof of the Human Soul, how very intriguing. May I ask why you chose that word, ‘proof’?"
Evolice's heart and mind were instantly at war. There was no air in her lungs, no breath in her mouth. She desperately wanted to tell Annalaide everything, but after what just happened... In the back of her mind, her own mental Ms. Lapour reminded her what was at stake. The scholarship was her best chance at ever finding answers about the light in the words.
"It was just fanciful. Ms. Lapour helped me see that," said Evolice softly.
"No, I don't think that's it," said Annalaide dismissively. "Look at me, just like you... trusting my gut. Proof. Proooof. PROOF. It's a very powerful word, isn't it? But not fanciful." Her thin lips curled. "No, I think you choose your words carefully, and proof is no exception."
Evolice didn't know what to say. There was a moment of quiet between them.
"Proof is airtight, concise, unchanging," said Annalaide, finally breaking the silence. "I wouldn't think the opinion of one woman a strong enough force to break proof."
"I..." said Evolice, but she knew Annalaide was right. "I see more than words when I read."
The woman's face lit up, intrigue etched across every wrinkle. "Yes," she cooed. "Tell me about that, if you please."
"It started when I was six," Evolice began. The words felt right. This was the presentation she'd always wanted to give. The one she'd rehearsed all night. "My grandmother always wore this necklace... well you can't see it, but I'm wearing it now... and for some reason, I was always just drawn to it. I wanted it more than anything in the world, so, on my sixth birthday, she wrapped it up in a little blue box for me as a gift. I don't think there's a day I've taken it off since. It feels almost like a part of me... but that's just the first part of it."
Evolice had the woman's undivided attention.
"I've always been a big reader," said Evolice, "But I've always read differently than others. Most people read the words, they listen to the story, and they lose themselves in those characters. Me though, I was obsessed with how these little etchings on a page painted images. They made me feel as if I was in another world running and crying and living this whole different life, all from the cozy bean bag in my closet. I wanted to understand more words, and one by one I picked up languages—"
Annalaide coughed loudly.
"Right," said Evolice. "Human soul." She took a second to collect her thoughts and jumped ahead. "I remember first seeing the light less than a year after grandma gave me the necklace. I was reading something my mother wrote for me, just a silly little poem. She wrote them all the time. But, as I read, the voice I heard in my head, her voice, it wasn't saying the words on the page. It was worried about some dumb memo, and Unity Feast dinner, and picking up the cat from the vet, and the alca wouldn't be out of the shop for an hour still, and in all that chaos, it was full of love for me. She said things to me she'd never said before, because simply, there aren't words for them."
"The soul imprinted upon a page," said Annalaide softly. "You do not know now, but you are more than some silly Vision Scholar contestant. Never, ever, betray your gift again."
"I'm sorry," said Evolice, then a realization sparked. "But wait—you see the light, too, don't you?"
"I do not see anything," said Annalaide cheekily. "But I hear some things. Whispers in the words, nothing more. Not like you."
"This changes everything," said Evolice, excitedly. "It's always been just me. I've felt emotion I can't put into words, things you have to live to know. And for every laugh, there's a cry. Like the smell of a loved one burned to ash. I can't tell anyone what I hear, and I don't know why or what to do with it. But if you hear it too, you can tell me what it all means, can't you?"
"Perhaps," said Annalaide. "Hold this." She tossed her cane to Evolice, who caught it at the last second, avoiding her face by an inch. Annalaide dug into her red leather purse and procured a tattered hand-notebook. It was bound in rope with a faded cloth cover. Many of its pages had seen better days. They were colored and torn, and many corners stuck out the sides. "Yes, now you take this," said Annalaide, "And I'll just snag that back from you."
Evolice traded the cane for the book but dare not open it, as it felt even more fragile than it looked.
"Why so hesitant?" asked the old woman expectantly. "Or do you think I handed you the book for you to stare at its cover?"
Carefully as she could, Evolice parted the covers. What she found inside was like no language she had ever seen. In fact, it didn't look like language at all. Concentric ovals, rough and uneven, were scribbled one inside another, looking almost like a tunnel winding deep into the page.
"I don't understand," said Evolice, turning the page to find the same scribbles on the next page and the page after that.
"Stop looking," said Annalaide. "Listen."
"It might be easier if I sat."
"Well, go on then."
Evolice took a seat on the grass beside the path, folding her legs criss crossed. Feeling quite self-conscious, she placed the book upon her lap and reached one hand to the blue stone on her necklace. With her free hand, Evolice began to trace the circles. The light started faint but quickly flared. It shimmered and crackled along each curve her fingers followed, and then she heard the boy. His voice had a power to it, clearer than any she'd ever heard while reading. And yet, he sounded very young, a child no older than six or seven.
"I don't ever want to leave but they always make me. I just wish they would let me stay with Miss Nylk forever. Oh you have to eat, oh you have to meh-duh-tate, oh you have to learn learn learn. Blah blah blah Brother Ee-dee-goooo. Miss Nylk shows me her garden, and it's so wonderful and strange and anything at all is possible there. But I guess if I stayed in her garden forever-forever, I couldn't swim with Ibrahim, and then he wouldn't have anyone to help him when he goes out too far. He'd yell Glavy Glavy, and there wouldn't be anybody at all. That would be very very bad, so I guess it's okay I have to leave sometimes—"
"Ms. Nadima... quite alright...?"
The young boy retreated deep into Evolice's mind, as a hand shook her shoulder. The whole world seemed to be rocking, and there were three arms reaching out from Annalaide.
"You... so very... too quiet... unnatural," said Annalaide, her voice muddled and distant, as if she were calling out from far away. "I'm sorry... in fairness... maybe stopped breathing."
"No..." said Evolice, doing her best to breathe slow and deep. The boy's words still echoed around her mind, too quiet now to make out. "I heard a boy. I've never... it was so intense. He was here. He was... me? How?" The rocking world was beginning to slow, and there was now only one arm reaching out from the old blind woman.
"First thing, let's get you off that dirt," said Annalaide, looking kindly down at Evolice. "Would you care for a hand up?"
"Oh no," said Evolice, hoisting herself off the ground. The moment she stood, she regretted it, as the world broke into a full-on spin. Evolice took a clumsy step forward, and she felt Annalaide's surprisingly strong grasp on her arm, stopping her fall. "Okay," said Evolice. She breathed deep. The world slowed. "I'm up."
"Very, very impressive," said Annalaide, leaning forward on her walking stick. "A language no one has understood for centuries, and you, a girl of sixteen, can hear the words."
"Does this mean you'll tell me what you know?" asked Evolice hopefully.
"I would," said Annalaide, "but, in truth, there's nothing for me to tell you. I acquired that book thinking I could make it speak, just as the man who sold it and the one before him. We heard nothing. So, I brought it here, to see if anyone could succeed where so many had failed. That brings us to you. All I can tell you is that it first belonged to a people called the Old-Scholars."
"Well, I suppose that's a start," said Evolice. "Old-Scholars... I've never heard of them."
"I hadn't either, before I found the book," shrugged Annalaid. "From what I hear, very little of their culture survived. Then again, I'm no historian."
"No historian... of course!" exclaimed Evolice. "The Halls of History! Maybe someone there will know more about the Old-Scholars."
"My job here is done," said Annalaide with a teacher's pride. "Go, Evolice, and find your answers." The old woman turned to leave, but paused. "I cannot tell you the joy our conversation has brought me. I find it rare to meet an equal these days, let alone one with a heart like yours. Goodbye, Evolice Nadima."
"Wait," said Evolice, suddenly realizing she still held the precious notebook. "You forgot this."
"I do not forget, Miss Nadima," said Annalaide cheekily. "I hope it will help guide you in your search." Then, the woman began hobbling back along the path, tapping her cane back and forth as she went.
The second Annalaide disappeared beyond the stone archway, Evolice sprinted back to the pagoda. "249," she called urgently.
"Yes, ma'am," said ID-249, flickering to life.
"Search the Halls of History. Can you find anything about the Old-Scholars?"
"Just a moment," said ID-249, "returning zero results for Old-Scholars, no— External queries show Old-Scholars is a common term used for the Ancient-Eredithian tribe. It would appear that one exhibit, "Arborals, fact or myth?" makes several references to Ancient-Eredithian culture."
"That's perfect," said Evolice, leaning eagerly over the table. "Where would I find it? Who's the presenter?"
"One moment," said ID-249, as Evolice's globe flickered, and a model of the convention center took its place. "See on the model, the Hall of History is located in the south wing." The westernmost room of the convention center lit up bright yellow. "The Hall of History is laid out to represent cultures through all of time. This walkway in the center is your timeline." A long stretch within the hall began to shine blue. "The Ancient-Eredithians were an early civilization, so you can find the exhibit near the hall entrance, on the left, among the cultures of the southern hemisphere, here." A small red square appeared. "Exhibitor name, Eamon Lovel."
"Eamon Lovel... got it. Thanks so much," said Evolice giddily. Her heart pounded as she set the ancient book on the wooden table. "Okay, okay, how long until lunch?"
"Social hour will commence in approximately fifteen minutes," reported ID-249.
"Fifteen minutes, I can wait fifteen minutes," she said. "Oh, and index, go ahead and change the name back to Proof of the Human Soul."
Evolice had a very difficult time waiting fifteen minutes. She paced restlessly, thinking of her encounter with Annalaide. Questions raced through her mind, one interrupting the next, but she did know one thing for certain, A.L. Martin must have been the second judge. That meant only one judge left. Evolice paced even more frantically, and when her feet began to hurt again, she propped herself against the table and flipped through the book. If just the smallest glimpse could knock her off balance, what else could this book contain? She examined the detail in the circling sketches; they were clearly drawn by hand, but all the strokes seemed connected, as if the whole page had been drawn in one long movement. Evolice leafed through page after page, then settled on one that looked smoother than the others. As she raised her hand to her necklace, Evolice stopped herself. She should be careful if she was going to try this alone. The last time, she'd nearly passed out.
Evolice unhooked her necklace; it was a very naked feeling. She only ever removed her necklace during showers and bed. She raised the chain to examine the gem closer. As she gazed into its cracked blue surface, she wondered to herself how a simple stone fit into all this. If the Old-Scholars recorded themselves onto these pages, why would the necklace let Evolice hear them, and why just her?
She laid the necklace on the table beside the notebook. With one hand, she touched the stone, while the other moved slowly towards the page. It was inches from the parchment, when the circles began to glow. It was faint at first, flickering so soft that Evolice would never have noticed if she weren't watching so intently. But the light grew stronger the closer her fingers came to the parchment, and it wasn't just the page. The stone's spindling cracks glowed with a pulsing blue light. In all the years Evolice had seen the light, it had only ever clung to letters, never the necklace. Her fingers were now a hair's breadth from the page, and the circles were blazing in a shifting rainbow of fiery light. With a sudden pulse, the light did what she would not. It leapt from the page and met her fingers, and with it came a voice. Evolice heard the same boy from before, only older.
