Tezkhra waited in a corner of the parlor, idly looking out the large stained glass window into the streets of Do'Ssha, still illuminated by the ever-present sunlight. The rest of the guild was fast asleep by now, no doubt. Tezkhra idly thought on the process. So much time, given up each day to keep the body functioning. So inefficient. He could not remember the last time he had needed sleep – he had no memories before being exposed to +ii emitters. Tezkhra did not miss being a slave to nature. Though of course, now, without the radiation, his body would probably revert to its natural state eventually... All the more incentive to get the mission over with as fast as possible. There was still time left, if he hurried. Then, he would be...
The echoing of footsteps broke through the silence of the halls, piercing through his thoughts. Tezkhra startled – who else could be up at this hour? He pivoted around, and relaxed when he saw the source – Mahk was walking down the hall toward him. The whiteness of his robe made him appear to be glowing in the endless sunlight, an image assisted by the glittering of gold around his collar and cuffs. His eyes were softer than they were when they met outside, but still so different from how Tezkhra remembered. The times when they would argue so fervently about weaponcraft in the rings of the Inquiry felt like a lifetime ago – and, Tezkhra thought grimly, it technically was.
“I brought some tea for you,” Mahk said as he walked toward the table in the center of the room. “You should try some. It soothes the mind.” Mahk placed the simple white teacup he was carrying on the parlor table before sitting down in a cross-legged position. Tezkhra paused before following suit on the other side of the table. He stared at the cup blankly.
“You made it for me?” Tezkhra said slowly. “I appreciate the gesture, but...” He glanced around suddenly before continuing more softly, “...you shouldn't waste it on me.”
Mahk smiled slightly, and gave off a barely-audible chuckle. “Are you concerned that I'm wasting resources? It's just leaves and hot water. It's not like it's vital for our continued survival.” Tezkhra's eyes shifted nervously again. “And don't worry, no one's awake. We can talk freely,” Mahk added. Tezkhra said nothing, only resuming a hesitant gaze on the teacup. After a moment, Mahk sighed. “Fine, don't. Let's just talk.”
“Talk?” Tezkhra muttered. “I don't really have much to talk about, Mahk.”
“Really?” Mahk cocked an eyebrow. “You aren't curious about me? Why I stayed here when I was sent to search for you? Why I named my clan of pacifists after weaponsmiths?”
“It's not my place to pry,” Tezkhra replied without emotion. “You seem content enough. I don't need to to know the details.”
Mahk sighed. “Fine then. But what about your current situation? You've just been brought back from the dead and are now a member of one of the most famous guilds in the world. You may well be on the verge of stopping a war that looms over the heads of everyone in this continent, which will no doubt earn you their undying gratitude. You find nothing about this notable? You are not worried, confused, or anxious?”
Tezkhra gazed at him expressionlessly. “It's none of my affair, Mahk. To be honest, I probably shouldn't have ever signed that contract. It was foolish of me to get involved.”
“Foolish? There is nothing foolhardy about using your skills to better the world, Tezkhra. Besides, they did bring you back from the dead. You owe them,” Mahk replied.
Tezkhra stared at him for a long while before sighing and looking away. “I've made a grievous error. I've completely broken protocol... Before, I'm sure you'd have reprimanded me as much as anyone else for that.” He paused. “You've changed.”
“Well yes, it's been a few thousand Surface-years since we've seen one another. I see you haven't changed a bit – though I suppose that's to be expected, since time has been paused for you.”
“Mmh,” Tezkhra agreed. He hesitantly made eye contact again. Mahk was correct. He had changed so much, while Tezkhra had been suspended, timeless, for all the time that Mahk had been here. They had drifted so far apart...
Mahk suddenly glanced down at the teacup again. “Tez, you haven't even taken a sip of your tea. It'll get cold soon.” This elicited no response. Mahk looked up at Tezkhra again. “Look...the radiation will wear off eventually. You're going to need to eat and sleep like the rest of us. You should–”
“No,” Tezkhra interrupted, waving his hand dismissively. “Don't speak like that. It's still possible to activate the signal. Both of us can still be rescued.”
