Philip landed in the ruined courtyard of SecTr with a loud clop, letting Tabby float down peacefully at his side.
An infuriated middle-aged man with a cane spotted his Keeper medallion and limped up to him. “This is a disaster beyond imagining, Keeper!”
Philip peered into the cloud of smoke over the man’s head. “You have no idea.”
“Some crazed geist just destroyed SecTr,” he ranted. “That building has stood proudly for hundreds of years! It used to be a favorite of the king, and now look at it! Those evil demons. Barren spirits! Always ruining it for everyone! If it weren’t for good Keepers like you, protecting us from their greed, this entire city would crumble, just like SecTr!”
Philip waved absently, cutting off the man. “If you’ll excuse us...”
He grabbed Tabby’s hand and pulled her along. As they watched hidden in the crowd, Tabby noticed that everyone around her was similarly bitter, calling geists all manner of horrific names and blaming them for all kinds of ghoulish deeds.
“How can you stand it?” she whispered to Philip.
He kept his eyes forward, his expression remote. “You learn to ignore it.”
Judging by the irritated twitch in his jaw, he wasn’t being completely honest. His reply sounded eerily familiar to her own advice for Monica, but try as she might she couldn’t ignore their hatred. It was so different from being teased in school. Tabby wasn’t even a geist, but she still felt the indignity of their cruel words.
There was a break in the crowd that afforded them a clear view of the prisoner, and they stopped.
Raed approached the masked geist as he struggled against Lina and Paeter’s restraints. A young Keeper handed the general a pair of metal armlets mechanically blinking with lights. As soon as the geist saw it, he moaned in protest beneath his mask, his struggles growing urgent.
“Hold still and it will be less difficult,” said Raed.
The geist kicked, catching the hard outsole of his sandal on Raed’s chin. Tabby drew in a gasp. He laughed mirthfully as the crowd began to shout.
Raed didn’t seem to feel the blow. He simply glared at the masked man, wiping a smudge of dirt left on his chin. He clamped the collars around both of the geist’s arms, right at his shoulder. With a quiet beep, the interchanging lights all turned red and the geist abruptly stopped moving. He sat on his rump, chest heaving.
With the armlets securely in place, the crowd’s shouts began to simmer. Raed kneeled next to him and held up a small hammer-shaped device with a glowing red gem on one end.
“Do you know what this is?” he asked.
The geist nodded in silence, malicious fire burning in his eyes.
“You don’t need me to explain, then, if you do anything irrational, I’ll press this little gem and you’ll lose your arms. It’ll be hard to use your powers then, won’t it?”
The geist didn’t reply.
“Be good and we won’t have to come to that.” Raed gave him a paternal wink.
The masked geist stayed where he was, glaring at Raed and the small rod clenched firmly in his fist. Paeter lowered his weapons as the Keepers released him and backed away.
There was a unanimous cheer of approval from the crowd: the geist has been tamed.
Tabby whispered to Philip, thoroughly disturbed. “Threatening to cut off his arms seems unnecessarily cruel.”
“It’s standard,” he replied, as if that was all the explanation needed. “I should go. Wait here.”
He moved to join his Keeper companions but she grabbed his sleeve and held him back. “By myself?”
“Yes, by yourself.” He paused and glanced over his shoulder, speaking quietly. “Raed doesn’t know you’re here.”
Her eyes grew wide. “You haven’t told him?” she hissed.
“No. I was trying to keep you secret. I... thought you’d be back home by now.”
Tabby nodded and looked away, feeling suddenly like a third wheel. “Right.”
“Besides,” he continued, “it’s safer here. I’ll be back before you know it.” He gave her arm an appreciative squeeze then jogged off.
“But Philip, I— Oh nevermind,” she huffed. She glanced around at the angry crowds, shuffling awkwardly amongst their suspicious stares and whispering. There’s no way I’m staying here by myself! she decided. Despite his orders, she broke away from the crowds and followed Philips across the expansive SecTr terrace. By the time she caught up, he was already standing in a closed circle with Paeter and Lina, his back to her.
“The geist was unconscious when I found him,” Paeter was saying. “He was in the woods behind SecTr.”
“He refuses to speak,” added Lina, glancing in Tabby’s direction. When they made eye contact, she did a double take and a smile lit up her kind face. “Tabby? Is that you?”
Philip turned and exhaled a putout sigh. She waved at him, offering an apologetic smile. He went to where she stood and pulled her away from the group.
“I thought I asked you to wait,” he whispered, glancing nervously at Raed. His strangely small godfather was busy watching the geist.
“I’m not comfortable being left alone here,” she countered. Then she leaned in close enough so only he could hear. “I’m on another planet, remember? You can’t just abandon me. It’s not like we’re hanging out at a mall or something.”
Philip tilted his head curiously. “Mall?”
Lina pushed between them and threw her arms around Tabby in a lung-squeezing hug. “Thank Merofi you’re safe!” She rubbed Tabby’s shoulders with a watery smile. “I was so worried when you disappeared in SecTr. You should never leave a Keeper’s side during an emergency!”
