Finding the Light Part 1– The Desert

 Ouzin tilted his head forward, trying to push his way through the sandstorm. He stopped for a second, readjusted his goggles and secured the scarf around his face, then continued plunging through. The sound of the wind wiping up sand sounded uncomfortably like a swarm of flies, and indeed the Kroshta desert felt alive. It was easy to believe that each grain of sand had some sentience and intended to batter him down, in the same way the sand storms have brutally battered all the land in the Kroshta desert to the smoothness of glass. His body tilted sideways from another gust of wind, and just as he was about to right himself, another blast from a different direction fully toppled him to the ground. He slid back a few feet before coming to a stop face down. 

Ouzin breathed heavily and lifted himself to sitting. Another gust nearly ripped his head off. Taking deep breaths, he pulled his feet to his chest and tucked his head in the space between. 

“This is ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous.” He coughed again, spitting out sand. His throat was raw as if it had been gone over by sandpaper. “Ridiculous!” He gripped the useless scarf covering his head and almost ripped it off. 

He’d been walking through the desert for four days already, and the winds had only gotten stronger and more malicious the closer he got to the Hiskar. He had already known to expect this. After all, such coming-of-age treks were extensively documented. A typical Trigalan was a five-day trek at an easy pace, one way. In total, a ten-day round trip with the potential to change your life. Everyone did it, and exceptional stories were heard often enough. A young bistian from some common family goes to the Hiskar and forms a pact with a powerful hirak. As a result, is immediately boosted into the ranks of nobility and granted a title of power. The trip wasn’t even deadly, just difficult because tradition dictated that people not use items like personal shields or tech-clothing to protect themselves from the sand storms. Still, most people were able to get a holo-map downloaded into their auto-comms, so despite the vastness of the desert, and the interference of the immense psychic power and mana coming from the Hiskar, no one ever got lost. The worst thing that would happen was that they couldn’t push through the storms and would turn back, which was precisely what Ouzin was considering. 

When he thought about it, there really was no reason for him to do this. He was born into nobility, a vala, because of his parents, who were of the Haz caste. His two older sisters and brother had already made this journey and formed pacts which elevated their vala status to haz, just like their parents. All in all, the Laboneir family was already highly regarded. He had no grand ambitions like his siblings and was perfectly happy to live a simple life in his family’s shadow. Whether that made him a failure or not didn’t matter. It mattered to his family, though. It mattered a lot, which was why exactly ten days before his 120th birthday, he’d been dropped in the Kroshta. He remembered how the yellow desert landscape stretched before his eyes. There was no vegetation in sight, and the sun reflected on the polished ground blinded his eyes. Already, from the edge, he could hear the tempest. 

Having grown up like all bistians in the great branches of the world-trees, thousands of meters in the air, the fact that his feet were touching ground and that he was surrounded by such emptiness made him want to crawl into himself. Kipalo, his mother’s secretary, hadn’t cared one bit. He’d left without a backward glance after informing him that his parents expected him back in ten days or less, not a minute past the time he’d been dropped off. His birthday party and celebration for his pact were already prepared, and all he needed to do was show up on time and with a pact worthy of celebration.

Ouzin sighed and raised his head. In the days leading up to this, he’d tried to speak to his mother. He’d wanted to let her know that he wasn’t interested in forming a pact yet, and was happy with his current status. Each time, he’d been turned back by Kipalo, who repeated that his mother was very busy with her tasks managing the Forestry Division. He then tried to speak to his father but again was turned away; after all, his father had galas to attend, events to plan, and people to meet. This scenario was repeated with the rest of his family as well. Eventually, after several attempts, he’d finally managed to talk to his eldest sister, Rilios. She had stopped by the family home briefly to borrow some books from their library, which she needed for her research on healing-type hiraks, and he had been able to catch her just as she was getting into her car.

Ouzin stood up, checked the projection from the map to ensure he was facing the right direction, then began walking again. If he wanted to arrive back by the scheduled time, he would have to move faster now. He sighed, then started jogging as he recalled how terribly the conversation had gone.

# # #

“Rilios!” He’d yelled, running towards her while her driver attempted to shut the door despite seeing him.

“Rilios, come on!” He yelled again. She raised her hand, and the driver took a few steps back. She moved further into the car and motioned for him to join her. She only began to speak after the driver shut the door behind them.

“You have five minutes, Ouzin, and please do not yell my name like that again.” She tossed back her silky straight purple hair, which was a few shades darker than her fur, and turned her golden eyes on him.

