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Never So Human

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133

Kay’s twenty-first Midsummer Day was starkly different from its evening. 

The essential daily tasks of the Ranch, the University, and the rest of Malibu were the same as always. The Solstice festivities were familiar, too: the inter-Guild baseball game was played (surprisingly enjoyable, given that the Tanners beat Couture in an upset), the barbecue feasts were eaten, the celebratory beer and mead and rosé were drunk, and then everybody cleaned up. People stumbled home happily drunk, and the livestock that hadn’t been feasted upon were themselves fed.

Kay was free to enjoy all that normalcy (as much as a human sacrifice whose presence tended to dampen festive moods could), but it only made what was to come more strange. He had to be back on the Ranch by sundown to put on the armor.

He’d worn armor before, as part of his combat training (number eight on his list), but that had been the kind that human guards or sheriffs used: mostly leather with a few pieces of salvaged kevlar for those who could afford it. It was light, too, and flexible, intended to facilitate fast movement. The Teind armor was nothing like that. It encased its wearer completely in a hard shell and (appropriately enough) discouraged running.

And, unlike practical armor, the design was different for every Teind. Kay could still remember Elle’s armor, pale gray with a few green accents. Benson’s had been the same brown as the hills, though Kay didn’t remember it in much detail. And he’d seen images of previous Teinds, none of them the same. 

He hadn’t been given details of how it worked, or who had made it, or how the design was chosen. He did know, from a patchwork of memory, research, and probing questions, that it would change him somehow. Though he hadn’t realized it at the time — she’d taken to wearing a long cloak pulled tightly around herself — Elle’s had made lace of her neck and lower back. Benson’s had elongated his jaw into almost a snout, deadened his hearing, and given him an incredibly sensitive olfactory capacity.

All of that terrified Kay. Dying was one thing; being fundamentally, unpredictably altered was another entirely.

The only consolation he had was that once the armor was on, he could finally begin the highest-priority item on his list: the Los Angeles Central Library was too radioactive for humans to enter safely, but the armor would protect him well enough for him to explore the institution.

The sun almost kissing the sea, Kay climbed past the University and up over the ridge to the Ranch. 

The collection of buildings had been either preserved or rebuilt just as it had been before the Fall: a larger central building for the common areas (dining hall, great room, classroom, practice room) and numerous smaller cabins that served as individual dwellings. Kay's was the farthest from the House, almost on the ridge overlooking the sea, where it was quietest. Switching to that one from the more centrally-located cabin where he's spent his early childhood had been his first successful negotiation with the Fae.

However, he wasn't going there yet. He went instead to the practice room.

The Ranch, once upon a time, had been a real working farm, but between that and the Fall, it had been a 'luxury wellness resort.' From what Kay could extrapolate from the surviving documentation, that meant it was a place for very rich people to endure near-starvation and grueling exercise while also sleeping on the finest linen and having servants attend to their every desire. 

The practice room, with an entire wall made of glass, had been where the elite would go to practice meditation and yoga. For the Fae and the Teinds, it was for physical combat training, sparring, dance lessons, anything involving physical movement and the need for space.

Kay arrived just as the last rays of sun were disappearing from the roof. There was no one else inside yet, just the usual equipment and an intricately carved wooden chest.

Just as he was contemplating what they'd do to him if he peeked inside the chest, the back door opened and Ventesel came gliding out. He was alone, and that sent a wave of dread through Kay. The Fae never performed manual labor.

Unless there was a magical reason not to.

“Teind,” said Ventesel. “We begin.” He opened the chest, and Kay finally saw his armor.

It was black, no gloss to the surface, enough that it soaked up light and looked like it had depth. The shape of it was geometric, minimalist, no frills or embellishment. If not for what it was going to do to him, he’d have liked it quite a bit.

When Ventesel buckled on the sabatons, they felt perfectly mundane over his boots. As soon as both parts of the left greave closed around Kay’s lower leg, however, he started to feel a faint buzz. Not on his skin, as if the armor were vibrating, but deep, like something had invaded his bones. 

Kay told himself it didn’t matter. That his body changing wouldn't affect the rest of him. 

