Apologies for the delay. It's not a very long delay, 'tis true, but I feel like I've been ignoring this story for a while. Um... apologies...
The chapter is longer than usual. Be happy, I suppose... Also, this has been probably the most enjoyable chapter to write of all. So... I hope you enjoy...
As always, thanks to the amazing writers who reviewed this story:
A Flaming Moon: I absolutely love your story "Fallen"; it was so hard to tear away from. So I'm very happy you like this... because... well... you seem so good at what you do here...
Mysterious MD: I didn't think of defining it as 'creepy', but looking back - you're right. It is kind of... well, creepy. It's flattering to see writers better than me who are enjoying this. Thank you.
I own this. Please don't copy it.
Polen barely managed to get any rest during the night.
When he woke up from his sleep, one that made him even more tired than before, his hands rose to his face and fingered the bags beneath his eyes. It was nothing a little make-up could fix, he knew, feeling the rest of his face. His cheeks were as smooth as marble, but his fingers bumped against the tiny dots on his forehead. He scowled.
"Pimples," he muttered disgustedly, swinging his scrawny legs out of bed. "Of all things I suffer from, it's pimples."
He continued to mumble complaints to himself until he slid on his dress jacket, bought a week before for the occasion. It was a neutral white, stiff at the shoulders and silky smooth. He hated the feeling - it was like he was being confined in the cloth - but he would be able to bear it for one day, he was sure. The dress pants he wore were straight and slightly less forbidding than the jacket, but only just. The bright white burned his eyes as he took his tie, wrapping it easily around his neck under the collar of his white shirt, and expertly doing it up so it rested neatly and flawlessly on his chest.
By the time he'd squirmed his small feet into the shiny white shoes, he was feeling claustrophobic. "I'm not even claustrophobic," he muttered angrily, stomping around to get used to the feel. They had slight heels, but they were thankfully mostly flat. Still, they weren't comfortable.
Polen exited his room and looked out the window. The sun had barely risen; since it was the beginning of the warmer season, he figured it was about 700 hours. When he walked to the kitchen, he was surprised to find Telcee already there, armed with a comb and a shallow bowl of water.
"I'm going to tame your hair today," Telcee said in all seriousness. Her word choice caused Polen to chuckle as he slid into one of the rickety chairs. His sister took over then, slowly working his wavy brown hair into some sort of order. Fifteen minutes later she dragged him to the mirror in her room, and he had to admit she had done a good job; his hair was neatly combed back, giving him an intelligent look, but revealing the red dots on his forehead.
"Don't worry," Telcee said, noting where his gaze wandered to. "Flauta will get that under control."
He was already eighteen, and he still got pimples. And here Polen thought his hormones were under control. When he mentioned this to Telcee, she just laughed.
"You're stressed," she said. "Isn't that answer enough?" He supposed it was. He wondered vaguely when Telcee had become so motherly and knowledgeable.
Flauta flew in from the house's door when he and Telcee returned to the main room. "Make-up was cheap on the mercato nero today," she said, carefully using the black market's street term. It was really some sort of European language for black market, but the language was a dead one so it wasn't readily identified. Flauta has been named from that language. Polen had been young when he had first heard his mother name Flauta, but he recalled that she had said it was the name of her favorite instrument.
She sat him down and easily made the bags under his eyes vanish; with a little bit more work and a lot of artistic flair the blaring red pimples on his foreheads disappeared as well. She stepped back to admire her handiwork. "Just in time, too," she said. "It's 748 hours. The Artist and the Servant of Citrine will be here shortly."
With that, his two sisters went to their rooms; they would wait out the judging. He was on his own.
He watched the sun outside rise above the short and stout buildings in his neighborhood. Time went as slow as time would ever go for Polen. Now that he was all prepped, he felt exhausted, nauseous, and very, very nervous. What was he supposed to do? Besides wait, naturally.
Still, in the end, he waited for those twelve minutes, the seconds dragging by. Minutes felt like hours as they passed when, finally, a light tap sounded on his door. He stopped pacing - he hadn't even realized he was pacing, that's how out of it he was - and took a deep breath as he walked to the lone exit in their house. He exhaled slowly, then placed his hand on the knob and softly opened to door to see the two people who would judge his destiny.