 If not for her longer hair and slimmer, more severe facial features, he could have been looking at his own reflection. She looked the most like their mother, but they all did. People often joked that their mother had conceived them single-handedly since the only resemblance any of them had to their father was his pink-tipped nose. 

He tried to pick his words carefully. “If you had answered my calls, I wouldn’t have yelled for you like that. Sorry.”

“Some of us are busy, Ouzin.” She was only 21 years older than him and yet always spoke to him in the most condescending tones.

“Well, then that’s how we ended up in this situation.” Ouzin smiled and continued before she could say anything. “You are all avoiding me, and it’s starting to get on my nerves. I just want to discuss some things before the Trigalan….”

“Ouzin.” She rolled her eyes. “What is there to discuss? Any child on Bist knows what the Trigalan entails. You enter the desert, walk to the Hiskar, form a pact with a hirak, and walk back out. I’m not sure where the confusion lies.”

“Please stop with the condescending Rilios. You know that’s not what I mean. I don’t want to do it! I don’t want to form a pact!”

“And this is exactly why no one wants to speak to you. You say the most stupid things. In what world do you think it would be possible for a Laboneir, a Laboneir, Ouzin, to not make a pact. Do you hear yourself? Our family has done this for thousands of years. This is our history and our duty. Which, unfortunately, you know nothing about because mother spoiled you rotten.”

“Are you being serious right now?”

“Yes, you have taken on absolutely no responsibility, and she allows it. Look at Mindal. At your age, she was already about to enter year 22 at the Alaxian Elect Scholar Academy, or Tilmaron; he is only three years older than you and is working as the shan’s honor guard, a Sha’kinal. What have you done?” She exhaled angrily, then continued. “We are not asking much of you. Do the Trigalan, form a good pact, and then you can continue to live your life as aimlessly as you’ve always done.”

Ouzin stared at her in shock before collecting himself. “So this is what you all think of me?”

“No, we think you are capable of much more, but this is what you’ve shown us.”

“I’m trying to figure things out. I just don’t know what I want to do yet, but I know for a fact that if I form a pact, I’ll be forced in a direction based on the gifts I receive. I just want more time… and what if I don’t form an auspicious pact like you all have?”

Rilios sighed and rubbed her eyes, then continued in a calmer tone. “You’re right. I will agree to an extent that you have been trying. You’ve explored everything from the arts to the sciences, but have you ever really given each thing your all? Because from the outside, it doesn’t look that way. You give up when things get difficult. Giving up is the only thing you’ve done consistently.”

She leaned close to him and grabbed his hand. “This is your chance Ouzin. Complete your Trigalan, pray to Sigark that it gives you some direction, and if that fails, you can be content to be one of the many people of the vala caste who have done nothing to earn their place and rest on the laurels of their family name.”

“Also, stop pestering mother. She has enough on her plate with the growth season coming up, and father is busy preparing your birthday party.” She let go of him and turned her attention to the holo-projection in the center of the car, quickly flicking through some notifications before turning back to him. “Your five minutes are long past. Get out.”

# # #

Just remembering the conversation plummeted Ouzin’s already terrible mood. The fact that his family thought so little of him was not surprising. They were all more accomplished, brilliant individuals, so sure, when compared to them, he did fall short. The problem was that they seemed to be assuming that he just wanted to mooch off of them for the rest of his life which wasn’t the case. Growing up, he didn’t develop any talents or natural inclinations towards specific fields like his siblings, so he’d been constantly searching for something that fit him. He knew he would eventually have to form a pact like Rilios said. It would be a disgrace to their family if he didn’t, and despite what she thought, he did take that duty seriously. He just wanted to do it in his own time. It wasn’t like there was a specific deadline or age limit for forming pacts. But for them, milestones had to be hit at exactly the right moments, or it was viewed as failure. Ouzin shook the thoughts away and kept walking.

# # #

“Finally!” he yelled as he pushed through the last spinning wall of wind and broke into the calm center. The Hiskar. 

Immediately he entered the space, it felt like he’d stepped foot in another world. Outwardly there wasn’t anything special about the place. The ground was a pale yellow, so smooth and glossy that he could see his reflection in it. There were no markings or indication that this was a particularity unique piece of land, but it was obvious that this was the point from which everything began. The sandstorm was almost a solid wall around him, but looking up, gave him a clear view of the blue sky. The air was charged and shimmered as if gold dust had been sprinkled through the air.