He’d never been a very good liar, least of all to himself. His breath started to speed up.

The second greave, and the now the buzz was in both lower legs, and stronger, too. The poleyns and the cuisses didn’t increase the intensity, but they did pull the sensation up his knees and thighs. The breast and back plates, and then the buzzing was in Kay’s chest, breaking his self-control, and he jerked away from the attendant, heart hammering, chest heaving in its prison. 

Ventesel tossed his head in annoyance, rich chestnut tresses rippling across his shoulders. “Be still,” he commanded, and the magic in the words wrapped around Kay and froze his limbs. Only his heart and lungs kept moving.

“Come back,” the Fae said, and Kay’s body returned him to his place. He had no say in the matter at all. “Stand to be armored,” and his arms held themselves away from his torso, ready for the vambraces, gauntlets, revebraces, and pauldrons.

Kay wondered what would happen if he passed out. Would his unconscious body continue to obey, standing until the attendant was done? Would he just collapse into a heap like a rag doll? Ventesel might let him, if he was annoyed enough.

Kay tried to run probability equations in his head. He started with equations for which of the Contracted servants would be hung over tomorrow. Individual predictions were often pretty imprecise, though, so he worked out the percentage of people hungover instead.

Finished with his arms, Ventesel picked up the fauld. Kay thought about how much corn and rice was likely to be harvested that year. By now the buzz was present throughout Kay’s body and slowly increasing and decreasing its intensity. The gorget, and he could almost taste it.

Then only the helm was left. When it was lowered over his head, there was darkness, and the amplified sound of his ragged breathing in his own ears, and then Ventesel partially visible through the eye slits. He buckled the last strap and the buzz peaked into an intense pulse through Kay’s whole body before vanishing completely.

“It is done,” the Fae said. “You are free to go.” The outside control of Kay’s body disappeared, and Ventesel left the armory.

Kay fell to his knees laughing.

 

132

Sometime in the small hours of the morning, Kay discovered that the armor could be removed like any other.

Shortly thereafter — half an hour? — Kay’s bones started to hurt, a deep, widespread pain that started as a deceptively mild ache. He let it build another ten minutes, twenty, thirty, until it was nearly unbearable.

When he buckled the armor back on with shaky hands, the pain didn’t lessen until every piece was in its place. Then, and only then, did it evaporate, leaving only its memory.

Kay certainly remembered. 

Exhausted by the pain and the panic, Kay returned to his room. He lay down, armor an all, disliking immensely how deeply he sank into the mattress and how the sheets caught at the plates.

Struggling up, he shifted bedding onto the floor, which at least didn’t try to swallow him up. It took much longer than normal, but he did eventually drift off to sleep.

 

131

The summer sun beat down onto the pavement and reflected off the empty glass towers of Downtown ‘Angeles, attacking Kay from every angle with light and heat. He was sweating profusely under his armor and had been for the last hour, but carrying it in his arms would be worse even without the threat of pain. Until he reached the Library, he paced himself and took frequent sips from his canteen.

The streets of the abandoned city were silent but for his own footsteps crunching and scraping broken glass against the asphalt. There were pockets of inhabitation elsewhere in ‘Angeles, Kay knew, but those were near water and away from the worst of the radiation. Most likely he had not just the Library but the whole neighborhood all to himself.

When he found it, he stopped to take in the sight: The outside of the Los Angeles Central Library was remarkably intact. Only a few windows were broken, and the worst that had befallen the mosaic-decorated pyramid crowning the structure was dust. It looked almost exactly like the painting in the Ranch’s school room. It had been that painting of a beautiful building standing amid ruins that had intrigued Kay and made him want to visit even before he could read.

He wondered how the Library had survived. Perhaps, even during the Fall, people had been trying to preserve its knowledge and cultural history. However it had happened, Kay was grateful.

The large, heavy main doors were sealed shut. Kay circled the building, found a less imposing (and less beautiful) door, and pulled his pry bar from his pack.

When he pushed on it to test the strength, the door cracked open with a shriek of metal, bouncing against the wall and the doorframe twice before Kay reached out to stop it.