The Servant of Citrine was easily distinguishable from the Artist from the pale orange cloak wrapped tightly around her shoulders. "Haughtis, Polen?" the Servant asked, voice clipped and deep orange eyes narrowed. She reminded him of a cat.
"Yes," Polen replied, keeping his voice level and soft, but maintaining a feeling of strength behind it. He had rehearsed for this day. He moved aside, and the Servant, with the Artist in her shadow, swept in with a few graceful steps.
"Very well, Haughtis," the Servant said. "Show me where your strengths lie."
He opened his mouth. Nothing came out. The Servant gave him a disapproving look as he shut his mouth again. He swallowed, his throat parched, and tried again. This time, his mouth moved of its own accord. "Supposing that a polynomial could be solved in a much more efficient way, I began to work with them extensively. Surprisingly, I discovered a never-seen-before pattern, to which I carefully molded into a property that I call..."
He droned on aimlessly, jumping from one math equation to the next, occasionally mentioning literature and the arts. The Servant remained impassive, but the Artist was clearly impressed. Their face was hidden behind a white mask, as was custom, but Polen could tell by their movements; he'd been able to read people well once he'd discovered common mannerisms and body language. He could just make out the mark of Jade inked onto their hand. Most Artists were Servants of Jade, Jade being the creative as well as the entertainment industry.
He still had much to talk about when the Servant finally waved a hand a few minutes later and said curtly, "Enough."
His mouth shut, and immediately Polen reviewed everything he'd said. Nothing was said against the government, his family, or himself. He hadn't slipped up words once, his voice had been strong, steady and monotonous. He wasn't sure what happened next, him being the first in the family to be properly marked.
"I understand your elder brother is a Servant of Cerise," the Servant of Citrine said. Polen wasn't sure if she expected an answer, so he merely nodded. "I see. You don't seem fit to follow his footsteps." Polen agreed. He'd always been on the scrawny side. "Very well. I have made my decision." She turned to the Artist and said flippantly, "Give him the mark of Onyx. Do it quickly; we have more to attend to."
Polen missed the rest of the sentence right after the word "Onyx". He was frozen. He didn't even notice as the Artist took his left hand, led him gently to a chair, and sat him down. He barely registered pain as the needle dug into his pale skin, leaving a pure black trail behind it. Had she... Had she really said that? Had she really said Onyx?
What about him made him worthy of such a title? What was going to happen to him now, since he was an Onyx? What would happen to his family? What would his sisters think? More importantly, what would his brother think?
He was still in a daze as the Artist politely bid farewell and the unusual pair closed the door behind them. He noticed the black, fingerless glove resting on the table; numbly, he pulled it on, hiding his mark from the outside world. The next thing he registered was that he really, really hated the whiteness of his clothes, and he had an extreme desire to pull on the darkest cloth he could find. But that was natural, wasn't it? Servants of Onyx always wore long, black robes that hid their faces.
Too many questions, and absolutely no time.
Flauta and Telcee came rushing out, calling to him, asking him what his mark had been. Their voices rang painfully in his ears. He couldn't get his tongue to work, and instead cradled the tattooed hand to his chest. His heart pounded in his ears; his stomach was fluttering with butterflies.
Then, all of a sudden, the shock faded away. He felt calm and assured. He knew his place in this world. He would serve his master to the best of his ability, even if he died in the process. Somewhere inside, the devoutness of that thought terrified him, but Polen pushed it aside with aloof assertiveness. He was a Servant of Onyx. He could do as he wanted.
He stood up, pushing his sisters aside with a gentle hand. His place wasn't with them, he knew. The voice inside of him rose in urgency, and this time he hesitated. His family was the most important thing he had. How could he think of abandoning them?
With a sickening feeling he realized this was what Cavieh must have experienced; the wild effects of the tattoo was changing him, far more quickly than he'd predicted. A overpowering shriek in his ear brought him down to reality with a crash.
"Polen!" Flauta's voice, he remembered dizzily, as he instinctively pulled said girl away from his ear.