"LET ME OUT! PLEASE, YOU HAVE TO LET ME OUT. THEY'RE GOING TO KILL THEM ALL IF YOU DON'T LET ME OUT. I CAN STOP IT. I CAN SAVE THEM IF YOU JUST LET ME OOOOUUUT! "
Evolice tore her hand from the page, stumbling backwards and landing hard on the wooden floor. She lay panting for a moment and then slowed her breathing, remembering where she was, remembering who she was.
She picked herself up, using the table for support. The circles on the book still glowed faintly, but quickly faded. Her necklace no longer shone either. Evolice knew she needed to be more careful, but she was fiercely curious now. Whoever this boy had been, something terrible had happened. All she could say for certain was that he must have survived, since the later pages were filled with his sketches. The fact her necklace had glowed was also puzzling. It had never done that before.
Evoliced grabbed the necklace by the chain and dangled the gem over the notebook. Pearlescent tongues of light erupted from the page and grasped towards the stone, drawn, like metal to a magnet. Evolice gazed in awe at the lightshow connecting the book to the stone, but she didn't dare come closer.
~Ring Ding Ding~
All chatter in the hall died instantly. Evolice pulled the necklace away from the book and the light connecting them faded. Refastening the chain around her neck, Evolice looked to her index display, which had changed. It now showed the figure of a man, scaled down to fit comfortably on the table. He had tidy grey hair and large glasses over his sagging eyes. His posture was nearly perfect, and he looked directly at Evolice, then began to speak.
"What a morning. What a start," said the miniature Dr. Hawberk. "I sincerely hope the knowledge spread here today will help shape a finer tomorrow. But... I think it is just about time we took a break to refresh, renew, and come into the afternoon ready to give your all. You'll need it too, because I have a very special announcement..."
He paused for a moment, wearing a knowing smirk.
"Our scholarships are some of the finest and most prestigious learning opportunities in all the world, but a Vision Scholar is more than a student. They are a representative of progress, and so we at the Board of Vision believed a new prize was in order, an even grander prize..."
Even from here, Evolice could hear gasps in the market.
"The prize, a chance to appear before the fabled council of Gau, is an opportunity no human alive today has ever been awarded. You, our Visionary, will represent progress between our species, an icon to be remembered throughout history. But, there is a catch. Of our four Vision Scholars, only one shall claim the honor. Tonight, at our closing ceremony, our finalists will argue their claim, and a winner shall be declared. I wish each and every one of you the best of luck."
"Returning now to the present... It is time we commenced social hour. During this time, you are free to do as you please. Continue to present, explore the halls, or refresh yourself at the cafeteria; it is your choice how you spend the hour. Only know that judges are prohibited from visiting until the hour ends. Additionally, the Circus Ivira will be providing entertainment in the courtyard. I hope you all use the opportunity to enjoy the talented company around you. You never know who you will meet in a gathering of such incredible minds."
The image of Dr. Hawberk faded, and Evolice's globe returned.
Evolice didn't waste a second. She needed to get to the Hall of History before Eamon left for lunch. Pausing a second over the notebook, Evolice decided that she better take it. She snatched it up and sprinted from the pagoda.
The ruins portion of the Hall of Language Arts was still relatively empty, as presenters gathered up their things in preparation for lunch. Evolice sprinted through the streets, and it wasn't until she reached the markets that she hit her first major roadblock. Boys and girls everywhere had abandoned their stalls and flooded the covered streets. It looked like many had made friends too, as presenters packed in around popular exhibits and wandered in large groups, further congesting the narrow market streets. Evolice moved as fast as she could through the crowd, pushing and shoving until she reached the exit. She tore down the passage, taking the stairs two at a time, and just managed to beat the traffic from the Hall of Technology.
Evolice soon reached the South Wing and darted down the passage to the Hall of History. A steady stream of students poured from the double doors. Determined as ever, Evolice charged headlong towards them, and, with a bit of effort, managed to squeeze herself in on one side.
The Hall of History felt like a museum. It was dimly lit by reddish-orange lamps hanging from the rafters far above. A wide and populous path led through the center of the hall, but the rows of glass displays on either side sat mostly abandoned.
Evolice ducked off down a vacant row to the left and caught her breath. Her feet were cursing her for all this running, and, by the looks of it, Eamon could have already left for lunch. As Evolice's heart rate slowed, she took stock of where she was. The displays around her housed wooden spears and tattered cloth outfits. They had names such as "Norvuki" and "Lao-Ru," both some of the earliest civilizations in Irasil. This was definitely the right time period.
Few exhibits still had presenters, and those that did appeared to be finishing conversations with guests. Evolice read each title as she passed, but none of them were the exhibit she was looking for. She wound up and down two empty rows, then, rounding a third bend, Evolice saw a single occupied exhibit. A boy around her age was speaking with a very tall robed man. They didn't look any different than the other stragglers, maybe a touch friendlier with each other, but Evolice had this feeling in her gut she couldn't shake. Though it had failed her once today, her gut was currently the best bet she had.
Approaching the pair, Evolice did her best to see if she could make out the name on the display. It was a smaller exhibit. The glass case rested on a table about waist height, and inside it was a mask. From this distance, Evolice couldn't make out any real detail.
"Thank you so much for coming, Mathas, I really didn't think you could make it," she heard the boy say.
"It is, of course, my pleasure to be here, Master Lovel," said the taller man, standing several feet over the boy. The name struck Evolice instantly.
"Eamon Lovel," she muttered under her breath. "It's him."
The robed man shook hands with the boy then turned to leave, passing right by Evolice. As he drew near, the enormous man stopped. His low hood shrouded much of his face, and a thick white beard covered everything Evolice could see.
"That is a very beautiful stone," he said simply, pointing a gloved hand at her necklace. He then continued down the row.
Evolice wondered a moment, could that compliment possibly be a coincidence? She almost turned around, when she remembered why she was there.
"Eamon Lovel?" she called to the boy and ran to his display. She could see the mask better now. It was old and carved from wood, with a great crack down the center and vines wrapped around the back. On the display were silver letters reading: Arborals, fact or myth?
Chapter 3: Proof of the Human Soul
"Absolute moron, that's what I am. Me and my damn temper!"
"Will you stop?" sighed Evolice crossly, still clutching the ancient notebook in one hand. "You were both idiots back there. Eamon made his own decision."
Evolice and Kyrillis walked down a wide hallway bathed in summertime sunlight filtered through the wall of windows. The passage was dotted with other students, many sneaking interested glances or gossiping quietly to friends as the pair passed.
"Well, he didn't have to," growled Kyrillis. "He shouldn't have even been in that situation. Kobb's right, I don't belong here. I'm just ruining it for everyone."
"That's enough," cried Evolice, rounding on Kyrillis. She glared into his dark eyes. "You messed up. He messed up. There's nothing wrong with acknowledging that, but if you're gonna sit here and steep in it... well, I'm not gonna have it. Kobb played you. He got you all worked up and almost managed to get you kicked out. He failed. But if you give up now, you give him exactly what he wants."
"It's what I deserve," grumbled Kyrillis glumly.
"And what does your family deserve?" demanded Evolice. "Remember who you are doing this for. It isn't about you. This is a chance to do some good for your community. Kobb just wants to feed his ego. Are you really going to let him do that?"
Kyrillis' icy stare began to warm. "I... I'm sorry," he said.
"Good, then that's the last we'll speak of it."
They did their best to ignore nosey looks from other students as they climbed the steps to the upper landing, a wide carpeted area looking down on the main hall. Here, the many judges and conference guests were spending their social hour far from the student-filled cafeteria. Most gathered in groups of four or five, talking over colorful drinks in fancy glasses; others circled, dipping into groups but managing only a word or two before passing on.
"Think one of those fancy drinks might cheer me up?" asked Kyrillis, sounding a bit less sullen.
"Knock you on your ass, more like," joked Evolice. "Then Lapour would scoop you up and toss you out the door herself."
"Probably not the play," said Kyrillis. "Anyway, suppose Lapour meant it when she said we should go back to our booths, huh? Path splits here."
"Yeah, better not test her right now," agreed Evolice. "But that's okay. The afternoon session is shorter. Let's meet back up by the Hall of Technology as soon as we're free. That way we can grab good seats for the closing ceremony."
"Absolute magic," said Kyrillis sarcastically, "an up-close view of Kobb's smug face as he makes history."
"What did I just say about dropping it?" asked Evolice, exasperated.
"I know, I know. It was a joke," said Kyrillis with a weak smile. "I'll see you later... oh, and thanks for talking sense into me." They lingered a moment, exchanging a wordless farewell, then parted ways.
There was still a good bit of time left in social hour when Evolice reached the Hall of Language Arts. Her stomach was yelling at her for not eating anything while she had the chance, but there wasn't anything she could do about that now. The markets were mostly vacant, and shimmering swarms of letters buzzed freely through the tarp-covered walkways. Only one stall had a presenter, a girl with short electric-blue hair, sitting hunched over as if she were taking a nap.
As Evolice walked the empty streets, humming along with the merry melodies in the air, she could just make out the faint sound of crying over the music. She stopped and scanned the deserted market. There was only the girl, face buried in her knees, and Evolice knew the sound had to be coming from her. Ms. Lapour had been quite specific about Evolice returning to her booth, but who else was going to help the girl? Suddenly, a cloud of letters descended on Evolice, swirling around her until they formed words:
Pure of heart. Brave of heart.
Speak to a heart. Save a heart.
"How subtle," said Evolice, shooing away the letters. Ms. Lapour couldn't possibly be mad if she were just trying to help.
The blue-haired girl didn't seem to hear Evolice approach. She sobbed quietly from her seat behind the counter, her face buried in both knees.
"Excuse me," said Evolice kindly. "Is something wrong?"
The girl looked up. Her watery eyes were swollen and smeared in messy blue makeup.
"I just... leave me alone," said the girl glumly.
When she spoke, it was as if her words had the force of a great wave, and Evolice was washed in a rush of emotion. It had a voice, not Evolice's. It was lower and more fierce.
"He saved for you, traveled for you, gave up his business for YOU. He made every connection you ever needed, and now, you let him down."
Evolice inhaled sharply and stumbled back a step, earning a strange look from the girl. Glancing down, Evolice saw that her necklace was shining a brilliant blue light.
"I..." Evolice breathed deep, remembering who she was, where she was. "I'm sorry, I just got lightheaded all of a sudden."
"It's okay," said the girl. "You don't have to say anything. Just leave me be."
"Listen," said Evolice softly, doing her best to block out the waves of emotions spilling into her mind. "I'll go if that's what you want, but you should know, just being here is a victory. Thousands apply and only a fraction get in. Being here today, it's the first step to something bigger."
"I screwed up badly." The girl wiped her nose on her sleeve. "The first judge was brutal and I snapped at him then he—"
Evolice could feel the girl's emotion building, beating down on her mind.
"He said I'd never be a true poet," she wailed, the dam finally breaking. Tears fell from her eyes which she buried in her palms.
"You won't ever hear the music in the words. People won't ever read what YOU write. You're just perfectly undeniably average."
"Stop it! Stop right now," demanded Evolice, pushing the voice from her mind and stopping the tears of her own, welling in her eyes. This had never happened before. Sure, she'd had her trusty gut, but she'd never heard the voice of another soul, outside of reading.
"Stop what?" snapped the girl. "This whole thing has been a train wreck."