Ouzin inhaled deeply and shivered. There was so much mana and power in the air. The ground trembled beneath his feet, and he fell to his knees. He knew he was standing on solid ground, but the energy in the Hiskar felt so precarious that Ouzin crawled to the center of the circular space, believing he would fall through the ground. The thinness of the dimensional walls was palpable. Here was the sole place in the galaxy that touched Dimension Larklan, the dimension of higher creatures, and where millions of bistians before him had come to offer their spirits and bodies as a host for one of the denizens of Larklan. 

“Oh, great Sigark,” Ouzin whispered. So many times, he’d said the expression frivolously, out of frustration, in disbelief, but for the first time, the significance of it dawned on him. 

Sigark, The Great Fighter, The Ferocious One, The Origin of Courage, The Master of Time. The higher creature, whose chipped-off nail became the planet upon which he now stood. Ouzin gulped. He wondered how many bistians had begun their Trigalan, hoping that they would be the ones to finally host The Great One. Ouzin had no such hope, but the utterance of the name felt potent. 

Upon closer inspection, he found small symbols which seemed to have been randomly engraved into the ground. Ouzin suspected there must have been some sort of meaning or pattern to it, but whatever it was, he could not discern it. Based on common knowledge, he knew that placing his hands on those engravings would begin the process of forming a pact. 

His hand hovered over the symbols, but he hesitated. He felt something graze his shoulder, and although he knew there would be nothing there, he still looked back. In all the time and with all the people making this journey, never had there been word of two people being in the Hiskar simultaneously. Even when two people went in together, they wouldn’t see each other again until they walked back into the storm. Ouzin shivered as he contemplated the kind of power that could manipulate space so thoroughly. 

“This is ridiculous… get a grip Ouzin, just touch it, and get this over with.” Still, he couldn’t force his fingers passed the last few centimeters separating them from the symbols. 

That small distance was cavernous. His life would be changed forever the moment his fingers touched the symbols. His soul, mind, and body would be shared with another entity. If he was lucky, he would also gain immense powers. He closed his eyes, held his breath, then touched the ground.

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Instantly, he became aware of his soul as though it were a physical limb, which was now being stretched and pulled out of him. He opened his eyes and tried to pull his hand away from the symbols, but it was impossible. His eyes saw only light. It was light, but this new awareness of his soul sharpened his psychic senses, so shapes within the light started to become discernible. The white light began to take on various forms and colors. He knew that when hirak manifested in the physical dimension, Titinan, they had animal-like bodies, which was why they were commonly called higher creatures. Here in their home dimension, he perceived them as varying frequencies of light. He tried to look down at himself, but all he saw was an expanse of light beneath him. He was a single point in space, and masses, small and large, were converging toward him. 

He felt brushes against his soul. He felt it expand, and shrink, felt the denizens of Larklan touch and test it. Some touches burned, others were cool, some tickled, but all were uncomfortable. He felt like a piece of clothing at the store that the hiraks were trying on to see who he fit better. Most of the largest masses of light did not approach, but he could tell they were looking on with interest. Time had become meaningless, and he didn’t know how long he’d been subjected to the teasing by the hiraks, but soon more and more began to move away from him. Some would join the crowd gathered around him, while others would stretch out into long bands of light and sort of swim away to do whatever it was that hiraks did.

There were only three near him now, two small and one medium-sized. He was inspected some more before the medium-sized one and one of the smaller ones left. They joined the rest of the hiraks spectating. The remaining small hirak moved around him a bit more, and Ouzin was now starting to worry that none of them would choose him. That would be the final straw, for his family would need to lose all respect for him. After a few more moments, he felt something touch his mind. The small hirak was right in front of him. Its colors were mixtures of bright blues and greens. It did nothing but float in front of him, but he could feel its curiosity.

Ouzin wanted to speak to it, ask it what it was curious about, but in this world, he had no lips to use. The hirak understood his intention anyway and moved closer. 

The sensation upon his mind felt stronger now. Something was pushing its way in there. His soul began to swell. He felt like a balloon filling up with air, and as the sensation grew, the form of the hirak in front of him shrunk. He felt like groaning. All the lights were beginning to fade, and he could feel his body again, but still, the swelling sensation remained. 

He could feel the split of his consciousness between Larklan and Bist. His soul seemed to be rising higher while his body remained rooted to the ground. The discomfort was at its peak. Now all he could see was darkness. He could feel his heart racing. He could feel his soul trembling, feel it taking on a new shape. His mouth fell open, and he realized the darkness he was seeing now was the inside of his eyelids. He opened his eyes, and he was back in the Hiskar. A small space enclosed by whirling walls of sand and a clear blue sky above. It was the same place, but he was utterly changed. He fell forward on his face, and power began to surge through his body.