For the first time in a while, Polen was at loss of words. He opened his mouth and nothing came out.
"He's okay now," Telcee said calmly, taking her sister in her bronze arms and whispering reassurances in her ear. Polen looked at the scene and felt remote pity; then he shoved the feeling away, horrified. He promised to fight the foreign influence as best he could.
"What's your tattoo, Len?" Telcee asked him, stroking Flauta's soft blond curls. The affectionate use of his nickname strengthened his resolve.
He dragged himself back to the chair and slowly sank down onto it. "You won't believe me if I told you," he said quietly, working the cloth off of his left hand. He closed his eyes as it came off, refusing to look at it, and held it up for the girls to see.
Telcee's gasp shook Polen to the core. Fingers took hold of his own, stroking, he knew, the outline of the black ink. His eyes opened unwillingly; Flauta was the one, peering at it with wide blue eyes brimming with tears. He wasn't sure if they were tears of happiness or fear. Either way, they made him feel nauseous all over again. The confidence from the tattoo had faded.
"In just fifteen minutes alone, your life has been changed," she whispered in a rare moment of insight. The whispered carried the force of a shout to Polen's ears. "What are we going to do, Polen?"
She replaced his hand on his thigh, and his eyes sought out the black on his pale skin. It was the perfect image of a shiny onyx gemstone. It was shiny in the morning light, and Polen hated it. He hated it with all his heart, even while the foreign power slowly converging itself on him protested it was a beautiful work of art.
He was a wreck, and he knew it. He had spent all those years, dreaming to get a tattoo, only to discover the horrors associated with it. For once, he realized just how strong Cavieh was, not just physically but mentally. If the tattoo was as strong as his was, Cavieh would have deserted them long ago. But he hadn't. He hadn't, and Polen had never appreciated his courage. Guilt overwhelmed him, and suddenly he felt something running down his cheeks. His emotions were running amok. He was weeping silently.
His sisters were now thoroughly alarmed, but their shouts didn't help him; they blasted in his ears. Every touch sent waves of pain to his brain, and his eyes burn; it was bright, far too bright. The last thing Polen registered was a soft blanket of darkness before he keeled over and fainted.
When he woke up, he was in bed. When he sat up, his hands clutched his head; the pain was so intense he was sure he would die. Once the initial pain had lessened, he found his body felt confined, so confined he felt like there was an iron cage around him. The fabric burned his skin, and he scrambled to remove his clothing. Once he had removed the dress clothes he threw them hard to the ground, panting. He felt better, but there were too many sounds, too many smells, and the light was burning his eyes. He spied a heap of black at the foot of his bed, and he stumbled toward it, somehow figuring out how to pull it over his head. Once he did everything died down; his headache faded, the light lessened, most of the smells vanished, and the sound was all but deafened.
He looked down. He was clad in the black robes of the Onyx. A solitary pendent hung from his neck, clearly visible; he had no idea how he'd gotten it there, but he must've slipped it on when he'd put on the robe. He took it in his hand and brought it closer to his covered face; a large amethyst was studded on one side, signaling he was in the scholarly field, and on the other side was a small mirror. He drew the hood back from his face, and his eyes widened as he took in his appearance. His hair had lengthened to his shoulders, straight and orderly, and had darkened to a solid, shiny black. His skin was no longer the white pale color; it was more muted, a deep bronze, almost. When he met the eyes of his reflection, he felt like he was drowning in a black sea.
With a sickening thought he quickly took in his surroundings with a few eye flicks. His senses had heightened, he knew immediately; he could tell that it was late afternoon, and his family was in the main room playing some sort of card game. He could hear the individual cards as they were placed and slid around on the table, and the quiet murmurs of his sisters as they played.
He shut his eyes and drew his hood. No wonder the Onyx wore their robes, no wonder he'd been in such pain; his senses had heightened, and the robe was protecting them from overloading. It must be why he was in such pain earlier. With a graceful movement he got to his feet, arms loosely at his side. He sensed he was taller. Not as tall as Cavieh, who could hit his head on the doorframe if he wasn't careful, but definitely taller.