"Maybe so, but it's not just you," said Evolice as forcefully as she could while fighting the girl's emotional onslaught. "Everyone here is worried. I just spoke to a boy who wanted to quit, but he didn't. You know why? Because that's the only way we really lose. We all want to win the scholarship, and the truth is, most of us won't. But just making it this far, we've opened a thousand doors for ourselves. Today might not be your day, but if you drop the doom and gloom, tomorrow might just be."
"It's just... you can't possibly understand."
"Maybe not," said Evolice, feeling the girl starting to calm. "But I know we all had help getting where we are now, parents, friends, mentors, people that sacrificed to get us here, and I know that if I was in their shoes, I wouldn't care if you won or lost. As long as you gave it your all and never stopped fighting, I'd be proud."
"You're right," said the girl, sniffling loudly. "Imagine letting him see me like this. After everything he did to get me here, he'd shake some sense into me real quick. Thank you for doing that. I don't even know you... I... My name is Naomi, it's really nice to meet you." She offered Evolice a hand, which she shook happily.
"I'm Evolice, it's really nice to meet you, too."
"I think we must have a different definition of nice," laughed Naomi through her tears. Her emotions had stopped their assault on Evolice's mind, and the necklace no longer shone.
"I'm just happy I could help," said Evolice sweetly. "It's a stressful day for all of us."
"Alright," said the girl, shooting up from her chair with a fire in her eyes. "I think I can still get a bite to eat if I run. Don't want to try the afternoon on an empty stomach. I'll need to give this last judge a proper show. Thank you again, Evolice."
"Of course," said Evolice.
"Oh wait, one more thing before I go," said Naomi. She stepped out from behind the stall, standing almost a head taller than Evolice.
"What's that?" asked Evolice and Naomi grinned down at her, putting one hand on her shoulder.
"I'm out of the running for sure, but I'm rooting for you."
"You don't even know what I'm presenting," said Evolice with a warm smile.
"Don't need to," said Naomi brightly. "Just kill it for me, okay? I want to see you up on stage."
"I'll do my best."
"Good enough for me." With a squeeze, Naomi released Evolice's shoulder then made for the entrance of the hall.
Evolice was left alone in the barren markets. She knew that Ms. Lapour could easily be done with Eamon by now and could be on her way to check on Evolice any minute, so she moved quickly through the market streets toward the ruins area of the hall. Most of the crumbling and incomplete buildings were dark and empty.
Evolice had nearly reached the great temple at the end of the street when she heard a voice calling out from the building on the corner. The single-room shelter was collapsed in one corner but was still spacious enough to fit a small group of guests.
"Excuse me, miss, if you have but a moment," said a smooth, deep voice from inside. She could see the skinny boy, lit in the pale blue light of his display. His blonde hair fell nearly to his shoulders and hung over his eyes in front.
"I'm sorry," said Evolice, pausing in the doorway. From here she could see the boy much better. He was easily the youngest contestant she had met so far. Though there couldn't be an ounce of fat in his body, the boy's cheeks were plump and sprinkled in freckles. "I really need to get back to my booth."
"Oh, come now," he said. "We have time in abundance. It'll only take but a moment."
Evolice was curious. She'd seen plenty of the science exhibits and even a few in the Hall of History, but she had yet to properly visit any of the displays here in the Hall of Language Arts. She looked at the empty street around her. If Ms. Lapour wanted to check on Evolice in the courtyard, she'd have to pass right by here.
"Okay, I'll check it out..." said Evolice, having a sudden thought. "But if Ms. Lapour comes through, I need you to do me a favor."
The boy gasped, "You mean?" He made a slicing motion at his neck.
"No, I don't want you to kill her," snorted Evolice, "I need you to tell her that you asked for my help. Make up some stupid reason, I don't care, but you needed my help with something. Got it?"
The boy bowed. "Worry not, my deception skill is particularly high."
"Oh," chuckled Evolice, "is that so?"
There was a short step down into the decrepit structure. Evolice knew this had been designed specifically for this hall and that the engineering was solid as any other modern building, but looking up at the incomplete ceiling and crumbling walls, she couldn't help but feel like it could come down on her at any moment.
"My name is Tomber Dunefoot, master of tabletops and teller of tales." He spoke in a confident and booming voice as if he were performing on stage. "Who are you, who chances upon my corner of this fantastical marketplace?"
"Evolice Nadima," she said kindly. Beyond Eamon's mask, this was certainly the most intriguing display she'd seen all day. On the table was a tall hill covered in blue pine trees. Waterfalls crashed down the sheer cliffs on either side.
"Well then, Miss Evolice, I wish you warm welcome to the world of Nalvia. You stand here," he motioned to a spot on the hill, "near the top of Mount Reclavis overlooking the blue valley. You have traveled many years and sacrificed much along the way, but finally, you have reached the fabled cave of Zultan'Dor. Do you dare enter?"
"Oh definitely," said Evolice, already snared by his words.
"Inside the cave is a long passage; the further you walk, the darker it grows. You have no light, no torch, no magic left to save you. All you can hear is the pitter patter of water, dripping off stalactites. Do you dare continue, or shall you turn back?"
"Then on you go," said Tomber. "The depths are growing frigid, but your Snow-Reiki skin is used to much colder climates. You eventually find yourself in a massive cavern. Three beams of light break through the ceiling far overhead, and in their light you find three pedestals.
“The first holds a stone idol, worn and weathered, with eyes red as flame. The second holds a white-cloth sack trimmed in gold, its contents a mystery. The third holds a blue flower, still alive despite years, perhaps eons, without soil or water. As you draw near, you hear a voice.
"'A treasure you have come to find, like three souls before you,' it says. 'The first sought a kingdom beyond this mortal world. The second sought to reunite with the love that he had lost. The final simply sought a place to leave the world behind. The same treasure each soul received, what is it they did find?'"
Tomber looked at Evolice expectantly.
"Hmm, hold on," she said, going back over everything in her mind. "Three pedestals, three souls. One wants to find a kingdom... that could be the idol maybe? But how does that fit for long lost love—"
"Personally, I think it's the mystery sack."
Evolice jumped at the familiar voice. She spun around to find Eamon, standing in the doorway, clutching several paper bags.
"I thought you'd been booted out," said Evolice excitedly.
"Me too," said Eamon, coming down the steps to join them in the hut. "But my silver tongue prevails once again. Ms. Lapour said I'm out of the running for sure, but I can stick around as long as I stay away from Kobb. Honestly, sounds like a deal to me."
"You idiot," Evolice chuckled and she hugged him. "Listen, you won't believe what happened—"
"Um, excuse me," said Tomber, sounding a touch annoyed.
"Oh no way," exclaimed Eamon. "You're Tomber Dunefoot, aren't you?"
"The one and only," said Tomber proudly. "You a subscriber?"
"I... uh... no," admitted Eamon. "But I tune in from time to time. Wait." He gasped. "Can I join in?"
Tomber cleared his throat. "Evolice, as you stand, making your decision, a tiny Mipling man climbs out of your backpack.
"Hey, what are you doing in there?" asked Evolice, sounding overly affronted.
"What am I— the nerve!" proclaimed Eamon. "You're the one who strapped my tent to your back and marched way the heck out here."
"As you bicker, the afternoon sun begins to fall," said Tomber. "The light shifts across the floor. It will soon leave the pedestals in darkness."
"Uh oh," said Eamon. "Better pick quick. I vote the gold-trimmed sack. You have no idea how hard it would be to sell off an idol like that."
"We're not choosing what sells for the most," argued Evolice. "We're trying to solve a riddle, and I think I've got it. All three wound up dead didn't they? It's the flower, their eternal resting place. I go and pick up the flower."
"Wait!" said Eamon. "We should discuss this."
"Too late," cried Tomber. "The deed is done. You pick up the flower and a rumble sounds around you—"
"Now you've gone and killed us," groaned Eamon.
"Not so," proclaimed Tomber. "As the walls turn around you, a doorway opens, filled with glorious golden light. Inside, you find a radiant treasure chest. As you open it..." He pulled out a box from behind his stall. It was ornate, and when he shook it, Evolice could hear something rolling around inside. "Roll for your prize. You first." He held the box out to Evolice.
She took the box and gave it a shake then lifted its ornate lid. Inside was a silver die with a number on each of its many sides.
"It says eight. Is that good?" asked Evolice
"Good enough for a free poster," said Tomber, reaching under his table and putting a long rolled-up poster on the table. "Now you." He looked at Eamon.
Eamon set down the bags he was holding and took the box from Evolice. He shook it wildly, then, slowly, lifted its lid. His face glowed as he looked at the silver die.
"A twenty," he said proudly. "Once again, luck is on my side."
"Incredible," clapped Tomber furiously. "That's the grand prize, a full set of my adventure guidebooks, hardback and signed by none other than myself. Index, can you get him registered?"
"Of course," came a helpful voice from Tomber's display. "What is the name?"
"Very good," said the index. "Expect delivery by end of night. Congratulations, sir!"
"Well, that was it for my sample adventure," said Tomber cheerfully. "But wait, before you go, Eamon, you think you see a glimmer in the box. I'd like you to make one more roll."
"Okay, here goes," said Eamon, giving the box another thorough shake. He held it out and opened the lid for them to see. All three gasped.
The silver die inside the box rested on the number twenty.
"T— Two perfect rolls, that's incredible," stammered Tomber. "It's decided then! As a grand grand prize, you will be featured on a very special episode of my vidcast. We can work out the details after the conference."
Eamon looked to Evolice in awe. "My luck, I'm telling you, it's unbeatable."
"Says the boy who got himself disqualified by lunch," quipped Evolice.
"Hey, not cool," he said, smiling anyway.
"Oh, I forgot to mention. I got you this," he picked up one of the paper bags on the floor and handed it to Evolice. "It's lunch, you know, because earlier."
"Eamon, you didn't have to—"
"Yeah, I really did," he said. "Anyway, shall we head back to your booth and eat?"
"Right," said Evolice. "Thanks so much for the adventure, Tomber. I think your presentation is exceptional." She stuffed the poster into the bag Eamon gave her.
"Goodbye you two," said Tomber, and Eamon and Evolice climbed up and out of the worn structure. "And congratulations again!"
"I hope Lapour's not mad I took a detour," said Evolice nervously as the pair walked past the entrance of the ancient temple. Eamon looked to be hardly listening and was instead gazing in awe at the scaled stone temple.
"Huh... Lapour... she's fine, yeah," he muttered absently.
"You don't think she's mad at me, do you?" asked Evolice. "Eamon, do you?"
"What was that? Oh hey, sorry," he said, "That temple is something else—
"Oh, yea, Lapour's fine, like I said. She's not mad at you or anything," said Eamon. "Kobb got an earful for being a dick though. That was hilarious. Anyway he— oh, is this you? It's great!"
They had just reached the stone archway leading into the grassy courtyard. Powder-white petals drifted down from the great deity tree hanging over the pondtop pagoda. A few letters resting peacefully on the flowers fluttered off as Evolice and Eamon walked the dirt path to the pagoda.
"You're alone out here?" Eamon asked. "Lucky you."
