She had been told she was beautiful.
The nerve cords falling from the back of Isharra’s head dangled elegantly below her waist as she walked. Their constant psychic whisper kept her soul connected to the soul of her race. Strong slender legs carried her. The bony plates crowning her head were peculiarly round and smooth. They made her face childlike and hard to forget. Her aura was golden-white but soft purples and greens would curl through it like mist when she was unhappy.
She had never been able to believe it was true.
She mostly felt she was in everyone else’s way.
She kept these thoughts out most of the time. It wasn’t proper for her to pay attention to them- or call attention to them. Call attention to herself.
It wasn’t her place.
In twilight like this, though, she didn’t have to worry about it. The world glowed, and she felt herself glowing too.
She pushed through the last of the undergrowth. The setting sun spilled over her, soaking into her skin. She reached out in greeting. The clearing lay before her, sloping gently away until the ground plunged back into deep jungle and disappeared. Blade-like leaves and the seta of tall mosses brushed against her knees as she went forward. Phosphorescent specks were beginning to glimmer, floating over the vegetation.
A pile of boulders stood at the crest of the meadow. They were smooth and the moss had over grown them. She climbed up and laid herself out in the last sunlight. She drank up the dying rays, not because she absolutely needed to, but just because it was pleasant. Here, where no one was watching. She laughed to herself at how silly she was being.
In twilight, everything was perfect.
“I must agree.”
She sat up.
Na’ar was standing there. The sunset was burnishing his armor, setting the crystals embedded in it’s gold aflame. Two days ago, he had not been permitted to wear full armor.
“You were initiated!”
He stood a little taller, pride and excitement welling up in his aura.
She didn’t know Na’ar very deeply. Her family was friendly with his family, so he wasn’t a stranger. Lately he had been coming around more often, sometimes without any reason at all.
“I am told I did well.”
“I am not surprised. You pushed yourself hard in training- harder than most, I imagine.”
He stepped closer.
“Would you…” he stopped, hesitating.
Isharra cocked her head to one side, waiting for him to go on.
“Would you permit me to join you?”
She felt a twinge of surprise. He suddenly looked very grand and the thought of him sitting on a rock, with her, seemed strange. Wouldn’t it be undignified?
“You are nothing to be ashamed of” he told her, a little shyly. “And if what the veterans tell me is true, I may end up in conditions that make even these rocks look desirable.”
He climbed up and sat down next to her. He stared ahead, into the setting sun.
“I am beginning to believe that they are trying to frighten me. As a- joke.”
His brows knit and all was silent.
After a moment, she chuckled. She gave up and laughed.
He looked sideways at her. Slowly he started laughing too.
Their thoughts settled and there was a warm tone to the quiet.
Underneath it, a little seed of unease was growing in her.
“Well. I should probably return.” she told him “They will be wondering where I am.”
She stood. The sun was disappearing into the jungle.
He looked up at her, wide eyes soft. Strangely colored thoughts were flitting through his mind.
His thought was half command and half plea. It struck her.
She didn’t move.
“The stars will be out soon.” He looked away.
She slowly sat back down. “I will stay. And see the stars with you.”
He stood and began struggling with the armor.
“Would you help me remove this?”
“It was not what she did.” Her mother’s eyes were flashing dangerously. “It how she did it.”
Her mother came closer, eyes fixed on her daughter as if Isharra were the one who had spoken, not their cousin, Ilia. Isharra shrank back, trying to make herself as small as possible.
“There are times and places in which an action is right and times and places in which that same action is wrong. The difference between those two is difference between Order and Chaos. Between Righteousness and Peace- and Strife.”
Isharra didn’t answer. She bowed her head and fixed her eyes on the floor.
“I cannot believe that you have done this. I cannot believe that you have done this to me! To your father! To your tribe!”
She could sense her father. He was sitting in the meditation chamber in a different part of the house. His mind was mostly blank- submerged in a union with the greater whole of the collective- but she thought she could sense some detached sliver of his consciousness still listening to them. It cringed and disappeared as she noticed it.
Their cousin Ilia sat against the wall, out of the way, and said nothing. She had said very little to begin with. Her eyes glowed in the relative shadow.
Isharra’s mother looked away, her fury dissipating. Something almost like grief replaced it- grief that surged up into resolve.
“I am sorry. So sorry. To have to do this to you. But honor- your honor, your father’s honor, all of our honor- requires it.”
