Sometimes I still reflect back on that first meeting with Jorun, and I wonder whether it had more of an impact upon me that I first realized. He was the first human I had met who, upon seeing me for what I was, reacted not with fear, but with confidence bordering on disdain. He was the first human I had met who had such an obvious impact upon the world as a result of his own power. His barrier impressed and intrigued me. Finally, he was the first human I encountered who seemed to care as little for other humans as I did.
None of this is what I reflect upon, however, though perhaps it influenced the fact that the statement that he made surfaces so often in my mind. “Maybe you can bring me some amusement.” He saw himself as so far above those around him that they were only useful to him when they brought him some sort of entertainment. This drew a connection between us that I hadn’t known I would be able to see between myself and a human.
Was this not how I had lived my life up to that point? Was it not how I continued to live my life, long afterward? I am, and long have been, far beyond the simple needs of such life forms that struggle through life only trying to survive. I live for what experiences and accomplishments I am able to achieve. Those around me are only means to the ends that I wish to uncover. My only question is whether I became that way entirely by myself, or whether Jorun influenced me more than I believed I had allowed him to.
I am myself. I am my own being. I had begun declaring that, even then, because I wanted to believe it. I had risen above the lack of self that defined the rest of my species. I wanted to believe I was original and uninfluenced by those that I saw as lesser than myself. Even then, I must have known this was a lie, if only deep below the surface. Now I have admitted it to myself: I am not some isolated, unique, uninfluenced being, who exists only by virtue of myself. I have been molded by all those I have encountered over the years.
Every being that I consume imparts a small portion of their self to me. That’s how I gained my sapience, after all. In a way, it means that there is no real me. I exist only as a collection of small shards of others, all of whom have come together to allow me to be who I am. It is only the distance of years which allows me to realize and admit this. My young self could never have even voiced the thoughts. I lacked the wisdom and the perspective.
“Allow my companion to enter,” I demanded.
Jorun raised an eyebrow. Like his hair, they were thick and dark. They cast a shadow over his bright eyes. “The woman, or the rest of your body?”
“Both,” I said, though I had been referring to Rystala. “I prefer to keep my possessions with me.”
“The woman is your possession?” he asked.
“She is… my ally,” I said. I had little use for her other than hoping she would help me understand his motives. I had latched onto the idea of keeping her as my teacher, and I found myself unable to abandon it. Or her.
He regarded me. His eyes were a lighter green than even the freshest young grass, and either the sunlight always hit them at the perfect angle, or there was a faint, nigh-imperceptible glow behind them. “She may enter. The rest of you may not.”
“It will,” I said, growing angry, though more at myself than at him. I had realized the extent of the danger I was in. I could not call to the rest of my body, through his wall. In my humanoid form, I was relatively weak, too. I didn’t believe I could push through the barrier without the rest of me. I didn’t know what sort of power he might have, or how he might seek to enact it upon me. “I need it.”
“You don’t,” he said. “You’re getting along just fine without it.”
I took a step forward. The threat in my posturing must have been obvious, because he shifted his overcoat aside, revealing a short blade at his hip. It was only a sword, and should not have given me pause, but it did, for several reasons. His face showed no concern, which meant that he was not fearful, only cautious. Ready. He knew what I was, too, which meant that his knowledge told him his blade would have some effect on me. And if he was knowledgeable enough to create the barrier around this place, perhaps he knew other things which I didn’t understand.
“If you threaten me, I will cast you out or destroy you,” he said. “You remain here only by my grace.”
I seethed at his threat and at his conceit. I had consumed an entire village, and their resistance had meant nothing. One man should not have been able to hold me ransom with his threats. Yet all that mattered of me was invested into this small body, and the majority of my strength sat useless on the other side of his barrier.
“Fine,” I growled. “We will bring in Rystala. The rest of me can wait outside.”
He smiled. “I knew you would see reason.”
“I must give further instruction to the rest of my body,” I said. “In my haste, it is prepared only to care for her. I must also have it release her.”
“You can’t communicate with it through the barrier?” he asked.
I frowned, knowing I had given up some advantage. “I cannot. I can’t connect with it without being in contact.”
“Interesting,” he said. “You’ll forgive me if I don’t entirely trust you, however.”
“I will.” I didn’t trust him, either. We had no reason to trust one another.
He drew his blade. It was no longer than his forearm. The grip and the guard were made not of metal, but of some dark, polished wood, which gleamed in what sunlight reached us. The blade was a pale, dull white. It was also not metal, nor wood, but something about it struck me as familiar nonetheless. “This is not a threat. It’s a guarantee for me. If you do more than you’ve promised, I will strike you down.”
“I understand,” I said. The blade inspired more curiosity in me than fear. I wondered what about it gave him such confidence.