Mahk stared intently at Tezkhra. His eyes hardened as a bitter coldness replaced the friendly warmth Tezkhra had seen before. Something welled up inside Tezkhra as he stared into those eyes, something even colder than they were, without any anger behind it. Was it...sadness? Disappointment? ...Fear?
There was a long silence before Mahk spoke again.
“...So, that's what all that 'none of my affair' business was about, was it? You still have hope?” His voice lowered to a growl. “You think you're going to complete the Cycle, get picked up by the old crew, and be on your merry way?”
“I have to, Mahk,” Tezkhra replied as calmly as he could. “Just look around you. This Surface is the one. The reason we set out on this mission in the first place – the fruits of our labor. We can change everything with this energy–”
“Oh really, Tez?” Mahk scoffed. “You know what the completion of the Cycle entails. Is this energy worth the lives of the thousands who will perish in fire? The civilizations that will be destroyed forever?”
Tezkhra winced. He was nor prepared for such a bitter remark. “I know the costs are great, but...but it is necessary. There's no way to send out the signal otherwise...” He turned away from Mahk's gaze, now burning with fiery disapproval. “If...if there was another way, then I would, but it's...” Why was he stumbling over his words like this? This wasn't like him. Another emotion was stirring inside him...guilt? Uncertainty? Whatever it was, he would pay it no heed. He took a deep breath and continued. “Trillions will benefit from this discovery. I know it is horrible to say, but...a thousand lives is miniscule in that comparison. It is–”
“Enough,” Mahk growled. “Their lives are not at stake. You would be sacrificing everyone on this Surface just so that you and your scientists can have a new toy to play with! I cannot condone that.”
Tezkhra tried to form a response, anything, but the words caught in his throat and refused to come out. This hadn't happened to him before – why couldn't he do anything? Did his emotions believe Mahk was correct?
Mahk continued. “The Sikohlon are not just my children, they are my life's work. I saw the mess this world was in and unlike some of us I decided to do something about it. These people's lives are real, and I have done everything I can to stop this perpetual plague of war and despair. If you think I will let you sacrifice my children and everything I've worked for because of an experiment, then by the Supreme One I swear I'll tear out your throat myself!”
There was a long silence. Tezkhra felt stunned. No...more than that. The hatred in Mahk's words were more painful than any physical blow he had endured prior. A cold, paralyzing dread seeped through his body as he tried to think of what to do. But his thoughts were too scrambled...why couldn't he focus? He couldn't distance himself. He kept coming back to the words Mahk had spoken. If you think I will let you sacrifice my children and everything I've worked for...
To Tezkhra's surprise, it was Mahk who broke eye contact first, sharply turning his head away embarrassedly. As the fire in his eyes retreated, Tezkhra relaxed his muscles – he hadn't realized how tense he was.
“I...I'm sorry,” Mahk mumbled. “I shouldn't have yelled at you like that.”
Mahk rose from the ground slowly, his face pained. “I suppose there's nothing I can do to convince you. Let your own conscience guide you. I must rest now, but you have many hours to contemplate this. I pray you will make the correct decision...old friend.” As Mahk walked toward the resting chambers, Tezkhra was struck by how exhausted he looked. He had seemed so confident and strong before...had his words really hurt him that much?
When he reached the archway, Mahk said over his shoulder, “Your tea's probably gone cold by now, but...please, drink it anyway.” His footsteps echoed into the distance, and then there was nothing but silence. Tezkhra glanced down at the plain alabaster teacup, still sitting on the table. Hesitantly, he wrapped his hand around it. Mahk was right; it had lost most of its warmth already.
He was not sure how long he sat there, staring into the ruddy, translucent liquid. But after a time – he was not sure what compelled him to do it – he raised the cup to his lips, and drank deeply.