His pulse raced, and the vibration in the ground seemed to pick up as well. With the hirak fully merged with him, it felt like everything he’d experienced before now was a lie. A veil had been lifted from his eyes, his nose unclogged, thick clothing removed from his body. All his senses came alive in terrifying sharpness. He took a deep breath and quickly covered his nose. The power in the air was thick like syrup. What he’d felt before was not even close to the actuality of it, and this new knowledge scared him. Here in this place, creatures beyond his comprehension could so easily tear him apart if they chose to. He was a specimen under their watch. Each breath brought with it the scent of more charged mana and threatened to overwhelm his psyche.  

He sat up and dry heaved. He yanked the backpack off his back and threw it on the ground. Next came his goggles and the scarf. He needed to be free. The psychic pressure was too overwhelming. A wave of dizziness hit, and he sank to the ground again. He could feel the gazes upon him and began to shiver. Just when he thought he would go mad from the helplessness, he felt a small internal tug from a newly awakened part of his body. Instantly, calmness ensued. He knew what this was. It was the psycor. The organ that managed mana which he’d learned about in basic education but had never felt so keenly before now. He also knew that bistian psycors were different than that of other species. 

He leaned into the sensation spreading out from his psycor, which felt like a warm blanket wrapped around him, and following that feeling, he reached the area particular to bistians and touched the hirak’s mind. Joy bloomed from the hirak and enhanced the sense of calmness.

Hello, little one. The hirak’s voice sounded like it was coming from a great distance, but it was one of the friendliest voices Ouzin had ever heard. I am Umil’owan, one of the hiraks of light. May our pact be filled with shimmering joy and fruitful sensations.

Ouzin didn’t fully understand what the expression meant, but the intention was clear. He smiled and replied.

“It is good to meet you, Umil’owan. May our pact be serene and filled with happiness.”

He felt a flutter through his psycor. Do not be afraid of the hirak. They mean no harm. The old and powerful ones like to watch the weaving of souls.

Ouzin nodded but still felt intimidated. He stood, picked up his backpack, scarf, and goggles, then put them on and began to prepare his mind to face the sand storms again.

This is my first time in this dimension. Umil’owan continued. Ouzin could feel their excitement with each word. The sensations are…owooo… it was overwhelmed with emotion, and Ouzin laughed.

“Will you always be able to speak to me like this?” he asked. He’d never seen any of his family conversing with themselves, but maybe it was something to be done privately.

Ouzin felt Umil’owan’s joy dampen a bit. No, the connection to Larklan is strongest here, so this is possible, but when you leave Sigark’s portal…Ouzin had never heard the Hiskar referred to by that name. We probably won’t be able to talk to each other. I cannot manifest outside of here, but you will feel my presence still. Our sensations will be shared.

Many of the particulars went over his head, but he was sad that they wouldn’t be able to talk more. Umil’owan seemed so friendly and supportive. His next emotion was a more practical worry. How would he learn to use his new powers if they couldn’t communicate?

“That’s too bad… um… Not to be rude….” He hesitated. He didn’t want Umil’owan to think that he was just after its power, but that was kind of the point of the pact. “Well, I feel the changes in my body, but how do I use your power?”

Our powers will come to you naturally. You will feel it, and I will help you. Together our power is great and will manifest with shimmering delight!

“Ok?” Ouzin said, but again couldn’t really comprehend what Umil’owan meant.

You will see!

Ouzin considered the certainty he felt from Umil’owan and decided to believe in it. 

“Ok. I’ll trust you,” Ouzin said with more determination and stepped out of the circle of the Hiskar and into the sand storm.

# # #

The journey back had been much easier. Not only because the storms got less intense as Ouzin moved farther from the Hiskar but because of his new powers. As Umil’owan had said, once Ouzin stepped out of the Hiskar, they couldn’t speak to each other anymore, but he still felt Umil’owan’s presence very strongly. Through this awareness, Ouzin was able to get impressions of what Umil’owan was trying to communicate. As the sand storms started battering against him again, he felt an impulse from Umil’owan. He stretched his hand in front of him, and immediately, power surged out of his palm. The mana coalesced, and a shield of light formed in front of him. Once the shield was raised, it seemed like a connection was made in his mind. He somehow knew exactly how to create another shield and how to expand, shrink, and strengthen the current one.