Paeter sauntered over to them with a lop-sided smirk, his red eyes twinkling. Philip glanced at him warily, resting a hand on his sword’s hilt. “Lina,” he Paeter, “don’t tell me that you knew about Philip’s fair cousin before I did.”
“Of course!” she chuckled. “I’ve been the one taking care of her. She’s suffering from amnesia.”
Tabby waved meekly in acknowledgement.
“Ah, that explains things.” Paeter shook his head and clucked his tongue with pity. “How come I’m always the last to know?”
“Quiet you three!” Raed growled suddenly. “Your noise could wake a sleeping orla. I can’t even hear myself think!”
He snapped his head in Philip’s direction and marched to him with clenched fists. Tabby hid behind Lina, hoping he wouldn’t notice her.
“And you, boy,” snarled Raed, pointing an angry gloved finger at Philip’s apathetic face. “Nice of you to join us. Where’ve you been? Flirting with the trainees or dining with recruits?”
“Neither,” he answered, unflinching. “Correcting a minor glitch from my last mission. I came as soon as I could.”
Raed grunted, looking him over suspiciously. It oddly reminded Tabby of the way her mother would look at her sometimes. There was an obvious lack of trust between the two.
Having nothing more to say, Raed began to scan the skies, mumbling. “Curse the Temples, always taking their sweet time...” He let out a growl and bellowed: “Where in the name of Rema is Priestess Hiida?!”
“No need to shout, General,” said a soothing voice from above. “I am already here.”
A heavy atmosphere settled into the air, causing the crowds to grow silent. One by one, they all turned to follow the general’s gaze. Tabby looked up with them, eager to see the priestess that Philip was so nervous about.
Floating placidly towards them was a bizarre older woman of indiscernible age. Her robes were the most exquisite Tabby had seen on Rema yet. They were black, and draped far beyond her feet – which she never let touch the ground -- making her look at least eight feet tall. She had two white, owl-like horns cupping her ears. Her sharp, hooded eyes were decorated with intricate swirls drawn in black, and black lipstick covered her severe upper lip. She wore a bone white tiara with a Merofi’s Tear in its center, and her shoulder length hair hung in straight curtains around an arrogant face. She reminded Tabby of an elegant vulture.
As she descended upon the crowds, she looked over the Keepers as if they were a group of small, misbehaved children. A vague, patronizing smile touched her lips in an attempt to appear pious, but Tabby wasn’t quite buying it. Crude judgment was written in her eyes, and she immediately felt repelled.
Tabby glanced at Philip to ask more about her, but there was a shield over his eyes that made her feel she shouldn’t disturb him. It was as if he turned to stone at the sight of priestess.
When Tabby looked up again, Priestess Hiida, to her alarm, was staring directly at her with cold, gray eyes. She found her hand instinctively moving towards her heart, for the woman’s gaze was so piercing it seemed to cut right through her.
Tabby realized her mistake in thinking that the cruelty in her eyes was simple judgment. It was much more than that. It was calculating, planning. It was as if Priestess Hiida knew everything about her, where she was from, what her hopes were, and how she could use them against her if she needed to.
It wasn’t judgment at all. It was malice.
Philip placed a reassuring hand on Tabby’s arm and she jumped. He gave her a curt nod, and she flashed him an appreciative smile. She realized that she momentarily forgot to breath. When she looked back at the priestess, she was relieved to see that Priestess Hiida had moved on to more interesting things.
A young man around Lina’s age appeared. He landed gracefully behind the elegant priestess, dressed in black robes with patterns of white rain. On his back was the same ornate red fish that was sewn into the guards’ robes at the portal dome. He had a square face, a stocky build, almond-colored skin, and bright aqua eyes. His blue-green hair fell down his back in a long, neat ponytail.
He folded his hands behind him and stood at the priestess’s side, every inch of him smelling of discipline and duty.
“Priestess Hiida, Captain Joyen.” Lina bowed to the odd pair with a smile, as if she couldn’t tell how bizarre they were. “It is an honor to be in your presence.”
The priestess looked down at Lina with an icy, pietistic gaze. General Raed hovered to her in silence. He was suddenly as quiet as Philip was.
“Ah,” said the priestess in a soothing voice. “General Raed.” With a long, graceful hand, she gestured to the sitting geist, who was becoming extremely nervous. “So this is the one responsible for SecTr’s tragic ruin.”
“I am the one!” the geist cried with desperate pride.
The crowd muttered in confusion at the sound of his voice, and Tabby frowned. It was much higher-pitched than she remembered.
“You are awfully brave to speak in my presence, corrupt spirit,” Priestess Hiida said calmly, her vague smile incessantly hanging on her mouth. “Would you like to apologize to these good people for what you have done?”
“No.” The geist uttered a low, mirthful laugh. “And if I didn’t have this mask on, I’d spit on each and every one of them!”
The crowd roared with anger. Tabby found herself admiring the geist’s bravado. He was either really brave, or really crazy.