"You'd think," said Evolice. She crossed the bridge to the pagoda. "Nobody makes it out here; couldn't be more boring." Some letters that had been dancing on the lily pads in the pond suddenly leapt to life and fluttered into her path, forming a sentence.
"When she looked into his eyes, the depth of their blue put the ocean to shame"
"Cut that out, he's just a friend," grunted Evolice, waving the mischievous words out of her path. Her stomach's growling was exceedingly loud now, so Evolice ran to a bench and set down her paper bag. She peeked inside and found a to-go bowl full of cheesy pasta. "Eamon! You even remembered my order."
"Go on, eat up," said Eamon, blushing. He walked over to her display and examined the title above the globe. "Proof of the Human Soul, huh? I dig it. So, what was it you wanted to tell me before ol' Dunefoot interrupted. You seemed pretty excited."
"Oh yeah, I was talking to this girl. She was crying and this..." she held up her necklace. "It starts glowing; no book, no text, just conversation and... I could hear her thoughts, Eamon!"
"A mind reader," gasped Eamon. "But that would mean you're already shaping... impossible... This is the first time it's happened, you're sure?"
"Shaping?" asked Evolice. "I don't understand what you're saying."
"The light isn't just something you can see," said Eamon. "The Old-Scholars built a whole civilization by bending the light to their will. The stories say they could carve stone and shift the winds, summon rain and heal with a touch, and some, Evolice, could even read minds. But we're talking about elders and scholars who trained their entire life, not teenagers— unless... if there was a catalyst event, say, the book... but it would have to belong to a very powerful kytra— Evolice, what exactly did that notebook say to you?"
Eamon looked ecstatic, his grey-blue eyes almost glowing with excitement.
"Eamon, slow down," laughed Evolice. "Gimme a minute to remember. His voice was young at first, maybe six or seven—"
"Not possible," Eamon interrupted. "In the few accounts we do have, writing circuscript was one of the most complex skills a kytra could master."
"Oh, well, excuse me then," said Evolice, plopping onto the bench and crossing her arms. Her feet breathed a sigh of relief. "I suppose you don't care to know what I heard then."
"No, I'm sorry, continue," said Eamon. "It's just— nothing... continue."
"I remember he talked about someone," said Evolice, thinking back. The memory was hazy, and trying to remember any specific detail gave her a headache. "'Miss Nylk,' was her name, and he complained about lessons of some sorts, meditations, I think? That was just the first part though."
As she spoke, Eamon's whole demeanor suddenly shifted. His eyes shot wide, as if he'd suddenly come to a great conclusion. "Go on," he urged.
"The second part was, well, overwhelming," admitted Evolice. "He was screaming and crying, and it... I think it was a massacre. He kept yelling 'Let me out, I can save them if you let me out.'"
Eamon's face went ghostly pale. His arms went limp, and he dropped the other two bags on the floor with a loud thump.
"Evolice..." he said, struggling to find words. "Evolice, that's not just any book."
"What do you mean?" asked Evolice, looking at the ancient notebook full of strange circular scribblings. "You said this belonged to a kytra, right?"
"No, Evolice, not just a kytra," said Eamon. He ran to her, snatched the book from her hand, and began flipping through the pages, muttering to himself and nodding, wide-eyed. "This book... I think it belonged to a god."
If not for everything Evolice had seen today, she would have laughed. She would have called him crazy or told him to stop messing with her, but she knew he wasn't messing with her. After all, she had a knack for knowing these things.
"Listen, I know I sound insane right now," offered Eamon, almost defensively. "Have you ever heard of the Patronage?"
"I've read about it, I think. An old religion, right?" asked Evolice.
"Yeah," said Eamon, "it's smaller now than it used to be, but there's a few of us left. It started four thousand years ago. A man transcended his mortal form and became the very spirit of humanity. His name was Glavius Adaius, and I believe you hold his notebook."
"Glavius... Glavius..." Evolice muttered, it sounded so familiar, and then she remembered the boy's voice. "He'd yell Glavy Glavy and there wouldn't be anybody at all." Evolice's stomach dropped.
~Ring Ding Ding~
Evolice jumped at the sound from her index. The globe that had hung there a moment before was now replaced by the miniature form of Doctor Hawberk.
"What an eventful social hour this has been; too eventful for some, if I hear correctly. I remind you all that, despite the competitive nature of today's event, we are all here to share knowledge. In that, we are on the same team."
"Now," he continued, "as interesting as I'm sure your conversations have been. I ask that all presenters please return to your respective exhibits. The halls will reopen to judges in five minutes. As the afternoon passes, each of you will face your final judgements. After which, your index will notify you, and you will be free to wander as you please. The closing ceremony will begin in the Hall of Technology at precisely third hour. We recommend a prompt arrival for best seating. I hope to see you all there."
The figure disappeared, and Evolice's globe returned.
Evolice and Eamon looked between each other's gazes and the notebook in Eamon's hands. Neither knew who should speak first.
"Come on, sit with me," Evolice eventually said. "We can eat while you tell me about this Glavius Adieus."
"I would," said Eamon, sounding very tempted. "We need to talk about this... but later. Right now, I've got to get this to Kyrillis." He picked up the paper bags off the ground. "I want to make sure he knows I don't blame him or anything."
"That's probably a good idea," admitted Evolice. "He was pretty glum when I left him."
"We'll pick this back up later though, I promise," said Eamon, setting the ancient notebook on the round table. "You and me, we're gonna get to the bottom of this. I have a feeling we've just stumbled on something way big."
"Sure, if I can make it to the end of the day without losing it," joked Evolice. It had been an unbelievable day, and all the emotions were starting to weigh on her. At least she had a chance to eat lunch now. Food would surely help.
"Don't worry, you'll do great," said Eamon. "Not a soul here can compete with a kytra like you. I mean, you're a mind reader. What's Kobb got on that?"
"We don't know that I'm a mind reader for certain," said Evolice sharply, although something inside her knew exactly what had happened with Naomi. "Even if I was... It's not like I can control it."
"We can practice before the closing ceremony," said Eamon excitedly. "It won't help you with the third judge, but if you do make the finals, it could help you crush Kobb."
"I don't know..." said Evolice. "You told me it could only be mastered by elders, and anyway, isn't that cheating?"
"It's not cheating," Eamon shot back. "It's just as much a part of you as your mind. Is it cheating to use that? Anyway... I'm not saying we'll get it perfect, but maybe just enough to give you an edge."
"Fine," said Evolice. "It can't hurt to try."
"Good, then I'll see you later," chimed Eamon. "Since the Hall of Technology is just down the way, Kyrillis and I will drift this way after his last judge."
"Okay, I'll see you then," said Evolice.
"Yeah, see you," said Eamon, smiling bright with his paper lunch bags. "Oh, and if you get done way early, feel free to come join us."
"Sure thing," said Evolice, as Eamon left the pagoda.
The cafeteria noodles weren't anything special, in fact, they were quite cool and chewy by now, but to Evolice's aching stomach, they tasted like the cuisine of the gods. As she ate, Evolice was absorbed in thought. Today, she had been challenged by a strange pudgy monk and deciphered the mourning of a widow. She had embarrassed herself in front of a hero and been shaken by a language only she could understand. She had listened to a boy play carefree as a child then cry helplessly as everyone he knew was slaughtered. She had made friends and watched them fight. She had read a girl's thoughts and learned that the journal she held once belonged to a god. It was all so much, so perfectly aligned, that it felt almost scripted. She felt as if someone were pulling her through today on a string, and only wished she knew what it was she was being pulled toward.
"Excuse me, are you Miss Nadima?"
The figure standing just inside the pagoda's doorway was not human. The capillum towered feet over Evolice, and though her face was shrouded in a shimmering silver veil, every inch of skin that Evolice could see was covered in pale blue fur. Her loose cloth outfit was a similar silver and blue palette and cut wildly across her body, revealing streaking patterns of sea-green glitter on both sides. There were no sleeves to cover her shoulders. The fur here was dyed in a swirling icy green pattern that looked almost like circuscript. Evolice couldn't make out any expression from behind the veil, which, coupled with her size and markings, gave the woman an unsettling presence.
Beyond the nervous awe was another feeling, even stronger in Evolice's gut. There was no doubt about it this time. Evolice had met this woman before. No sooner did the feeling settle in her gut, than her mind chased it out. She had never met a capillum in her life and certainly never realized just how massive they would be.
"Yes, ma'am," said Evolice, too nervous to stand.
"Ah, the proof of the human soul, a globe..." spoke the woman with a distinct coldness in her accent. "I'd never imagined it would be so simple." The woman stepped closer to the display and ran an abnormally long finger over the model planet until it came to rest on Roana. The globe flickered, and it was replaced with a hovering book, turned to a page near the center.
"You can read Roani?" asked the woman, seeming unsurprised.
"Yes ma'am," said Evolice, setting her finished lunch bowl aside. She wiped her hands then rose to join the towering woman at the display. "It's a passage from Reylem's ode to the future: To believe in fate was to ignore that the future remained unwritten."
"Beautiful," said the woman.
Though Evolice couldn't tell through the woman's accent if she was being genuine or not, she had a feeling it was the latter.
"But... Proof of the human soul? At best, proof you know a bit of Roani," said the woman. "Oh, how rude, I almost forgot. My name is Serenade, and I am your final judge."
If Evolice hadn't been nervous before, she was now. Her final test was not off to a good start.
"Not the speaking type, that's okay. I will be blunt," spoke the woman, now looking down on Evolice. Her very presence was powerful. "You have claimed you can prove to me the presence of a human soul. Proof: a word of logic and science, repeated observation of correlation to hypothesize the root of causation. It is a painstaking procedure, requiring an answer at each and every step. No skipping, no assumptions, only fact. So please, provide your proof."
Evolice swallowed hard. She had to think. "When I was a kid—" she began to say but was cut off."
"I would choose your next words carefully, Miss Nadima," said Serenade. "Proof is proof from step one. A single anecdote and I fail you."
"Right," said Evolice, tapping her foot rhythmically. "Let me start over. I've designed an experiment. Hypothesis: when an author writes, they leave a part of themselves in the words, thoughts, worries, and emotions. That part, I define as the human soul."
"I will accept that," said Serenade. "What is your experiment?"
"I need a piece of writing, anything at all, a language I never learned, a personal note whose true purpose I couldn't possibly know. I'll be able to read things that aren't the letters, at the very least, it will prove there's something more there. I have to get the information somehow."
"A magician's trick," said Serenade slyly. "And if I don't have any books for you? If I have no letters of any kind. Does your proof crumble? How can you prove to me that you are more than a second-rate psychic act?"
Evolice's foot was tapping frantically now, and she nervously clutched her necklace. As her fingers traced the cracked surface of the stone, she had an idea. She knew how she would prove the human, or in this case capillum, soul.
"Tell me a story," Evolice challenged. She clutched her necklace, knowing full-well that she was betting everything on this. "It can be any moment, but, the more emotional the better. Oh, and make sure to change something, or leave it out. Something really important."
"Okay, I'll bite," cooed Serenade. "When I was a child, I first came to Irasil from Roana—"
"Lie," declared Evolice. Her necklace radiated light through her fingers, and the young girl in her mind wanted so badly to see the land that her parents had come from. "You were born in Irasil. But, from your accent, I'd guess you've been to Roana since."