He looked at his fingers. No longer stumpy and blunt, something he had cursed as he scribbled day after day; they were now long and elegant, perfect for continuous studying and writing.
Miracles of the tattoo, he supposed. He was lucky he had passed out when most of the changes had taken place.
He walked - no, glided out of his room, grimacing as the light increased. He was safe under his hood, but he didn't like the new feeling of being weak. He could almost hear the neighbors arguing next door when he tentatively lifted the hem of the hood. He snapped it back down immediately, telling himself in consolation it was something he'd have to bear for the rest of his life. Then he realized that wasn't consolation and cursed a colorful array of words, some of which he hadn't even realized he knew.
When he finally entered the main room, both Flauta and Telcee looked startled at his apparel.
"I put the clothes in your room," Telcee said, unsure. "But I didn't think you'd wear it right away..."
Polen looked down. He didn't feel much like responding, but he answered, "I had to." It was the truth, after all.
His voice had gotten just a touch deeper, and Flauta, having the best ears out of the family - well, she used to have the best ears, until he had been marked - noticed right away. "Why's the hood drawn?" she asked. Her voice was loud in his ears, and he grimaced.
"My senses are more sensitive now," he explained, unconsciously enunciating each word, knowing his sisters could only see his mouth from under his protective hood. "I have to be careful not to overload them with sights and smells and such."
The pairs' eyes widened, but Flauta didn't say more. Telcee said instead, "Care to join us?"
Polen looked at the game they were playing. Almost instantly, he knew how to cheat his way to victory, and at the same time figured out a strategy that would make him win fairly. Inside, he screamed in terror; when had he become so calculating? Outside, he kept his features stoic and said calmly, "I would, but I think I would win every time."
Telcee asked, "How do you know?"
Polen didn't reply, opting to sweep outside to see what was going on. His eyes zeroed in on the pump with the rebel name clearly painted on it. His first feeling was rage; in fact, he would call it pure hatred. But the feeling subsided when he fought against it, knowing it was the tattoo's influence.
He thought about the Solitaire and considered their side of the story. They didn't like how some people didn't get tattoos, he was sure, and some people with tattoos probably didn't like the tattoo that had been decided for them. And some people didn't like the tattoos at all.
He wasn't sure if he himself liked it; at the moment, he would be perfectly happy to go back to what he had been, but it was too late. Finding a Dark Artist to remove it would be very dangerous for his health, and he would definitely be executed if caught. No one above eighteen wandered the street tattooless. Even the ones who'd been deemed worthy of an actual tattoo had an white 'X' on their left hands, signaling their status.
Polen hadn't spent much time exploring the city. He knew that dreams from his master would arrive shortly, as soon as he was adjusted to his body. He figured he'd get around the city a lot then, and to be honest, he didn't feel like being outside for long right now; the noises, the smells, the sights confused him. He curled his fingers into fists and hid them under his protective robe. Still, he eyed the rebel name on the pump one last time before going back inside. He didn't even notice that people had stopped and were bowing respectfully to him as he retreated to his safe haven.
When he came back inside, he slid into a chair with one graceful motion. Everything he did now was with grace and beauty; he was perfection. Except... the emotions the tattoo evoked were driven back by his own, so he wasn't entirely perfection. He had been able to drive away his rage at the appearance of the name Solitaire, easily; the tattoo didn't have such great a grip that he had originally thought. He wondered, not for the last time, why he'd been picked to be a Servant of Onyx.
His thoughts turned to the rebel group. Perhaps... "It wouldn't be so bad to join the Solitaire," he mumbled, forgetting that his sisters were sitting next to him playing cards.
The sudden silence reminded him of his mistake. He looked up and saw Telcee staring at him, brown eyes wide in fear, and Flauta was openly gaping at him, cards fluttering from her thin fingers to the dirt-encrusted floor. Polen knew he should feel embarrassed. But for the most part, he was pitying them for not immediately understanding the reasons why he had said the statement.
Eventually, Flauta recovered, shaking her head. She made a show of picking at her ear as she said slowly, "I think I have something in my ear. Whatdid you say?"
