It all started when he went to the Fringes.
Perhaps if he hadn't been so incorrigibly curious; defiant. Perhaps if he hadn't been cursed with this pathetic half-Gift of quintessence. Perhaps none of this would have happened.
Perhaps if he hadn't overheard his sister talking quietly to their parents: she had been chosen; she was going to meet the transport ship. She had been deemed strong enough to resist the Taint.
He'd been so young--barely thirty-five falls--almost mature and still naive, naive enough to be frightened of the Outside Taint while still fascinated with it.
He'd wondered: what did Tainted ones look like? Were they ghastly, mishappen, twisted souls, as all the Elders said? But...but, but, but how could those free to dance among the stars, known only as beautiful and unreachable jewels to the Vandri, and to touch the night sky, how could they be Tainted?
A dangerous question, and he'd known it. He'd never asked.
Which is why he decided to find out for himself. Why he followed his sister's group in the dead of the night, wringing some use out of his half-Gift and magicking his footsteps and breathing into silence.
All of it, all of it started when he went to the Fringes.
Now that he thought about it, she really wasn't that much older than he. No, no, she was younger. Fifteen years--or thirty falls--hadn't she been, when they first met? She had acted so much older, so aged, and still did.
He remembered first seeing the transport ship: a great, streamlined beast of shining chrome that gleamed in the moonlight. It seemed so strange, so otherworldly, even from his hiding place in the bushes, fifty strides away. He had first looked upon it through a small hole in the bush, so that the ship seemed small, the rest of the huge clearing it rested in blocked out by a frame of leaves. At that moment he longed to dash the remaining strides to the ship and touch its underbelly; to see if any dust from the stars came off onto his fingers. Silently he watched as his sister and seven others continued to walk, waiting until it was safe enough to rise again and follow behind. Many of them seemed to grow uneasy as the trees thinned and grew younger; stunted, somehow. He heard his sister suddenly petition the Forest aloud.
" By the Roots!
Startled, he shifted and trained his eyes on her figure, trying to see what she had seen. By the dim light cast by the lanterns in the hands of the procession ahead, he saw a ghastly tree stump, scorched unnaturally black across its top. Nothing for several strides around the stump grew. He gasped softly and shuddered.
Quiet murmurs from the more seasoned members of the group, and the lights once again began to recede. His breath caught as he realized they were moving closer to the ship--in his excitement he'd almost forgotten that it was a source of Taint. Staring at that stark, dead stump, that terrible marker of Life suddenly gone, however, served to remind him all too strongly. He was more than slightly hesitant now to draw nearer to the metal beast. Then he realized that he could no longer see the stump clearly; the lights were receded to mere pinpricks in the black distance. He hesitated for a split second, then rose from his crouch and followed after, giving the hideous scar that marred the Forest a wide berth.
Thirty strides, twenty, fifteen, ten, and then he dared not go farther. With every step a heavy, foreboding weight had settled more palpably on his shoulders until he felt it had found a way beneath his skin, under his ribs, contracting about his heart. As the ship and the end of the Fringes grew closer, so the Taint grew more and more tangible, until he could almost taste it, a bitter, cold, foreboding tinge to the air. Perhaps his Gift was only half, but he doubted he needed any of it to sense this mournful, isolated presence.
Almost overcome with anxiety, he chose a random bush and crouched behind it, fingers trembling, then arms, then legs. Something was here; the Taint was here, in the Fringes, and it was terribly strong. The moon was shadowed and a chill wind blew. It wormed its way under his light tunic and caused his skin to crawl. Up ahead he could just barely make out the forms of the entourage, then several trees, short and sickly though they were, blocked them from view as they stepped out into the clearing.
The clearing. Say'lyiera
, Place of Sorrow. A gaping wound in the Forest, a festering, infected hole in Nature, the cause of which was unclear and spoken of only in low, grim voices.
He shivered. His sister had just stepped into Say'lyiera
, where the Taint lay waiting in the moonlight.