"Back for a week and my accent is already slipping," hissed Serenade. "Still not proof."
"Then go again," demanded Evolice.
"I attended the University of Gau for three years before dropping out," said Serenade, but as she spoke, Evolice could hear other words too. "I was a good student, but school wasn't for me." If I'm ever forced to take another written test... "But I did manage to meet my first and only love before I left there." That self-righteous, narcissistic—
"You may have loved them once, but you don't now," Evolice cut in. It felt almost as if living liquid was flowing from the gem and wrapping about her hand with a mind of its own, as wispy tongues of sky-blue light danced through her fingers.
She's done her research—
"I haven't heard of you before today," argued Evolice. "This isn't a trick, it's your proof. I can hear more than your words. You can't deny there's something else there. Call that something whatever you want, but I call it the soul."
So you really can hear me?
"Yes," proclaimed Evolice, triumphantly.
Without a word, the woman swept from the pagoda, leaving Evolice clutching her necklace. Evolice couldn't believe what she'd just done. Eamon was right, she was a mind reader.
"Congratulations, Miss Nadima," piped ID-249. "Your last judge has come and gone. You are now free to explore as you will."
"Thanks," said Evolice. She ran to the table and snatched the notebook. With her last judge out of the way, she could go tell Eamon right now. As Evolice ran to the entrance and across the wooden bridge, she stopped. Several girls had come into the courtyard, led by none other than blue-haired Naomi. They waved, and Evolice waved back.
"Hey, hey, look at you out here," called Naomi happily.
"Is that the deity tree?" gasped a girl with untamed red curls.
"It's incredible," agreed the other in a short cut dress, black as her long straight hair.
They joined Evolice at the bridge and exchanged names. The redhead was called Ami, while the other was Dalla.
"I've never seen a flower quite like that," said Dalla, pointing to the flower fixed in Evolice's hair.
"Oh yeah, a friend of mine made it," said Evolice proudly
"Ooh did you see that fish?" Ami squealed excitedly, leaning over the railing to get a better look.
"Yeah, I think it's a dusk carp," said Dalla, glancing over, but her gaze quickly returned to Kyrillis' flower.
"Can we come in?" asked Naomi. "I've been dying to see your presentation."
"Sure," said Evolice, leading them back into the pagoda.
Inside, the girls gathered around Evolice's display. They took turns selecting different points of light and were amazed every time Evolice translated a passage for them. Naomi stepped up beside Evolice, and just as Evolice finished rehearsing a Salduni fisher-chant, Naomi leaned in close.
"Thanks so much for earlier," she whispered. "I've really killed it this afternoon. Final judge said he loved my spirit and offered to meet for coffee and chat about my poetry. I know dad will be proud, even if I walk away with nothing else."
"Good for you," said Evolice, nudging her excitedly.
"Ooh, here, do people even live here?" asked Ami, pointing to the frozen peninsula, Innit'Ro.
"Actually, I do."
The girls turned to find Eamon and Kyrillis in the entryway.
"Oh hello, I'm Ami" said the redhead cheerfully. "You really live all the way down there? Doesn't it get cold?"
"Yes, yes, and hello, Ami. I'm Kyrillis," he smiled broadly in his oversized suit.
"And I'm Eamon," boasted Eamon, pushing past Kyrillis into the now cramped pagoda.
The other two chimed in.
"Well, it's getting crowded in here, so we'll let you guys have her to yourselves," said Naomi warmly. "Great show, Evolice. I'm really rooting for you."
"Me too!" piped Amy.
Dalla just smiled and waved goodbye as the three girls exited, giving Kyrillis and Eamon much more room.
"So?" asked Evolice, looking between them.
"This kid was on fire!" announced Eamon. "I saw him charm the pants off this grandma. It was the funniest thing I've ever witnessed."
"I did not," laughed Kyrillis defensively, "but she was very sweet, and very informed about flora."
"Well I'm glad your afternoon's been productive," said Evolice. "You won't believe what happened to me."
"You did it again?" gasped Eamon.
Evolice nodded with a bright grin.
"Did what again?" asked Kyrillis. "What am I missing?"
"Okay," said Eamon, "this might sound crazy—"
"Eamon!" Evolice shook her head frantically.
"Oh come on, don't be so shy," said Eamon. "It's like I said. You may not believe me, but Evolice can read minds."
Kyrillis snorted, then looked between the two. It took him a moment, but his face changed as he realized they weren't joking.
"You're right," said Kyrillis, "I think you're crazy."
"You don't need to believe," said Eamon, "Evolice can show you. Can't you, Evolice?"
"You know what? Yeah, I can show you," said Evolice. "I just need you to tell me a story. Leave something out or change a detail. I don't care which."
"Okay, let's see," said Kyrillis. "This morning I met a man, almost certainly a judge. He and I hit it off."
As he spoke, Evolice clung tight to her necklace. She listened close, but no matter how hard she listened, she couldn't hear any words beyond those he was speaking. The stone in the necklace remained dark, and Evolice began to grow frustrated. Why would it not cooperate now?
"He was an expert in genealogy and was particularly fond of my work in a specific domain. What domain was it?"
"I don't know." Evolice's cheeks flushed red and she looked at Eamon helplessly.
"So, no mind reading?" asked Kyrillis.
"Maybe it only works with strong emotions," said Eamon suddenly. "You said the girl was crying earlier."
"I don't know," said Evolice, flustered. "Let's just get over to the Hall of Technology, okay? I'm sure the seats will go fast."
"Alright," said Eamon. "You lead the way."
Tucking the ancient notebook snugly into her back pocket, Evolice left the pagoda with Eamon and Kyrillis in tow.
There was a long line in the street just outside Tomber Dunefoot's building, stretching all the way around the corner. Among the many excited teens, Evolice spotted Naomi, Dalla, and Ami chatting away with a group of boys. Naomi flashed Evolice a big wave as she passed.
The covered markets were busier than ever, with teens and guests both flitting from stall to stall, examining the many colorful artworks or pausing just long enough to read a sample page or two. The animated letters seemed to be having fun in all the commotion, as they bounced along the underside of the tarps spelling out messages of encouragement.
Each test failed was a trial overcome
so long as she learned what caused her fall
Though they moved with purpose, Evolice and the boys would sometimes see a booth that stood out and stop to look. There was one, a video poet, that Evolice quite enjoyed. Her display was filled with deep blue and violet shapes that morphed in time with the changing lyrics. Even though there was no sound, Evolice felt she could hear the rhythm in the poet's voice, as each word appeared and faded.
Tossed upon the ocean
of my lover's heart,
I fell upon the cold wet stone
a chance for us to part.
And yet I chose to dive back in
no wiser in my youth,
until it spits me out again,
my prison made of you.
As Evolice walked the market streets, she kept running her finger over the stone in her necklace, wondering why it hadn't worked with Kyrillis. She replayed her encounter with Serenade over and over again in her mind, trying to work out anything she might have done differently.
They reached the double doors, exiting the Hall of Language Arts, and found that the sunny passage outside was still relatively empty.
"Well, yeah, we are over an hour early still," pointed out Kyrillis. "What are we going to do once we get our seats anyway?"
"Evolice is going to practice," said Eamon as they reached the marble steps to the north lobby.
"Eamon, please," said Evolice, wishing he would just drop it. Kyrillis clearly thought she was crazy already, and Eamon was just making it worse.
"No, I won't stop," said Eamon. "You know it's real. What happens when you get up on stage and this happens again? If you want to win, you need to learn control."
"Yes, and then you can set up a psychic shop in Roana," teased Kyrillis.
"You're gonna eat those words when she kicks your ass," Eamon shot back.
"I'm not saying she won't," admitted Kyrillis. "But it'll be her mind that beats me, not some voodoo magic."
"Guys, stop," Evolice cut in. They had reached the top of the steps, and a few students were already trickling into the Hall of Technology. "Let's get our seats first... we can worry about the rest once we have a spot."
"Fine by me," said Eamon, trying to sound less annoyed than he was.
They followed a group of excited looking girls through the double doors to the Hall of Technology and found themselves in a smaller hallway. It was dim and lit by twin strips of floor lights. A short way down the corridor, a rope was set up to prevent them from going any further, and another path split off to the right. This way led them to a small landing, overlooking the Hall of Technology.
Chapter 4: Vision of the Host
The Hall of Technology had no floor, ceiling, or walls. The space was wrapped in a blanket of darkness. Square white stages rose from the darkness in a perfect grid throughout the hall. On each was a presenter with a display, and these exhibits, like those in the Hall of History, were mostly physical. There were magspheres, grav engines, all manner of robotics, self-sustaining gardens, and even a 'Relative Suppression Grid,' whatever that meant.
Since there was no floor in the Hall of Technology, guests instead rode around on floating white disks. The thin glowing platforms soared freely through the air, carrying guests from display to display. Some were smaller and could only carry one or two people, while others were large enough to fit six or seven. Evolice could see that all the guests and contestants here were wearing the same style harness over their clothes. At the very back of the hall was a stage, rising like the platforms from the darkness. Its great silver curtains were currently drawn, and several rows of round white disks had already lined up in front of it.
"Welcome to the Hall of Technology."
Caught up in the wonder of the hall, Evolice hadn't heard the man come up behind them. He had scruffy sandy hair and a dark unkempt beard. His shirt, sporting a squirrel surfing a rocket ship, fit too small and showed just enough of his hairy stomach to not want to see any more.
"No way," cried Kyrillis.
"It can't be," exclaimed Eamon.
"Billionaire, Tech mogul, Roy Elman, here to please," spoke the man. His eyes were glazed red. "You kids ready to fly? That's what, one... two... seven of you?"
Evolice exchanged a look with a girl from the group just ahead of them and shook her head.
"Oh, no. It's just the four of us," said a tall blonde with neon green glasses who looked like she led the group of girls.
"And you three?" asked Roy.
"Y— y— yes," stuttered Kyrillis.
"It's really you," sighed Eamon, almost drooling.
"Cool." Roy went to the edge of the landing and extended an arm. "Check this out," he said, as two floating disks rose from the darkness below. Their surface was glassy smooth and glowed a faint white. "Formflex so they can do this... hey platform, gimme a chair." A perfectly circular stool rose out of the surface of the platform.
"Can I just shake your hand?" Eamon interrupted. "I'll never wash my hand again."
"You're welcome to try," bellowed Roy. He stuck out his hand, but when Eamon reached out to grab it, his hand passed right through.
"What?" cried Roy, "I'm a hologram... how can it be?"
"Whoa," gasped everyone at once.
"Are you controlling that?" asked Kyrillis. "Or are you just an AI?"
"Both," proclaimed Roy, "or neither I suppose, depending on how you look at it. I'm speakin' from a couch right now with a nice glass of mushturnip tea, but this me," he pointed at himself, "he's got the acting chops. Check this out— Vest me!" He stuck his hand out over the edge of the landing. A harness flew up from the darkness below. He caught it and pulled the vest over his shirt. "Real vest, hologram me, how is that even possible? Because I'm Roy Elman, and what I dream, I make."