We moved closer to the barrier. He reached out to touch it with the hand holding the sword, two fingers extended outward from his grip to make contact. With the other hand, he reached into his coat, presumably seeking a pocket on the inside, at chest level. He glanced my way, winked, and spoke a string of words. I did not understand the syllables, but a meaning soaked into my mind regardless: “Look away.”
And I did. It reminded me of the woman in the woods, who had spoken words which moved me against my will. My head turned away from him, and my eyes focused on a random tree in the distance. I felt anger well up in me once more. I did not like this feeling of lost control. My hands tightened into fists, in a very human expression of anger, one which I hadn’t realized I had picked up. I fought against his compulsion and, after long, agonizing moments, I won. I turned back to him, mouth open, ready to express my anger.
A glowing hole, just wide enough for Rystala’s body to slow through, had opened in the wall. Jorun winked at me again. “Thank you for giving me a moment of privacy. Go ahead and get her.”
Seething, I extended an arm outward, letting the bones slip apart from each other as I temporarily dissolved my imitation muscles to give me some extra reach. My fingers found the bulk of my body and melded with it, and I rejoined my two separate consciousnesses. I still felt I had to work with haste, lest Jorun grow tired of waiting, or suspicious of my conduct, but I took much more care than I had when he had first appeared beside me.
I checked the memories of my outer self to see whether it had observed what Jorun had forced me to look away from. To my disappointment, it had not. I hadn’t left it with enough sapience to be able to operate the eyes sensibly, so all it had was blurry images of our surroundings. My human body, and Jorun, were masked by the illusion, anyway. We were invisible from that side of the wall.
I slid Rystala downward, guiding her feet toward the hole. I did it slower than was actually necessary, to allow myself more time. Subtly, I drew extra mass from my body through the arm which which I had contacted it, filling in my human form a bit around the waste. I wanted a bit more mass with which to operate, though I didn’t want to risk Jorun noticing. I allowed him to see me draw in two extra eyes, reasoning that, if I gave him an obvious action to observe, he might not notice the hidden one.
In return, I gave my outer body a bit more of my mind. It would have enough, now, to sustain itself through consuming wildlife, and to hide itself, should it see signs of other humanity. It knew to remain in the area near the barrier, hugging it as closely as possible. It would maintain the health of the rest of the eyes within it. It had just enough to be able to operate them, now, at a basic level.
When Rystala’s feet touched the ground, I removed my hand and severed the connection, and I existed as two beings once more. In that moment, I realized that I thought of my humanoid body as more “myself” than the greater mass that I had left outside. I was disturbed by this realization, but I was not ready to confront it, and I didn’t truly have the time, at any rate.
Rystala fell to her knees. Neither I nor my new acquaintance moved to assist her. She trembled, flexing her hands, before looking up. She made no immediate effort to stand. She looked between the two of us, and I think, before she asked her question, that she knew the answer. To Jorun, she asked, “Are you going to help me?”
He shook his head. “I don’t think so. Why? Do you need help?”
“He took me,” she said. “From my village. Please. You’re a wizard, aren’t you? You can save me from him.”
“He gave me the impression that you were allies,” Jorun said. He still held his white blade in his hand, though casually, in a looser grip. “He seemed fairly desperate for me to allow through.”
Rystala scoffed. “He wants me to be his ally. He wants me to teach him how to be more human.”
My dealings with Jorun thus far had been unlike any I had experienced with other humans. I suppose I should have expected him to act in favor of Rystala, not myself. After all, all other humans I had met had defended each other. I was, generally, their unified enemy. For some reason, though, I knew that Jorun would be different.
“You are opposed to doing this?” Jorun asked.
“I am!” Rystala said. “He is evil. He slaughtered my village.”
To the surprise of both myself and Rystala, Jorun laughed. “There’s no such thing as evil or good. People who think they are good are often just too weak or frightened to seek what they want. People who others perceive as evil simply have more power.”
“He’s not people,” she said. “He’s a monster.”
“He’s not human, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a person.” Jorun knelt in front of her, sword balanced across his knees. “My advice? Do what he wishes. Maybe you’ll get a taste of his strength for yourself. Maybe not. I think the only alternative for you is death.”
Rystala swallowed. “You’re a monster, too.”
“No,” he said, rising. “I think you throw that word around too much without any real meaning behind it. I’m a man. I’m a person, just like you. I just realized a long time ago that there’s no point in caring about people other than yourself.” His eyes lost their spark, briefly, as he spoke, and his face softened around he edges. Had I not been watching him closely, I would have noticed. Then the light in his eyes returned, and a smile spread across his face as easily as though it had never departed. “Come. Let’s goo inside. I feel like we all have something we can learn from one another.”