He looked down at his vambraces and gauntlets. They looked the same as ever, but he hadn’t been anywhere near that strong three days ago.

 

105

Each evening, Kay returned to his keepers at the Stadium base camp. At the great entryway the Fae guards would cleanse his armor and any books he brought back, and then he was permitted to go inside the crumbling structure and out onto the field that had once seen a sport played by people whose job it had been. The human Contracted would feed Kay and help him change into a clean undersuit, and then he would lie down on the outfield among the succulents, scrub grass and peanuts growing there. He watched the stars and listened with half an ear to the Contracted's conversations until he felt too lonely to continue, or eavesdropped on the Fae until their talk of fine clothes, hunting and social drama bored him to sleep.

Each morning, he woke, ate breakfast, loaded himself with as much water as he could reasonably carry, and went back to the Library.

After the second week, he'd begun to wake increasingly earlier each day, and so it was just as the sun was beginning to rise that he arrived at the Atrium on the one hundred and fifth day remaining to him.

Some of the colorful glass sculptures had fallen and shattered on the tile floor, but it had only been a few hours’ work to sweep the mess out of the way. It was worth it, given how frequently Kay passed through the Atrium: once-mobile metal staircases cascaded down the long space, each landing an entrance to a different level of the Library. All but the highest and lowest levels of the building were accessible from there, and it was a good place to stop and think, or take advantage of the natural light and read what he’d found. 

He’d been delighted to discover that the books were organized by a numerical system, and in under a day he’d made himself a key. Now he was almost finished with a set of notes on the building itself: how to get from one place to another, which rooms lacked enough ventilation to use a lantern, the location of the dangerously open elevator shaft, where to dispose of waste, where and how to store food and water. Everything, really, that an explorer might need to know.

He might have been done sooner, but he spent about half of his time reading the most interesting books that caught his eye and making a collection of what he thought might be useful to the people back in Malibu. It would depend on what he could carry but it was worth trying.

So far, he’d accumulated books on horticulture and terraforming, books about solar- and wind-powered electrical generators, books recording more traditions than Kay had known existed. He’d long since checked item number twelve on his list — attend all human holidays and celebrations at least once each, except the ones too close to the end of October — and some of those experiences were among those he valued the most. He wanted to ensure their continuation, and, if Malibu was interested, their expansion. It might even count as item number fifteen: creating, spreading or perpetuating something that had an above 70% chance of lasting a century or more.

Knowing how easily he could lose himself in the mathematics section, Kay only allowed himself to go there once a week. Today would be his fourth visit, and he didn’t plan on doing any mapping unless something particularly hazardous came up.

From the just-brightening Atrium, Kay went to Level -2. He picked up the lantern and firelighter he’d left at the entrance, but peering into the stacks, realized he didn’t need it.

Well, there were worse transformations. He’d gotten off easily so far, with just the strength and night vision and increasing height, though it did make him wonder what invisible effects Elle and Benson had experienced; wished, for the thousandth time, that they’d left behind journals to make his way forward a little easier.

He’d started keeping one on his sixteenth birthday. So far, the Fae hadn’t found it, or else didn’t care that he had one. The trick would be getting it to the next Teind. 

He’d figure that out later. In the meantime, he was going to indulge in some ballistics equations.

 

89

Kay collected dictionaries and grammar guides for all of the languages he knew people in Malibu spoke. He read plays, poems, and novels by authors of all kinds, and the armor continued to transform his body into something less and less recognizable:

Not only did he no longer need a step stool to reach the highest shelves, he needed to duck when walking through low doorways, though the armor fit just as well as it had at the start. 

He’d stopped getting hungry, but still ate a little each day. He wasn't quite ready to see if he could do without food entirely. 

And, perhaps as a consolation, at night he could feel moonlight on the armor like a cool breeze.

 

74

He got distracted in the history section trying to find any mention of the Fae’s first appearance; when that failed, he searched for information about the wars of the Fall. He read all six books in one sitting. The basement didn’t have windows, so he didn’t realize until later that three and a half days passed while he was doing it. 