Roy strutted over to one of the platforms and stepped onto the surface. "Now these vests are gonna keep you all from falling to a very gruesome death in the darkness below." He stepped off the back of the platform and floated in midair. "You'll also get a glove." He reached out a hand, and a glove soared up from the darkness. "It's got a little joystick for direction, and these buttons here for height." He began zooming around, doing flips and spins. "Look at me! How am I doing this? I'm not even real!"
Eamon was obsessed. His face was pure joy as he watched Roy zoom around.
"And don't worry novice pilots, these things are built with safety in mind," said Roy, returning to the platform. "They're speed locked, nice and slow, with anti collision sensors. So... if there's no other questions, you can go ahead and get yourselves suited up."
Seven vests and gloves rose around the landing's edge, and each teen grabbed their own. It wasn't difficult to secure. There were only three clips, and the harness tightened to a comfortable snug on its own. The glove just slid on, though the controls felt a bit awkward between Evolice's forefinger and thumb.
"Let's get you all assignments," said Roy. "We got a center position in row two and just off to the left in row three. Any preference?"
"Well I don't really care that much," said the girl in the green glasses. "You guys wanna toss a coin for the second row?"
"Sure!" said Eamon. "It's my specialty."
Kyrillis gave him an odd look.
"Oh, I've got this covered," said Roy. He reached behind his ear and pulled out a golden prekkut. The coin had the image of a sun on top and moon on the bottom.
"Sun or moon? Call it in the air," cried Roy, flicking the coin.
"Sun," shouted Eamon immediately.
"Uh, moon then," said the girl.
Roy plucked the coin out of the air and slapped it onto his arm. He lifted his hand.
"Sun it is!" said Roy.
"My luck," whispered Eamon to Evolice with a nudge.
"Oh, and while we're on coins... Yo, Tommy, get in here."
An orb of light popped into existence beside the holographic Roy.
"Ayy, Tommy," roared Roy. "Okay, if any of you have metal, just show it to Tommy here so he can scan it in. This whole place is rigged up in magtech; don't wanna go stealing rings by accident."
"Here," said a girl, "I have earrings. And some stuff in my bag." The orb zipped over and shone a light into her purse.
"I have this necklace," said Evolice, and the orb came to scan her next.
"On my back too, near the bottom," said Kyrillis. "Two studs." The orb went to him next.
"Alright, last thing," said Roy, walking to the first platform. "These disks will dim on top when the show begins, but the bottom will stay lit. If you need a release mid-show, you can always press the red button on your glove there. It'll light up the bottom of your display in a nice green for you. Now, let's get you all on your way. Can we get some seats for our friends here?" Several round stools rose out of the platform's glassy surface. Roy beckoned to Evolice, Eamon, and Kyrillis.
They walked to the edge. Eamon was the first to step on the platform. Evolice and Kyrillis both hesitated, just a moment, to make sure it held Eamon. The seats were surprisingly cushioned, and, as Evolice sat, a second piece floated up from the floor to support her back. It took a moment for her to trust her full weight on it, but soon she was leaning comfortably, giving her sore feet a well-earned rest.
"Go ahead, just tell your platform where you want to go," said Roy. "Spot's claimed for you, so feel free to explore the hall a bit before the show."
"Let's do that," said Kyrillis, and the platform began to move. It accelerated smoothly, and Evolice was never uncomfortable or worried she would topple from her stool. The platform rode a short distance from the landing to the edge of the exhibit grid then paused for further instructions.
"We could just wait here," offered Eamon from his seat. "There's no prying eyes to watch Evolice practice."
"Not this again," groaned Kyrillis. "Let's just tour the exhibits. You two can do whatever, but some of this stuff looks pretty cool to me."
"That's fine," said Evolice. "Crazy or not, a bit of practice might make the difference in me winning; Serenade proved that. You just check out the exhibits."
"Works for me," said Eamon. "Platform, go on and take us on a nice tour, would you?"
They began to move.
"Alright," said Eamon excitedly, leaping up from his seat. "Let's try to recreate your experience with the judge. Were you sitting or standing?"
"Standing," said Evolice, returning to her feet.
"And were you two touching at all?" asked Eamon.
"No," replied Evolice.
Their moving platform passed by a robot exhibit. He looked almost human, but every inch of skin, cloth, and hair was bleached white. The robot was repeating a wide range of acrobatic motions. In front was a smaller platform, where an older gentleman sat discussing the display with its presenter.
"And what about my theory from earlier?" asked Eamon. "Was the moment emotional."
"Sort of," said Evolice. "She was really intimidating, but mostly she talked about an old romance, hates their guts now. Anyway, while she was talking, I heard what she was thinking."
Kyrillis crossed to the far end of the platform, getting a closer look at the exhibits they passed.
"Okay," said Eamon, closing his eyes and placing his hands dramatically on his temple. "So I have to tell one story but think about something else? Got it. When I was thirteen, I went to a fair with my best friend at the time."
As he spoke, Evolice clutched her necklace. Hard as she tried to strain her mind, she just couldn't hear anything else.
"We rode the Slegtown Speeder twice, back to back," said Eamon, "and he barfed right at the end."
"Nothing is happening," said Evolice, frustrated. Her necklace wasn't shining, even a little.
"No worries. I have another plan," said Eamon. "The kytra were said to calm their minds to obtain a one-ness with the light. They had a meditation that Mathas has me do nightly to try and strengthen my own connection to the light. It's easy, we can do it right now, just have a seat."
"Sure," grumbled Evolice, falling back into her stool.
"Good, now close your eyes," said Eamon from the seat beside her.
She did as he said.
"I want you to wiggle your toes."
"Excuse me?" said Evolice.
"Trust me," said Eamon calmly. "I want you to feel every muscle in your foot. I want you to scrunch it up tight, breathe in deep, and then release as you let it all out. Feel your feet falling away."
Evolice followed his instruction. She tightened her sore feet muscles, breathed in, and released. The pain of standing all day washed from them.
"Next your legs," said Eamon.
Evolice repeated the steps in her legs.
In and out.
In and out.
"Shoulders... hands... neck... and face. Let your body fall away. Now, it's time for your thoughts. Hear the people around you, their voices. In..."
Evolice listened to the ambient chatter, focusing on every voice, every mechanical whir, every laugh, and every clap.
"That looks just like... shoot what's the name..." Kyrillis was saying to a presenter.
As Evolice breathed out, she released all that noise, and it was replaced with a different sound, Kyrillis' voice stark in her mind.
Capri-flower that's it, with the swirl pattern.
"Capri-flower," shouted Evolice, her eyes shooting open. Liquid light surged from the stone in her necklace and spun around her fingers. A surprised looking Kyrillis spun around.
"What did you just say?" he asked.
"A capri-flower, it's the swirl pattern," boasted Evolice confidently. "I heard you say it." Even as her heart was pumping, the light was receding back into the stone.
They locked eyes and Eamon glanced excitedly between them.
"I ..." Kyrillis started. "No, it's crazy. Just. Not. Possible. I don't know what that was, so I guess I have no place to tell you what it wasn't, but..."
"Baby steps," said Eamon smugly. "You'll come around."
They coasted down the line of displays. While most were physical, others showed applications.
"Design a digital you in seconds," called a chubby boy as they passed by his exhibit. "See, even famous actor Rasko Fludd had a go." The wild-haired comedian popped into existence beside the boy.
"Ay, hey, Chipakowonga," he called after them with his nonsensical catchphrase.
Rounding the next row of exhibits, Eamon suddenly gasped.
"What's up?" asked Evolice, but clearly Kyrillis saw it, too.
"Oh no, he's looking this way," mumbled Kyrillis, pointing.
Standing at the corner exhibit, just beside them, was Garrett Kobb and his giant metal sphere. The fair-skinned boy wore a sneer beneath his cut cheek, although he hardly looked menacing with both hands wrapped up in bandages.
"Will you look at that," said Kobb in a fake sweet voice. "Lapour let you stay to watch me win. Judges have all said it. The Kobb engine and I are going to sweep in the finals."
"I am disgusted but not at all surprised that you named it after yourself," said Eamon.
"Don't antagonize him," said Kyrillis.
"Aww, look at that," smirked Kobb. "You've already learned to roll over. If you keep up the good work, you might even be able to pick up fetch."
Kyrillis sighed deeply. "Platform, get us back to our spot. The ceremony should start soon enough.”
"Oh, what's that?" asked Kobb as they drifted away. "You don't want to see the machine that will crush your hopes of seeing Roani soil?"
"We're good, thanks," called Kyrillis back to him.
Each row of platforms in front of the stage was raised slightly above the next, so that tall students never blocked the view of others. Their platform parked itself just behind twin brothers in the front row, just two platforms left from center.
For the next half-hour, Eamon and Evolice practiced meditating and listening, while Kyrillis watched on skeptically. It would take Evolice a few minutes each time to clear her mind, and once she did, she only ever heard a word or two, but it was steady progress.
"Okay, Kyrillis, whisper a word you want me to send her," said Eamon, his voice sounding distant, as Evolice breathed slow, in and out. "Ready Evolice, I'll say another word, you try to hear Kyrillis's word. Chocolate, chocolate, chocolate, chocolate," rainbow, "chocolate, chocolate—"
"Rainbow," cried Evolice, breaking her mental quiet.
"I don't understand," said Kyrillis, looking amazed. "If this is some prank you two have dreamed up..."
"And how would I know what word you'd say?" said Eamon. "If this was a prank."
"I don't know," admitted Kyrillis. "Some sort of manipulation, maybe you've been planting it all day— no... that's just as insane."
The rows of moving platforms were filling up now, as closing ceremony drew near. Some students were sitting in groups chatting excitedly; others were floating around the open space, playing tag and trying to one-up each other with stylish tricks in the air. Without warning, the great silver curtains lurched into motion. Heads turned, chatter quieted, the disks dimmed, and a spotlight shone on the wide stage, revealing a lone man standing in the center.
"Will you look at that," said Doctor Hawberk, his voice booming throughout the hall. "We have reached the end of the day, and might I say how proud I am of everything we accomplished here today."
There was clapping from the students, as last stragglers floated in and those playing with the vests scampered back their spots.
"It seems like every year a Vision Scholar makes the news for changing the world. It seems like every month I see a new article, a new story, something new that makes me realize just how incredible of an experience it is to meet such talent. Now, I've been told in the past I have a tendency to draw these things out, and so I will try to be brief with you all today."
"In this envelope," he held up his hand for the hall to see, "I hold four names. These will be your Vision Scholars and competitors for the Visionary grand prize." He ripped open the envelope and looked for a moment. "From the Hall of History, we have Sanden Ramance and her discovery of a new ancestral link in human-capillum divergence."
"Woohoo!" called a voice in the back.
"Indeed!," replied Doctor Hawberk, "next, from the Hall of Science, we have Kyrillis Ma-Ikkut, with his work gene-splicing the Lyza Bush."
"Hey, hey!" cried Eamon, slugging Kyrillis' arm.
"Well, look at that," said Evolice, shooting him a smile across Eamon. "And here you thought you didn't belong."
"Yeah, thanks," said Kyrillis, his face flushed scarlet.
"Moving on to the Hall of Technology," said Doctor Hawberk, and Evolice knew the name he would say even before the words left his mouth. "Garett Kobb!"
