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.