Polen glanced at her, leaning forward to rest his cloaked face on his hands. His sense of touch felt the tiny hairs on his chin, and the hairs on his hand could feel the currents in the air. His heightened senses were invigorating and terrifying at the same time. "I said," he said, just as slowly and much more sarcastically, "It wouldn't be so bad to join the Solitaire."
Again, the stare and gawping. He sighed breezily and said, "I think I'd prefer to be a normal person like before right now." He didn't add that he didn't want his two sisters to go through the same thing he had, nor did he want them to feel what he felt now.
After a moment Telcee said gently, "Why don't you go lie down, Polen? You must be feeling a bit dizzy."
"I'm not feeling dizzy." I'll probably never feel dizzy again."I mean every word."
There was a pause as Telcee placed her cards on the table, the game forgotten. Her hand rested on his shoulder as she said soothingly, "Just go, Polen, you'll feel better in the evening - "
Her touch was numbed by the robe's cloth, but he still shuddered at the alien contact. Without even thinking about it he slapped her hand away, gritting his teeth. The cool, black cloth settled smoothly into place, helping the pain fade away.
His own hand sought the place she had touched, lifting up the heavy sleeve without any effort on his part and curling his fingers on the spot. "Don't touch me," he whispered, pushing away his initial disgust - again, the emotions from his tattoo - and instead feeling a deep, overwhelming sadness. No longer could he hug his sisters, or, for that matter, come into any contact with another human.
He felt like crying, but the tears didn't come. He was perfection; perfection never showed flaws. He stood up and retreated to his room, closing the door softly behind him. Once inside, he surveyed the place with heavy eyes. He didn't feel tired; far from it, actually. But things would no longer be the same for him. He missed his old life with a fierce burning as he sat down on his cot, making sure his robe was completely covering anything that could possibly touch him.
The pain reminded him that his feet didn't hurt at all. He looked down at his feet, lifting the hem of his long robe. Sounds and smells and a light breeze greeted him, but he ignored them. His feet were clad in thin slippers, probably made of the same fabric of his robe. He wondered when they'd been put on. It must have been Telcee, thinking they were socks of sorts.
As he continued to sit, the calculations he had been working on just yesterday - how if felt like years to him! - reentered his thoughts. Soon, he was lost in the huge abyss of his mind. He was able to remember things, store them for later, and at the same time continue working on whatever he was doing. And he remembered passages from textbooks he had read whenever he got temporarily stuck. It was one blessing of the tattoo. His mind was superior to any other.
He was snapped out of his reverie when Telcee came in, timidly and quietly. She stood silently for a while, until he asked, "Yes?" He was surprised about how neutral his voice sounded; he was feeling guilty about the whole incident (after he'd driven away the piteous feeling from the tattoo, of course), and he would've thought his voice would be shaking. But it wasn't. And he felt even more guilty.
"Cavieh is waiting," she said softly. And then she left, as silently as she had come.
It took Polen a moment to gather his courage and get to his feet. His mark was telling him that Cavieh couldn't do anything, but he couldn't afford to anger his brother. He was strong and muscular; Polen was now elegant and graceful. If he got hit with a stray attack...
In the main room, Cavieh was standing with his back to the way to Polen's room as he conversed with Flauta. Polen entered as silently as a mouse; so quietly, in fact, that Telcee only saw him because she had been expecting him. He coughed quietly into his hand, wincing as the nerves screamed in pain, and stood tall as Cavieh turned to face him.
"Flauta told me in advance, but I didn't really believe it," he said, his face and voice giving nothing away. But Polen, with his heightened eyesight, could see he was agitated. He sincerely hoped his brother wouldn't be jealous; it was too late to change anything.
Polen nodded in response, his cloak swishing deliciously as he did so. "It's true, brother," he said. "I am a Servant of Onyx."
He waited for Cavieh's reaction. There was nothing for few breathless moments, in which Telcee and Flauta backed up in fear of getting in the way.
"I am very proud," he said at last. Polen almost smiled in relief, but he stopped, sensing that something wasn't quite right. The answer had been too guarded; Cavieh was always bluntly honest.