When he returned to the Stadium, saving the guards from a retrieval mission, he actually felt hungry. When he took off his helm to eat, the humans startled, stared, and then averted their eyes.

“What?” Kay didn’t really have patience for politeness on this topic.

“Your, uh, your face, sir,” was all Sasha managed. 

“What about my face?”

Janelle took a small mirror from her belt pouch and held it up so Kay could see himself. He started at what he saw.

His ears were more pointed than round. His cheekbones were standing out a lot more. And when his jaw fell open in surprise, he could see his teeth had become just a bit too sharp. 

In short, he looked Fae. 

Pushing the mirror away, he picked up a fork and started stabbing at his food. He would've preferred a snout.

 

73

After eating, Kay slept a few hours and then, restless, returned to the Library. Moonlight spilled through the windows and skylights of the Atrium, creating columns of light and darkness to mirror the stone ones holding up the roof. 

Kay hadn't arrived with a specific plan. For perhaps the first time since he'd learned how, he didn’t feel like reading.

Exploration it was, then. The Library was huge, and there were entire rooms dedicated to things other than books that Kay had noted and then ignored.

He wasn’t going to ignore them now. He started at the top of the building, Level Four. There wasn’t much of it, just a secluded room with an enormous table in the center and excellent views of the desolation outside. He poked around a bit, finding only the sorts of things people used to use in meetings, and took the stairs back to the third, then the second level.

The Rotunda was beautiful, and he’d visited it multiple times already. It was hard to see the murals at night, though, so he merely continued on to the galleries. The paintings he couldn’t see, but the sculpture gallery occupied him for a good twenty minutes. 

It didn’t do anything for his agitation, though, and he moved on. The shop, cafe, security checkpoints, classrooms, and computer rooms on the first level didn’t hold his interest longer than it took to sweep through them. He passed through more galleries without really looking at anything, and then he was at the doors to the Auditorium. 

Unlike the Atrium, the Rotunda, or any of the galleries, Kay’s footsteps didn’t echo as he walked down the central aisle of the Auditorium. There were a few rows of padded, folding seats in a semicircle around the stage, wood paneling along the walls, carpet. 

Sitting on the edge of the stage was a single book.

It was a bit out of place, but it was a library, so Kay didn’t have a strong reaction. When he went to pick it up, though, he was suddenly much more interested.

It wasn’t a machine-made book like all the others in the library. It was bound in a thick piece of soft leather without a title or any writing at all on the cover, and the pages were fibrous and uneven. He’d seen dozens like it in the book-and-stationery maker’s shop in Malibu. 

A thrill ran through Kay. Someone had been in the Library after the Fall, and relatively recently. 

Kay scoured the Auditorium for more such books, found none, and took it out to the Atrium. He sat down in a moonbeam, then got up again to bring a lantern, then, when he could see colors again, opened the book.

The first page had only the name Rogelio hand-written in ink. It sounded familiar to Kay for some reason but he couldn’t place it. 

The next page started with a date — roughly fifty years before Kay’s expedition — and then began to describe the sea, the hills, and how much the writer had enjoyed his picnic at Malibu Creek.

It was a journal. The journal of someone intimately familiar with the same area Kay lived in. Heart beating fast, he read faster than he ever had in his life.

The first third was pretty standard journal fare, daily activities and moods and small interpersonal interactions. It confirmed Kay’s guess that the writer had been human. He was also fairly well-educated and seemed to have plenty of leisure time, which suggested he’d been born to a Favored house. 

Then Rogelio met Lanithroel, a Fae woman he described at excruciating length. The smallest interactions between them were likewise over-analysed in the next entries. Kay sighed in disappointment; infatuation was boring.

Rogelio’s pining lasted about a month, and then Kay could almost taste his joy:

I never thought she would lower herself to a human level. I almost feel that I should be sorry, but I can’t. I’m far too happy to be hers to regret any of it! I’ve never felt anything so amazing, not just physically but in my heart, too. I’m in love, and it’s such a beautiful gift to be loved back. 

Kay’s irritation curdled into dread. Happy about it or not — hell, magically compelled or not — Rogelio hadn't been in a position to consent.