She heard the door open.
Someone came in. Their thoughts were completely shuttered- blank as a wall.
She heard the door close.
In the complete and utter darkness.
The walls of this chamber were of peculiar construction. They blocked all psychic emanations. Even one as powerful as the collective consciousness of the race.
She had begun to understand that, in their own way, they were a marvel.
The solitude burned. It was as if her soul had been plunged into a vat of acid.
The person sat down just across from her. There was an excruciating moment of silence.
The mind reached into hers. It slowly and methodically searched through her, probing deeply and long anywhere she flinched away. She tried desperately not to flinch.
Finally it withdrew.
There was another long moment of silence.
“You are beginning to do better.” the other concluded. “You are nowhere near ready. But you have begun to see the light.”
She said nothing.
“Strange, is it not? Sometimes darkness is the place where our appreciation of light first truly blossoms.”
She said nothing. She had been forbidden to speak.
“In a way, this… indiscretion… of yours could become a blessing. If you chose to treat it as such. ”
“I hope that, for your sake, you choose well.”
There was a movement in the mind across from her, and something changed in the room.
All of her energy, all of her will, suddenly poured into restraining her emotion. She tamped down- held back-
She threw herself into the struggle against her own emotion as fiercely as any of her kinsmen had thrown themselves into battle against outsiders.
A crystal in the floor had begun to glow. The light touched her thirsty skin.
A trace of her feeling was escaping her control. Strands of joy and relief, almost too faint to be discernible, were threading out into the room.
The Judicator’s eyes flashed in displeasure, but, for once, he did not extinguish the light.
After a little while, he extinguished the light.
Her body ached, yearning for what had ended too quickly. She continued holding down her emotion.
His words came to her.
“You could have done better.”
He allowed her to sense his disapproval. Her failure. The shame. Then he again became blank.
“The greater good is the reason for which lesser things exist. The whole is the purpose of the parts. It is not wrong to feel… joy. To experience pleasure. But only when one has truly subsumed one’s whole self to the collective.”
“Until one has done this, one’s responses are at best disruptive. At worst… they are transgression. No different from murder or violence. They are the essence of evil.”
“Hold out your hands.”
She reached out, into the dark, and held her hands still.
Some moments went by.
Finally there was another motion. She felt the energy of his palms touching her energy- he had held up his hands as well.
Sometimes he didn’t do this. Sometimes he got up and went out. And she had to sit, waiting, as she had been left.
No word was spoken. They sank together into a state of psychic union.
Outside the walls of this chamber, this would have been a union not simply of the two of them, but of the two of them and all Protoss. Everywhere.
This was inside. There was no one else. Nothing to distract her from the rightness he was going to provide.
This state of union was experienced by everyone in the collective at least a few times in their life. It was considered a place of nourishment and was the initiation into full adulthood. And if any individual wished, it was always available to them. Other than that, it was not required of most groups, particularly those who had to occupy their time with the mundane responsibilities of life. Such as craftsmen. Or females.
Certain groups practiced it extensively. As long as they were alive. Certain groups acquired proficiency and endurance.
Time must have been going by- outside of the two of them- but she couldn’t grasp how much or how little. It was starting to seem like a long time.
She could feel her body starting to shake. Her mind, of itself, started to push away from his. Tried to swim upwards towards a normal state of consciousness.
In the close and airless world of their union, he mentally pounced on her. He pulled her back down and held her under. She fought, but couldn’t break loose. Slowly she gave up. She floated limply under him.
She existed this way for what seemed like a long time.
She woke up. The world was darkness and utter solitude. She was laying on the floor as if her body had collapsed. She was too exhausted to move. There was someone sitting across from her, but their thoughts were closely shuttered- blank as a wall.
The person stood. Was it the Judicator, she puzzled? She wasn’t sure.
His footfalls went to the door and paused there. A tendril of affection touched her.
“You did better today. You will be allowed light again soon.”
The door opened and closed. And locked.
Outside of the chamber, the Judicator adjusted his cowl. The cloth covered the bony plates of his head, and overshadowed his face. It obscured his individual identity to the eye just as his mental control could discard his individual personality before the mind.
What he had done did not strike him as cruel or unusual, as he reviewed the session in his mind. He had spent much of his childhood and youth undergoing similar training. Few ever suffered such austerities or felt such deprivation as the members of his particular tribe.