"I'm glad, brother," Polen replied, imitating his brother's guarded tone. Cavieh's brow furrowed, hearing that Polen had not missed the detail.
"Flauta also told me you thought of joining the Solitaire," Cavieh said slowly, as if he were picking through his available vocabulary with extreme care. "Is this true?"
Polen didn't even pause as he said, "It's true."
Cavieh stepped forward, and Polen knew before he had even pulled his hand back that he was going to be punched. But for some reason, he was not afraid. So when the fist came hurtling toward him, he raised his hand and caught the fingers in his bronzed palm as Telcee screamed and Flauta began to cry. There was a slight tingling; then it faded, and all of a sudden a numb feeling came over his hand, and Cavieh pulled back, eyes wide in fear. Polen sneered as he stumbled back.
"Don't trifle with me, brother," Polen said with a snicker, watching indifferently as the brother in question slowly got to his feet. "I am a Servant of Onyx." He relished the feeling of superiority, for a moment. Then, horrified, he drove it away with a violent shake of his head. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, I'm sorry," he cried, falling to his knees and holding his head in his hands. What had he done? What on Earth had he done?
Had the tattoo given him superhuman qualities?
His siblings were gazing at him with undisguised fear. He was afraid of those eyes, he was afraid of their feelings, but most of all, he was afraid of himself. His face remained stoic and impassive, despite his desire to just cry, to let it all out. He couldn't even work up the strength to scream in frustration; instead, the corner of his mouth simply twitched upward. Definitely notthe expression he was aiming for.
He turned tail and fled to his room, slamming the door behind him and leaning back on it, panting. He ignored the pain as his fingers touched the solid wood and let his thoughts continue to run at a million miles per hour. Most of the stuff was nonsensical, and soon Polen got the sense he was watching someone else. He could sort through all the thoughts in his jumbled mind, even though he was literally freaking out, as though he were a bystander. It was insane; yet, it felt like the most natural thing in the world.
Polen slowly sank to the floor, his back against the wood. The pain faded, his body being protected by his robe, as he buried his face in his hands.
Soon, though, he fell back into his own mind; the Abyss, as he decided to call it, and soon his concentration was on solving math problems he devised for himself. He knew he was attempting to distract himself from the crisis at hand, but he couldn't take it anymore. He couldn't cry, he couldn't scream, and it was all he could do not to punch someone hard, since now he knew it would be extremely dangerous for his victim.
A sunbeam streamed faintly from the lone window in his room, the light slowly inching towards his body. He scooted to the side, out of the way, and continued to navigate the Abyss of his mind. He didn't feel tired or hungry, or even thirsty. Was he immortal now?
Why did the Onyx receive all of these terrifying qualities... when everyone else's were so much more muted? It wasn't fair. It wasn't fair at all.
Suddenly, the room darkened. Polen looked up in confusion; he knew, instinctively, that it was late evening, and the sun should still be shining. Then he saw someone was looking in his window.
Those eyes. He could recognize them anyway. He rose to his feet, elegantly and quietly, and swept to the window. The person on the other side pressed a piece of paper to the glass, allowing Polen to see what was written. Due to his abilities, he read it in a matter of seconds:
'Where everyone walks, we aren't found; where there are shadows, we aren't found. But where there is light, we are found. Seek us, Polen of Onyx.'
There was writing underneath, scribbled hastily but elegantly. The letters were loopy yet small, and it read - as far as Polen could tell - "the Solitaire".
The person on the other side lowered the paper, and again he met their eyes. Blue; therefore, servant of Cobalt, unless it was a person without a tattoo. The person was clad in a robe of the Onyx, however. They spared him a nod before going out of view. When Polen opened his window and cast a furtive glances around, he knew they had vanished.
Well, no matter. He had a puzzle to solve. And Polen had always loved puzzles.
He knew he had no reason to write the hint down - he had photographic memory now - and he flung himself on his cot, adjusting his robe accordingly, before closing his eyes and retreating to his Abyss. He still didn't feel tired. Perhaps Servants of Onyx didn't need to sleep, and instead, they went into their minds for rest.
He smiled, a small one, but for the first time since the marking, he felt the flicker of hope.