There was a wild whooping from a group off to right, and Evolice spotted Kobb among them, glaring smugly back at her.
"Finally, the Hall of Language Arts," he said, and Evolice's chest grew tight. This was the moment of truth. "So much talent, and so hard to compare. But, for her Proof of the Human Soul, we award this year's Vision Scholarship for Language Arts to Evolice Nadima!"
Evolice couldn't breathe. Her head felt light. The world around her had a surreal glow to it. Kyrillis and Eamon were congratulating her, but she could hardly hear them. She couldn't believe she'd won. Now, she just had to prove her talent in front of a room full of strangers to beat Kobb, but it wouldn't just be Kobb she had to beat. Evolice looked suddenly to Kyrillis, and she could tell he was thinking the same thing.
"You give it your all," he said. "I certainly will. Either way, better one of us than Kobb."
"Now you have your Vision Scholars," announced Doctor Hawberk. "Let's give them a big round of applause."
The room burst into cheering. Once it settled down, Doctor Hawberk spoke again.
"Very soon, each Vision Scholar will take the stage and present their exhibit to our panel of four. Each judge represents one of the four halls, but our scholars will need to win over all four judges if they wish to come out on top."
"But first, we must allow our scholars a moment of rest. I am proud to present to you one of the most popular acts of the decade. They entertained you at lunch, and we'd hoped they'd accompany our final social hour as well. The road calls, however, so give everything to them, every ounce of excitement while you can. Announcing the infamous, the mysterious, the impossible, Circus Ivira."
Doctor Hawberk left the stage, as two children, a boy and a girl in black spandex outfits, replaced him. They both wore masks, and as the spotlight cut out, the masks suddenly glowed. The boy's mask shone blue, the girl's, red. The children rose into the air, and a beam shone between them. They stepped onto opposite ends and then the music began. The children leapt across the beam, balancing in their dance. For nearly five minutes they twirled around each other, performing increasingly daring feats. As the orchestral music built to a crescendo, they began their final trick. They ran towards each other. The boy in the blue mask slid while the girl leapt, springing high with a boost from the boy. The girl twirled through the air, flipping four times before landing upside down, catching herself in a one-armed handstand. The beam slowly dropped as the children held their pose, and when it reached the ground, they left the stage, showered in applause.
After several moments, a spotlight returned, and standing in its warm glow was a capillum.
"Serenade," said Evolice excitedly. "That was one of my judges."
The capillum pulled two hand fans from her belt, and with a broad sweep of her arms, she began her dance. Every movement she took was trailed in shimmering silver light. The way the light pulsed and danced, it looked just like what Evolice saw when she read.
"Eamon..." she said.
"I see it, too," he told her.
"See what?" asked Kyrillis.
"The light following her, what does it look like to you?" asked Eamon.
"You mean the spotlight?" asked Kyrillis.
"He can't see it," gasped Evolice.
"There you have it," said Eamon excitedly. "Serenade has to be a kytra."
As Serenade danced to the sweeping orchestra, Evolice could almost feel the woman watching her from behind the veil. Something in her gut told her that Serenade was more than she was letting on, that this day and all its crazy events were somehow tied to the capillum.
"We need to talk to her," whispered Evolice urgently.
"You're right, another kytra? We can't miss the opportunity," said Eamon. "Only problem is, they're leaving right after the show. We might not get a chance."
"What are you two going on about?" asked Kyrillis.
"I can't explain it to you now," said Eamon, "but we need to go speak with that capillum."
"So, send a letter," said Kyrillis. "No point in getting all worked up now."
As Kyrillis spoke, Serenade leapt to the very front of the stage. She bowed and rose, leapt and slid, and as she danced, her fans traced the air, leaving a trail of light.
"Look," gasped Eamon. "She's writing something."
Sure enough, Serenade was painting letters with her trail of light. Her message read: Follow Me
Serenade paused and looked directly towards Evolice and Eamon. With the smallest of nods, she swept back behind the curtain, leaving a trail of light in her wake. The students cheered.
Eamon stood up straight. "Come on," he said to Evolice. "You saw that message, too."
"I..." said Evolice. "Well, we can't just go get up on stage, can we? We'll ruin the show."
"What do you suggest then?" asked Eamon. "Are you saying we just sit here? Not me!"
"Well, there has to be another way to the stage..." said Evolice. "Maybe in the hall, past where it was roped off."
"Smart thinking," said Eamon.
"What do you two think you're doing?" asked Kyrillis sharply. "You can't leave. Evolice needs to defend her exhibit. She'll get disqualified."
"Oh, it won't take long," said Eamon dismissively. "We'll be back before the show ends."
"You aren't really serious?" demanded Kyrillis, as Eamon stepped off the platform and hung in the air. "Evolice, this is what you want?"
Evolice's mind raced. The scholarship was about finding answers, and she had that secured already. As much as she wanted to see Roana, an invitation from someone who could actually shape the light would be idiotic to turn down.
"I'll be back before the show ends, I promise" said Evolice, and she stepped off the platform.
Floating was a strange sensation, and trying to move proved quite difficult. Evolice jerked back and forward violently as she fiddled with her controls until Eamon finally came and caught her by the harness. He seemed to have the vest mastered.
"Come on, down here," he said, pulling her underneath the platforms. The pair of them floated slowly underneath row after row of glowing white disks. Each time they passed under one, the light from its underside lit up their faces, and Evolice could see Eamon's grey-blue eyes alight with excitement. They made their way back to the entry, and as they rose, Eamon lined them up perfectly with the landing. They stepped onto the marble floor, and Eamon released Evolice's strap.
"Okay, this way," said Evolice, running for the entrance.
"Hold it there." Roy appeared out of thin air in front of them. "Harnesses stay here. Those things aren't cheap."
"Right," said Eamon, unclipping himself. "Should I just..."
"I'll take it from here," said Roy, and as Evolice removed the last loop from her foot, the harness tugged its way out of her hand and flew off. "Cool, so you—"
"No time, sorry." Evolice stepped right through Roy and into the hallway. To the right, a long section of the corridor was roped off.
"That's it for sure," said Eamon, joining her. He ducked under the rope.
They ran to the end of the passage and found another door. A plaque read: Stage Access.
"Let's hope it's unlocked," said Eamon, giving the handle a turn. The door sprung open, and Eamon beamed back at Evolice. "Come on."
The backstage hallway was completely dark. Eamon and Evolice felt their way along the wall until they came to the first bend.
"Look!" said Eamon.
A trail of wispy silver light snaked through the hallway, curving right around a corner at the end.
"She's left a trail," said Evolice excitedly.
They followed the trail to the turn in the corridor and found a wide space with several enormous curtains running its length. The light cut left, around the back curtain, and down a set of steps.
Evolice continued after the trail, but Eamon grabbed her hand.
"This is backstage right?" said Eamon. "So where is everyone?"
"I... I don't know," said Evolice. Surely there would be acts practicing here, or at least waiting their turn to go out on stage. There was no one operating the curtains, and now that Evolice thought about it, she couldn't hear anyone either. No music, no voices, just silence.
Eamon ran to the end and peeked around the front curtain.
"What are you—" hissed Evolice, but Eamon didn't let her finish.
"Evolice, check this out," he said, sounding almost in a panic.
She joined him at the curtain and looked out. The Hall of Technology was empty. There were no students, no platforms, no exhibits, or lights of any kind. It was completely dark.
Evolice's heart skipped. There was no way they had the wrong stage. Everything and everyone in the Hall of Technology was gone.
"We can't think about this," said Eamon decisively. "It's only gonna screw us up."
"They're gone," cried Evolice. "Kyrillis, everyone, where are they?"
"I don't know," said Eamon. "This isn't right. We need to follow that trail. It's the only way we'll get answers."
"Okay," said Evolice, and she followed Eamon to the stairs backstage. The path of light was much fainter than before.
"We need to hurry, before it fades completely," said Eamon. He tore down the steps and Evolice did the best she could to follow. They took the passage below at a sprint until they reached a door where the light ended.
The door opened into the outdoor courtyard where they had eaten lunch. They were on the far side from the cafeteria, near where the circus tents had been set up. Although it was only around four in the afternoon, the sky was black as a starless night. There were no lights in any of the conference center's windows, and the air stood deathly still. The only sound was the crackling of standing torches between the tents.
"Kyrillis is right, I've gone mad," said Evolice, staring at the impossible scene.
"Not mad..." said Eamon. "We've got someone's attention, someone powerful. The question is whether they're friendly or not."
Evolice shuttered to imagine the sort of being that could conjure all this.
"Serenade was nice, right?" asked Eamon. "So, if it's her, we're not about to die. Probably."
"Yeah," said Evolice. "Let's go with not about to die. So where do we go now?"
"I think the torches are a trail," said Eamon. "Come on."
He raced between the tents, with Evolice just behind him. In all the silence, there was only the sound of their feet, beating along the cement, and the crackling flame of the torches lighting their way.
"There, the big one," said Eamon, pointing to a wide red tent, nearly twice the size of the others. On either side of its entrance, standing torches burned bright, and inside, there was a welcoming light.
"Do we just go in?" asked Evolice nervously.
"Hello?" called Eamon. "Hello? Is anyone in there?"
There was no response.
"Alright, I'm coming in," said Eamon, and he stepped into the tent.
For a moment, Evolice didn't know whether to follow, but coming this far, she knew it was too late to go back. Evolice entered the tent.
It was a roomy tent lit by a dozen or so candles that looked as though they'd never been used before. Off to the left was a cloth separator and a bed, poking out on one end. There were several couches, a table for company, and a tall bookshelf filled with all sorts of crystal odds and ends. The crystals all shone with their own light, like Evolice's necklace had, but none were so bright as the orb sitting on a stone pedestal at the center of the room. The orb shone in resplendent gold light that was almost blinding to look at. The light flared from the orb in great swirling tongues. It pulsed, just as the light when Evolice read, and in her necklace, and in Serenade's dance. This light was familiar, yet it was more powerful than any she had ever seen, even stronger than in the circuscript of her ancient notebook.
"What is it?" asked Evolice in awe.
"I don't know," said Eamon. "You think we should touch it?"
"Why would we do that?" asked Evolice, panicked. She wanted nothing more than to leave before she pissed off whoever owned this impressive collection.
"Look, Serenade, or whoever else is responsible for all this, they brought us here for a reason," said Eamon. "That orb looks like a very reason-y thing to me."
"Don't do it," begged Evolice.
"I'm going to do it," said Eamon. Confidently, he strode up to the pedestal and placed his hands on the orb.
Light exploded through the tent. Evolice was thrown to the ground, and all she saw was gold. Fierce, blinding, golden light. It erupted like a forceful wind from the orb and swirled violently around the edges of the room, blocking their exit. The cloth divider was thrown onto the bed, and all manner of linens and small decorations were sucked up into the fierce gale.
Eamon was hunched with his hands locked on the orb.
"Evolice, I see, oh no, I can't— Evolice, help me—" Eamon began to scream. His horrible cries of pain cut at Evolice's ears.
Evolice pushed against the surging light and reached to grab Eamon.