Kay was abruptly very grateful that most of the Fae found him boring.

Still, he read on (skimming the bits about sex) and then, just after the halfway point of the book, stopped dead. 

It’s almost October. Yesterday I mentioned the Teind and she became so distressed I could hardly bear it. She cried and I held her and daydreamed about running away together. 

I thought I had prepared myself, but Lanithroel’s love has made me regret my early death. I would spend eternity with her if I could.

Kay sat, stunned. Rogelio had been a Teind.

“Well, this is a terrible way for my wish to come true,” he muttered.

Discomfited though he was, he kept reading. Rogelio became increasingly conflicted, Lanithroel increasingly weepy, and by the time he'd finished most of the journal Kay was considering burning it.

He reached the last entry.

For the longest time these journals have been only for myself, but now I’m changing that. I hope, of course, that in whatever future this is being read, the Fae no longer enact the Teind. Realistically, I hope this journal reaches the hands of a Teind after me.

I’m sorry. I know you must think very lowly of me for loving my warden. I think lowly of myself, after all. But the heart wants what it wants, and in addition to comfort and solace in the last few months of my life, our affair has given me knowledge.

Lanithroel wanted me to understand the Teind the way she does. It was very important to her that I know my death is not a whim or a religious obligation or a simple instrument of terror.

She told me that the Fae are not the source of their magic. They are the shapers, the wielders, but in the same way that humans shape and wield knives: the raw material has to come from somewhere else.

It comes from the Teind. Because I was born at the right time, because I’ve been educated and trained, because I’ve been prepared with the armor and the isolation, my death will be suitable fuel. I always thought that my comfortable lifestyle was a consolation, or a nod towards compensation, but it’s not. It’s like fattening a pig for slaughter. 

I wish I could say I’m going to run or fight, but I can’t. They would catch me and kill any humans I’ve spoken to as punishment.

And I want Lanithroel to have magic. It’s some small comfort, knowing that part of me will be with her.

If you’re another Teind, I’m sorry that you share my fate. I wrote this because you deserve to know the truth. I hope that this journal has at least made you feel a bit less alone. Maybe, if we’re both very lucky, you’ll somehow be able to use this knowledge against the Fae.

Kay turned the page and stared at the blank paper. He turned all the remaining blank pages, and then he sat staring at the book in his lap.

“You hoped someone else could take them down.” He drummed his fingers against the cover of the journal. “Not that you have any idea how. Just that if I know what you know…” 

He trailed off. If the ritual was also necessary, there was an exceedingly simple solution. “If I died before the ceremony — not too long, maybe an hour? — then it would fail. Their magic would fail.” He crossed his arms over his chest, the armor making a faint scraping sound he already knew wouldn't result in damage. “But I don’t know if the age of the Teind is a make-or-break factor. Being trained and educated is like being a fat pig, but if you haven’t got a fat pig, you kill a lean one.” Like the next Teind, twelve-year-old Bea. In the last year Kay had tried to distance himself, but he was still inordinately fond of her. She hated when people mistreated animals and there was nothing so cheering as watching a tiny round girl absolutely destroy an asshole’s shins. “Could I keep Bea safe and kill myself?”

The more he thought, the diceyer the logistics looked. And that was assuming it mattered when and where he died. Allowing his expedition would be a foolish risk if an accidental death could foil the Teind.

He was not optimistic about his odds.

 

67

For a week Kay attacked the problem of the Teind from every angle he could think of. 

All possible solutions involved more than one person, which meant he'd found no solution at all. Not when he had no one he could really trust. The Fae made sure of that by making sure none of the people he came into contact with were stationed with him for longer than a season. 

Defeated and tired, he decided to return early. He wanted to see the ocean again, the hills. Wonderful as the Library was, he didn’t want to spend the last two months of his life surrounded by dead things.

Culling his book collection to something small enough to carry back to the Ranch was a day of hard choices. He also made a copy of his exploration guide and left it, Rogelio’s journal, and a lantern on a map plinth in the Atrium.

Then he went home to await death.