For it was they who led. They kept unimaginable secrets and commanded the full military power of a warrior race. They had merely to order it and any of their people would willingly go to their death.
This much power was dangerous. This much power could corrupt. It could not, under any circumstances, be wielded for merely personal reasons but only for the good of the whole.
To be worthy to wield such power, they had to divest themselves of themselves.
Few knew, or could even imagine what this entailed.
Except those like Isharra, who suffered as well.
Few among his people could endure what he himself had suffered.
With a jolt of horror he realized the affection he had sent out to Isharra wasn’t coming from his carefully built persona after all. It was not the will of the collective or a tool to further the common good. It was coming from him. Himself.
It was his own emotion.
He felt ill. He… he must not fail. The consequences were staggering. He would correct this mistake. He would have to rid himself of the feeling and erase any effects of it from Isharra’s mind as well.
He shuddered and hurried away. It was probably the girl’s fault anyway. She must be so powerfully rooted in her individuality that contact with her was warping his perspective.
No one had said that the office of Judicator wasn’t dangerous.
He would cure her of it. He had to.
She could sense that Na’ar was nervous about seeing her again. A little excited too, but mostly nervous. She thought that was odd. She really didn’t feel anything.
She sat listlessly on the porch and watched him come closer.
He came up to her. He wasn’t wearing his armor. She thought that was a pity. He looked so formal in his armor.
“Would you permit me to join you?” he asked.
“How can I not?” She stared at the short moss on the path leading up to the house.
He sat by her side, trying to sense her mood.
“I am glad you have returned.” he offered finally. “How… was it?”
It took her a while to answer.
“It was… difficult.”
“But you are well now?” he asked, anxiously.
“They tell me I am well, now. They tell me… they must know…” Her eyes had unfocused and she stared out into the jungle.
He thought, although he immediately tried to hide it, that her eyes had changed. They were hollowed and darkened- as if they had looked upon some ultimate truth that must not be revealed.
Before they had been merely pleasant to look at. Now they held a mystery.
He wanted her eyes. He wanted them so much more now.
She was better at hearing other people’s thoughts than she had been before. She was a lot better at concealing her own.
They sat together for a while. Neither of them spoke.
“Well. I am glad you are here.” He said, finally, standing. Emotion was overwhelming him. “I will see you again, I hope.”
She stood, as he turned to go.
She held up her hands, palms out.
He realized what she meant. He turned back to her eagerly.
They sank down together, into union. She had never done this with him before, but she had always assumed that he would be stronger than her. He was a fighter after all. They practiced these things.
It seemed to her now that, in fact, they were about matched.
She felt his interest in her, curiosity and fear compounding the attraction he had felt before. She saw that he, too, had been disciplined, as she had been told. It had consisted of his commanding officer reprimanding him before his unit. The veterans had teased him approvingly. She felt the fear that had been born in him he’d heard about her. His guilt. The reassurance of friends and family and his relief when the Judicators had said something was wrong with her. That it wasn’t his fault.
She let go and came back to herself. She looked at him.
She wasn’t sure what he had seen in her. He was wrestling with a sense of doubt so strong that it was hurting him.
“I am glad.” he said finally. “We go out to face the enemies of our people, confronting danger and death. You too- know what this means.”
He turned and left quickly. His struggle had ended.
She said nothing.
His emotions were not the ideal the Judicators described to her, while they- while they had. While those things had happened. He did partially care about the greater good, maybe in a large part. But he also wanted public recognition. He wanted her. He wanted many things. And his desires for his own life were his and his alone. They weren’t subsumed to anything.
And they weren’t transgressions?
“I do not wish to see him again!”
This time it was Isharra’s eyes that blazed. The conversation had worn on and on. It had scratched raw the numbness she had felt ever since returning home. She found herself enraged.
Her mother wasn’t backing down either.
“They told us that they had found the problem. It was in you. And they had corrected it. If the problem has been corrected, there is no reason for you to not see him again.”
“What reason is there for me to see him again, if I do not wish to?”
“It is known that something happened between you. Do you believe that anyone else will want you now?”
Isharra scrambled for some reason that would be accepted.
“What I did before was wrong, Mother. I am not going to risk doing wrong again.”
“If there is any risk, then you are still broken. If it is true that you are still broken…”
Her mother took a step forward, rising to her full height.