As Ouzin walked, he experimented more with his powers and discovered new aspects of them. It was again like the feeling of discovering a limb that was always there but that had never been used before. He created various types of shields, which were made from pure mana, but manifested in bright light, which was Umil’owan’s nature. He’d known that forming a pact would change him, but the extent of it was shocking. He was walking much faster and was even running large stretches of the journey without exerting much energy or feeling exhaustion. His vision had changed drastically. Even through the thick sand and dust swirling up around him, he could see as if he was standing in an open field engulfed in sunlight. His other senses were also enhanced, though not to the degree of his eyesight.

The most significant change, though, was with his psycor. Many bistians were born with dense psycors that allowed them to manipulate a decent amount of mana, so telekinesis was common enough. Ouzin was an exception in that regard. His innate mana manipulation abilities were minimal. He could move a table or a chair a short distance, but nothing much larger, and not for very long. It was only natural that he did not give his psycor much use, but with access to Umil’owan’s powers and mana, that had all changed. He felt like he could lift a building.

He pointed a finger in front of him. His psycor fluttered in response, and from the tip of his finger, a blast of pure psychic force split the walls of sand ten feet in front of him. He raised both hands and again, channeling his powers, held open the split he’d made. For a few moments, he walked through the storm as effortlessly as a stroll through his family’s gardens.

“This is so fun!” Ouzin yelled. He glanced at his map. Only one day left to get back. If Ouzin was moving as fast as he could now, he would have been able to make it back home two days early, but he’d deliberately taken his time. For one, it was fun exploring his new powers, but it wasn’t like he was excited to return home anyway.

Ouzin stopped walking. “This will be a good place to camp for tonight,” he whispered, looking at the unimpressive patch of yellow ground. He felt a tinge of guilt, knowing that he could still cover much of the remaining distance today, but he tamped it down. He created a domed shield around himself, then sat and pulled out some of the sealed meals inside his backpack. The backpack and everything in it had been dumped on him when Kipalo dropped him off. Meals, water, snacks, a sleeping bag, and a tent, all perfectly arranged and rationed with attached explanations for each item so that even an idiot would figure it out.

“I wonder if you can taste the things I do,” Ouzin said aloud, speaking to Umil’owan. He flicked his finger over the glyph on the side of the food package, and it began heating up. After a minute, the glow on the glyph died, and he opened the package.

The scents of their chef’s flimer steak and tirol wafted through the air. “One thing I’ll say is that you’ll always be able to taste new foods through our pact. I guarantee it. I hope you enjoy this Umil… can I call you Umil?”

He, of course, didn’t get a response, but he didn’t sense any negative emotions from the pact, so he figured it was ok. “Umil it is then.”

He ate in silence and made sure to savor each bite, for Umil. He scraped up and ate every grain of tirol, then placed the empty package back in his backpack. He pulled out his sleeping bag, swiped the activation glyph, then stepped back to let it expand. He didn’t touch the tent which he’d used on the first leg of the journey. Once he got home, a proper demonstration of his new skill and power would be required, so he needed to practice even in his sleep. If he failed to keep his shield up throughout the night, then he’d wake up to being buried by the sand.

He settled into the sleeping bag, then raised his hands in front of his face and focused on his fingertips. From the tip of each claw, small balls of light began to form and float in the air. He continued forming more little balls of light and spread them around him, controlling them en mass to move according to his directions. First, he conducted them with his hands, then eventually attempted to move them with his mind alone. It felt like trying to keep track of a thousand raindrops during a storm, and his concentration broke, sending the balls of light smashing into the shield.

“Ahhh!” he screamed and coved his eyes as bright light and heat engulfed the space. He peaked through his fingers as the light began to fade.

He checked to make sure none of his things were damaged, and fortunately, only his scarf had gotten a little burnt.

“Nice! Not bad right Umil?”

He stretched his fingers in front of him again and concentrated on them. The tips of his fingers started to fade, followed by his hands, until his hands up to his elbow turned invisible. Over the last four days, he’d come to understand Umil’s powers. He could control light, which was part of why his vision had improved so much, and he could control how much he saw. He could also do simple things like make light spheres of various sizes and move them around. The spheres could also be heated up and even create fire, but the larger they were, the slower they moved, and when they made fire, the fire never spread. It would always be limited to the circumference of the circle and then burn itself out. He wanted to experiment with lighting things on fire within the spheres and then pulling them out or see if he could move the fire spheres after they’d already ignited, but there wasn’t much he could burn in the Kroshta desert.