"No, don't touch," he screamed. "I think it's—"
A second explosion of light shook the tent, and Eamon was thrown from the orb. He plowed into Evolice, sending her toppling into the bookshelf. Dozens of crystal ornaments toppled to the floor all around her, but none of them shattered. Eamon, writhed, clutching his eyes and shrieking in pain.
"Help me," he cried. "Make it stop."
"I don't know what to do," said Evolice frantically. She fell to her knees, kneeling over Eamon and took his hands in hers, gasping as she saw his eyes.
Brilliant gold light oozed through his irises, drowning out their cold-grey blue.
"I see- I see- I see too much! Please, make it stop!" cried Eamon in horror.
"Eamon, I don't know how," she said, but even as the words left her mouth, she knew there was only one thing she could try.
Evolice placed one hand on her necklace and rested the other over Eamon's eyes. Her necklace remained dim, and she knew meditation was her only chance. Evolice breathed deep, as, muscle by muscle, she let her body go. Then came the thoughts, the panic, there was no time for it now. In she breathed and out she released. There was only the sound left, Eamon's shrieks of agony tearing through the tent. They made her heart ache, but she knew if she wanted to help, this, too, had to go. In and out. For a moment, there was only darkness, and then she saw the golden light.
It was like a current, flowing before her eyes: a bright golden river, and in its waters, she could see shapes. First, there came death, bones and bodies littering city streets; then, a forest of crystal trees, and finally, a city with high walls, an enclave from death and suffering. It was all so detailed but too fast to make out in more than broad strokes. The city faded, and Evolice's mind went dark. The gold light was gone, and Eamon was quiet. He rested, limp and unconscious on Evolice's lap.
"So, he has chosen."
Evolice turned, panicked, towards the entryway.
Standing there was not Serenade, as Evolice had expected, but Ms. Lapour.
The woman smiled knowingly. "Not who you were expecting?" she asked.
"Are you real?" asked Evolice, trying to find reason in everything she'd just witnessed.
"As real as anything you've seen today," said the woman. She strutted across the tent to the bed and stood the cloth divider back up. Stepping behind the divider, the woman's shadow began to shift and shrink. It was not Ms. Lapour that stepped out, but Annalaide Martin. "Oh, how very unexpected, but truly any stranger than what you've witnessed so far?" she asked in a soothing voice.
"What did you do to Eamon," cried Evolice, holding his limp body in her arms.
"You've seen for yourself, Eamon has been chosen."
"Chosen?" asked Evolice weakly.
"A great death is coming," proclaimed Annalaide. "There will be no escape, and it will ravage the world of man. However, we have a protector, one who would shelter his people."
"Glavius Adaius," gasped Evolice, her mind returning to the ancient notebook Annalaide had given her just a couple of hours ago.
Annalaide smiled, and her whole body began to glow with golden light. A second figure stepped out of her, and then came a third. Ms. Lapour, Serenade, and Annalaide Martin stood side by side. Serenade unhooked her veil, and both Annalaide and Ms. Lapour removed their shaded glasses. Underneath, their eyes all shone gold.
"I knew I'd met you before," said Evolice, her voice trembling. "So, which one is real? Who are you really?"
"My name is Ithris, they said in unison." A light filled them as they stepped back together. The woman that remained was a new face. Her skin was smooth like a human, but her features were long like a capillum. She stood frighteningly tall, and her eyes shone a holy gold.
"Eamon never told you about the Host, did he?" asked Ithris.
Evolice shook her head.
"In times of great turmoil," said Ithris, "Glavius has lent his aid to those worthy enough to head his table. Eamon will be fine; he has received a great power within him. It will take him some time to recover, and when he does, he will need you. The vision was granted to him, but without you, he will never be able to discern its meaning."
"But..." said Evolice, thinking of the Visionary Award; she may never have another chance to see Roana. She shook the thought from her head. This was more important. "I don't understand, why Eamon?" she asked. "If only I can see the vision properly, why didn't Glavius give it to me?"
"Who touched the stone?" Ithris countered.
"So, because he happened to touch the stone first, he was chosen over me?" Evolice shot back as boldly as she dared.
"It was not because he touched the stone that Eamon was chosen as Host; it is because Eamon is, at heart, a Host that he chose to touch the stone."
"Who stood up for Kyrillis, taking action when he saw his friend in danger?"
"Eamon," admitted Evolice.
"And who pushed you to practice shaping the light?"
"And who was the first to jump and follow the light?"
"Bold must the Host of Glavius be, for to lead his table is no easy task. This is Eamon's destiny. You need not fret, however. Yours will be no ordinary tale," cooed Ithris. "Glavius Adaius is not the only great spirit of the patronage. Nylk, mother of flora, is one of his oldest allies. For years, the Old-Scholars served as her voice among men. In the millennia since their slaughter, several have taken up this mantle, but it has been many centuries since the spirit last had a champion of her own. You will go to her, serve as her voice. Tell her to clear land for the holy city of Eredith. Tell her that her people are coming home."
"I don't know where to even begin," said Evolice.
"A forest South and West," said Ithris. "Eamon will know the place. Let the book be a guide to you. Nylk and Glavius were as close as blood, and just as Eamon will need you to understand his visions, so will you need him. The new Host is in possession of a mask. It will serve invaluable in your search."
"I understand," said Evolice, though in truth, she wasn't sure any of this was real. The night sky, the silence, the light, and the orb, Evolice wouldn't be surprised if she suddenly woke up to find it was all a dream.
"My time here is at its end; the gift of the Host is nearly passed," said Ithris, her body slowly fading. "Do not underestimate this great death, Evolice. You and the Host hold humanity in your hand."
With a final flash of golden light, the woman disappeared, and Eamon stirred.
"Huh," he said, sitting up suddenly. "Evolice!"
"Are you okay?" asked Evolice. "You were screaming."
"Screaming?" he groaned. "My head is splitting, but I'll live."
"Well, just take it slow, alright?" said Evolice, relieved to see him okay. "How much do you remember?"
"I just remember the orb and then there was this golden light," said Eamon. "Next thing I knew I was here on the ground. What happened?"
"Exactly how much do you know about the Host?"
For some time they sat there, Evolice telling Eamon everything she saw.
"Urgh," said Eamon, rubbing his temple. "It feels like someone put bleach in my eyes."
"Your eyes..." said Evolice, scanning the ruined tent. It looked like a tornado had come through, but she quickly spotted what she was searching for. There was a hand mirror on the ground beside the bed. She scampered over and picked it up, bringing it back to Eamon. "You need to see."
Eamon held up the mirror to his face and looked terrified at the strange eyes staring back at him. For some time, he didn't speak. He simply stared at his reflection. Finally, he looked to her, breaking the silence, "Everything you said is true then..."
"And you don't remember anything about your vision?" asked Evolice.
"No," said Eamon. "Just pain. Can you read me... you know... go back and see what I saw?"
"Ithris seemed to think so," said Evolice. "She said we'll need to work together to save humanity from some coming doom."
"Well, one step at a time," said Eamon, propping himself up. "We need to find Nylk."
"You seem to be taking all this rather well," she said.
"We don't have an option, do we?" asked Eamon. "If the world is at stake, we'll do what we have to do."
"Spoken like a true Host," said Evolice with admiration. Despite everything he'd gone through, Eamon wasn't considering himself for even a moment. "Ithris told me you knew where Nylk would be."
"The Nylkwood, sure, that's right about where I found the mask," he said. "Navigating the Nylkwood is impossible though. People lose their minds in there. Only the Arborals knew how to craft masks that could keep out the spores."
"But you already have one, right?" asked Evolice.
"It hasn't aged well, has it?" sighed Eamon. "Even if you can fix the mask, the Nylkwood goes for miles, and we don't know what we're looking for."
"Ithris seemed to think the book should help us there," said Evolice.
"Of course," cried Eamon, leaping to his feet. He looked off-balance for a moment but held himself. "Glavius was closer to Nylk than anyone. Maybe he says something that could help us find her."
"Then that just leaves—"
"Your award!" cried Eamon. "Evolice, we need to go right now." He grabbed her hand and pulled her to the entrance of the tent. "Hold on," he said, running back to the pedestal. He grabbed the midnight-black orb, which no longer shone. "If this is what I think it is, we'll need it as well."
They exited the tent to a bright sunny day. The circus was lively with performers packing up.
"Hey, what are you doing here?" cried a humongous bearded woman.
"You're already done?" asked Eamon.
"Of course, did you not watch the show?" asked the woman, sounding very offended.
"Oh no," said Evolice, sprinting through the tents to the crew door. It was locked.
"Can anyone let us in?" begged Evolice, but the performers ignored her.
"This way," cried Eamon, running towards the cafeteria. They entered by the food court and tore up the passage to the southern landing. As soon as they reached the bridge to the north wing, Evolice knew they were too late. Students were already coming out of the Hall of Technology, chatting eagerly with each other.
"Oh no," said Eamon. "Evolice, I'm so sorry."
"Don't be," said Evolice, looking at him with a smile. "I came here looking for answers, and I got more of those than I know what to do with."
"Look," Eamon pointed among the crowd, where the lean figure of Garrett Kobb was stomping furiously.
As he passed, Garrett made eye contact with Evolice for only a second. Streaking tears fell along his gashed cheek. As much as he deserved everything that happened to him, seeing him cut up and beaten, Evolice felt bad for the boy.
"Suppose that means Kyrillis won?" asked Eamon excitedly.
"It could still be the girl from History but... let’s go find him."
They pushed against the students, scanning everyone they could in search of Kyrillis's floral shave. They were nearly at the north wing when they saw him and had to fight to reach him among the crowd of eager students all trying to talk to him.
"Hey, outta my way," Kyrillis yelled as he saw Eamon and Evolice. He pushed and shoved his way towards them. "What happened to you? When you didn't come back... Eamon, your eyes!"
"It's a crazy story," said Eamon. "And this..." he looked around the crowded hall, "is not the place to tell it."
"What about you, did you... you know?" asked Evolice.
Kyrillis smiled. He couldn't contain his excitement as he pulled the plaque from behind his back. At the top it read: Visionary, and below was his name.
"I thought Kobb had it for sure, but looks like I'm going to Roana," he boasted.
Evolice threw her arms around him. "I'm so proud of you," she said.
"I hope your little adventure was worth it," he said, a twinge of disappointment staining his otherwise cheery tone. "But, thank you. Both of you. Imagine if I'd given up or socked Kobb at lunch..."
"You really missed out," said Eamon cheekily. "I hardly knew the kid and it was the highlight of my day."
"That was the highlight of your day?" asked Evolice in disbelief. "Not finding out You. Know. What?"
"Alright, I suppose that was rather life shaping, but the tray maneuver was a close second for sure."
"Okay, now I need to know what happened," said Kyrillis. "Fill me in over drinks? Hawberk said they're serving shakes down in the south lobby."
"I'm in," chimed Evolice.
"As long as you swear not to call us crazy," added Eamon.
"I make no promises," laughed Kyrillis.
Evolice left the Westkemper Conference Center at precisely six that afternoon. The Eighty-Eighth Annual Vision Scholar Awards had been split into four categories: history, technology, language arts, and the sciences, and Evolice Nadima was now certain where her proof of the human soul fit in.