“…I will send you back.”
The Judicator sat down. He indicated to Na’ar that he could sit as well.
He let Na’ar wait a little, before speaking to him.
“I understand that you have expressed interest in the girl Isharra.” he said finally. It wasn’t a question.
Na’ar sent an affirmation, but didn’t speak. He was nervous at having been called in.
“You are aware of her history. Having been involved in it.”
The Judicator laughed, slowly and deeply. Na’ar’s nerves were now edged with fear.
“Your worry is needless.” The Judicator told him. “I, too, am familiar with her. She was in my charge during her stay with us.”
He leaned forward.
“I have been looking into you, Na’ar. Your records, your performance. The opinions of your superiors and peers. It seems that your interest in her… holds the future in mind.”
“It- it does.”
The Judicator sat back.
“Your compassion in this is commendable. It is worthy of the Path of our Ascension.”
“Do you believe that many others would want to associate… so closely… with someone who’s… impurities… were so easily manifest?”
Na’ar didn’t answer. His aura was a deep blue, and he seemed to be shrinking.
“I am taking steps to make your interest a reality. A permanent reality.”
It took Na’ar a moment to comprehend what he had been told. His aura suddenly brightened.
“Now.” The Judicator cut him off before he could say anything. “You are loyal. I have heard this from many people. As a defender of the Khala you protect the lives of our people by fighting the chaos that lies outside.”
The Judicator’s thought softened.
“Isharra is a unique case. I would not ask this of many people. But you are determined, are you not?”
“I need you to protect Isharra’s life. Even if that means fighting chaos in her. She is a rare and lovely being. But if her personality is not controlled- it could destroy her. Do you understand?”
He looked into Na’ar’s eyes. Na’ar felt as if his soul were being laid bare. As if a strange initiation that he had never been told about had just swept over him and the future were being invested with new realms of meaning.
“I am trusting you with a grave responsibility. You must save her from herself.”
The night air was moving through the jungle canopy overhead. Isharra skidded to a halt, as she sent out the password that opened the door.
She had never known why Ilia kept her doors locked. She had joined their family from another tribe and was considered an oddity. At this moment, the only thing Isharra cared about was that Ilia had given her the password.
The door opened. It locked as it closed behind her.
Her cousin was standing, poised mid-motion, listening. If she was surprised at Isharra’s arrival she didn’t show it. Isharra hesitated, not knowing quite what to do.
“You were not followed.” her cousin said finally. She sent down the crystal she’d been holding. “What is wrong?”
Isharra spilled out the whole story. When she finished, Ilia sighed. Her eyes closed and she laid the back of her hand against her own forehead.
“What are you willing to do, to get out of this?”
Ilia’ s eyes opened again.
“Do you understand what that means? Anything?”
“I do not! But I am willing to find out.” Isharra answered. Her aura was boiling with deep purples and greens. Her eyes were hard and calm.
Her cousin took her hand from her forehead.
“I will have to lay down a false trail. Perhaps towards the Auriga starports. Meanwhile, I have some… friends… who will take you in.
Isharra sent affirmation.
In a rare gesture, Ilia touched her cousin’s shoulder.
“Do you understand that there can be no return?”
“There is no staying here.”
“So be it.”
Her cousin turned and stalked away.
Several hours later they were moving together beneath trees so thick they blotted out the stars. Isharra followed her cousin’s lead, having never been in the deeper jungle before. She was keeping her thoughts within the privacy of her own mind, but inside those walls they were spinning with questions. She didn’t understand why Ilia’s friends were living in the jungle instead of houses. She didn’t understand why she had been sworn to secrecy concerning them. She didn’t understand why Ilia kept stopping to listen and study their surroundings. It was as if she didn’t believe that she would be able to sense her friends’ approach.
They came out into a meadow. Blade like leaves and the seta of tall mosses swayed in the light of the rising moon.
Her cousin held up her hand and they halted.
Isharra saw them. They were coming stealthily out from the trees, a few at a time. Even at this distance she could see, she could feel, the answer to all her questions.
Their nerve cords were shorn- cut off at about shoulder length. The mutilated organs no longer transmitted their individual psyches into the collective consciousness. The emptiness where they stood and didn’t stand, moved and didn’t move, thought and didn’t think, was glaring as the moon.
The door of the dark chamber appeared in her memory.
She followed her cousin forward, without a second thought.
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