Ouzin continued to play with his powers, but in the back of his mind, his biggest concern was how his family would view his pact. He was beyond happy with Umil’owan’s constant reassuring presence and the resulting powers from their pact. It pained him to admit it, but he was even glad that he was forced on his Trigalan, but his family’s standards were incredibly high, so even if he was happy, it was hard to predict their reactions. Added to that was the fact that his pact hadn’t given him any new direction. Yes, the powers were great, but he was still in the same place he was before. No goals, talent, or accomplishments. He sighed and closed his eyes, hoping that the next day would never come.

# # #

His prayers were not answered, and the world-forest’s edge was finally back in view. From a distance, along the lines of private shuttles, his eyes were drawn to the one projecting his family’s crest high into the air. The crest was a beacon illuminating the surrounding area in the immaculate blue and gold light of the Laboneir family, and he knew that particular ship very well. The sleek build, plated in blue acronin metal and adorned with gold. His mother’s personal shuttle. He swallowed dryly and took a step back. Unconsciously, his body began to turn invisible.

Ouzin looked down at his auto-comm. There were still a few hours until he was technically supposed to arrive. Maintaining his invisibility and extending it to his clothes and backpack, he paced back and forth, making sure to stay far enough away that his family wouldn’t sense his presence.

“What do I do?” he whispered as he paced, each turn taking him a little farther back into the desert.

“I mean, obviously I have to go back… but… then what?” And that was the question that had plagued him long before his Trigalan. What was the point of all this? Sure, he had somewhat amazing powers now, but they were clearly bent towards battle or espionage, two things which he had absolutely no interest in getting involved with. He could already imagine his mother or Tilmaron trying to get him to become a Sha’kinal. He shook his head. No. No amount of new powers would make him worthy of such a role, but they’d probably make him join the Planetary Defense Division and try to bid for him to become a senior officer or something. A life of managing cases, fighting graule and petty criminals. He shook his head again. Absolutely not. He didn’t even want to think about the chance that they’d try to make him join the Intelligence Division.

He was about to take another step back when his eyes landed on the world-forest’s edge. It was fascinating how abruptly the rich, dark mauve dirt turned to the dry yellow ground of the Kroshta. Looking up, even with his enhanced vision, it was impossible to see the tops of the monumental world-trees. His eye’s landed on the edge again. His heart rate picked up, and a ridiculous thought began to take root. What lay at the roots of the world-trees? He’d spent his whole life up in the canopies, but now faced with the choice of going back up there, to the constant pressure of never measuring up, the deep shadows beckoned him. He glanced at his mother’s shuttle and could see nothing through the tinted windows, but he knew she was there. He was surprised that she’d even bothered to personally come. Was it from worry for him? Or to quickly access his usefulness?

He closed his eyes, and then his thoughts coalesced on one point again: the shadows beneath the world-trees. In a sense, that’s what he was in comparison to the rest of his family. They were glorious world-trees upon whose branches, cities, and great monuments were built. He was the shadow underneath it all that no one thought about. He opened his eyes. There had to be something of value within the shadows. After all, it was from there that the great trees sprouted.

Another glance to his mother’s shuttle, then back to the edge. Only a thin stretch of the yellow desert separated him from both. He glanced down at this auto-comm. One hour until they’d start wondering where he was. Before he could give room for doubt, he placed his auto-comm on the ground. When they began looking for him, the first thing they would do was track the location of his auto-comm. Next, he placed his backpack down. He was 90 percent sure there would be some kind of tracker in it as well. Finally, the scarf. He was sick of the useless thing. He folded it and shoved it under the backpack.

This was it. His blood was rushing so much that he felt dizzy. Ouzin steadied himself and cast one last look at the pile of stuff before turning back to the forest. His gaze deliberately skipped over the line of ships. Pulling more of Umil’s powers, he made sure that he was entirely cloaking himself from sight, and though he was not skilled at it, Ouzin tried to mask his presence. He tried not to, but it was impossible to resist the urge to give one last look at his mother’s shuttle. His breath caught as he met a pair of gold eyes in the distance. He stumbled back in shock and almost took off running until he realized she was just looking in the direction of the desert. He took a few steading breaths and tried to calm himself.

His mother leaned on the side of the shuttle as her eyes scanned the edge of the desert. He didn’t try to decipher her expression as it was the same stoic mask she wore in every situation. Ouzin looked away, then very carefully, but as quickly as possible, began making his way to the forest. He wasn’t noticed, and he didn’t glance back again until he disappeared into the wild alien underbelly of the world-forest.

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