Hiida gazed happily at the masked geist from the corners of her eyes. “Perhaps I should remove your mask to allow you that opportunity?”
The crowd fell into a hushed silence, and the geist held very still. Philip squinted at him, waiting with baited breath like everyone else.
Tabby glanced uncomfortably from the priestess to her masked prisoner. As curious as she was to see what the geist looked like, she couldn’t help but worry for him. Once people saw his face, he would never be able to show himself in public again.
Priestess Hiida glided towards him like a specter. “Captain Joyen,” she said to the man standing guard behind her. “Remove this poor soul’s mask for me.”
“Yes, priestess.” The guard reached forward with strong, thick hands and stripped the mask from the geist’s head.
Tabby drew in a gasp. The geist was a girl like her, no more than fifteen. Her petite face was contorted into a terrible, almost feral sneer, her aqua eyes wild with anger.
Hiida scowled in disdain. The crowd jeered at the girl, who didn’t seem to mind the attention one bit. She laughed gleefully, as if it was all a grand joke.
Tabby looked at Philip, shocked. “Are you seeing this?” she whispered. “It’s a girl!”
“Her name is Nelsi…” He grit his teeth and narrowed his eyes, thinking. “I know her. She’s the sister of one of my Keeper trainees. She’s not who I fought inside. The geist was a man, I’m sure of it.” He sighed with frustration. “What are those Rebels up to...”
“Rebels?” Tabby frowned, trying to keep up.
“Where?” She glanced around at the angry crowd. “Here?”
“Yes,” Philip hissed. “Keep your voice down.”
Tabby covered her mouth, whispering. “What are they rebelling against?”
“The Council, the temples, everything,” he explained quickly. “They think geists should rule because they’re more powerful. The masks are their brand.”
Tabby’s eyes widened with clarity. “Are you…?”
“No.” He glanced back at his Keeper friends nervously. “I’d rather die than join their ranks.”
“Then how did you get the…” She paused, sliding her hand over her face and mouthing the word ‘mask.’
Philip stared at her, and went slightly pink.
Before he could answer, Hiida held up an authoritative hand and the seething crowd eventually settled. She hovered gracefully in front of them, her soft voice filling the courtyard.
“There is no need for anger, my fellow Merofians. Our Goddess of Water does not hate the geist for following her nature. Do not let her corruption stop us from living our Goddess’s dreams. The Secretary of Travel was one of the loveliest towers in Cerey, one that won’t soon be forgotten. Yes, we may have lost our ability to travel to other worlds, but we haven’t lost our ability to search. We will continue to do so here, on fair Rema. We will find a cure for Nonak, and we will bring peace to their world and ours.”
Scattered calls and cheers of conviction came from the audience.
Priestess Hiida flitted to the sitting geist, her eyebrows raised so high they disappeared beneath her crown. “Do you hear this, corrupt spirit?” she said with a pencil-thin smile. “You have not stopped us. We will find a cure.”
The geist, Nelsi, laughed. “Like you care!”
“Merofi shall judge you for your interference in this matter.”
“You don’t scare me.”
“I hope you have made peace with our Goddess, for she may erase your soul from existence should she find you...” Hiida paused, her smile broadening, “guilty.”
Nelsi smiled back at the priestess and promptly spat on her. It landed squarely on her powdered forehead. The crowd didn’t dare react.
The Priestess’s face became blank as the girl broke into a fit of laughs, her unkempt pigtails making her look especially unhinged.
“It looks good on you, Hiida!”
The priestess slowly backed away and delicately wiped the spittle from her fair skin. “General Raed,” she said calmly, “I have had enough. Be a good soldier and deliver her to the temple prison, where we may deal with her in a more controlled environment.”
Raed let out a tired sigh and signaled the nearby Keepers for assistance as he bound the geist girl with thick, red rope.
“I know there’re geists out there among you!” Nelsi shouted towards the crowds. The audience stirred, shouting back in anger.
“Don’t worry, my brothers and sisters!” she called over them. “We will find you, and free you all from the temples’ bonds! We are not their toys to play with! Our powers are not theirs to control! Do not be afraid! We are the true children of the Gods!”
The geist girl’s wild eyes settled on Tabby, making her shift uncomfortably.
“Do not be afraid!”
“Why don’t you gag her, as well?” Hiida said to the Keepers.
“Our time is coming and Merofi smiles upon us!” Nelsi continued frantically. “Merofi—!”
The Keepers tied a cloth around her mouth, smothering her words. With a hateful glower, Raed handed the priestess one end of the rope that bound the girl.
Priestess Hiida took it with a tiny, appreciative smile. “Thank you, dear General.”
For a moment, Tabby thought Raed was going to punch her, he was staring at her with such disgust. But he did nothing and he said nothing. This seemed to please the priestess very much, and she nodded at him approvingly.
“You always come through for me, in the end.”
With that, the priestess flew away towards a distant temple in the mountains, dragging Nelsi behind her like a dog on a leash.