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Aberrant: Children of Quantum Fire - [Interlude] Rain's Wisdom, Shadow Audience [FIN]

Toby Lupin

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May 20th, Morning

Though Darrik was the Outreach and Charities Lead, the fact that Exalt! was currently limited to New York (Starseed's Exalt! Japan buildup not having yet quite made substantial progress) technically made his position redundant mostly, since Christian and Amelia still handled a large body of the work, and their 'boss' was currently serving as their assistant while he learned to handle the ins and outs of the organization's management.

At the moment, pouring over some spreadsheets of donations, Darrik felt a hint of... unease. It was one he'd been feeling for a couple days now, but it seemed too vague for a source, rhyme or reason to be identified. Nevertheless, he diligently let his quantum-enhanced brain focus on and sort through the material in front of him.

Apparently, the quantum powered lessons from Puck's experiments were helping even more so in this regard. The mundane work was over in a few minutes- but Darrik found himself mulling on that word he'd chosen. Mundane.

It wasn't an offended feeling by his work. It was worthwhile and helped get things done, as it had since he'd settled into Exalt...

How long ago was that? And then Darrik found a mental puzzle piece fitting into place. It had been roughly two months since he'd joined the Teragen as Chang's student... yet all he'd really started to learn and discern about Teras was the rudimentary pieces of those few prior talks. Before he'd joined.

Two months long enough. He was new, he ought to be giving it some more consideration. He slipped out his phone and dialed. The voice that answered was Shiv's, which suited Darrik just fine. It wasn't as if he was in that much a hurry. "It's Darrik. Can you inform me if Chang is available for an evening chat in the next few days?"

"I will confer with Her Grace. One moment." There was a pause, for a half-minute, Darrik scratched out a note advising Christian against the new so-called food bank's request for charitable monies during that wait.

"Her Grace will be available tonight in the Rainbow Room, if you wish it." Shiv's voice came back over the other end. Darrik smiled quietly. "Thank you Shiv, I would. Tell Chang thanks- and I'll see her then."

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  • 3 weeks later...

Chang was alone, and perhaps even lonely. It was years ago when she last really felt this feeling, back in her days that were – oddly – both pre and post Teragen. I don’t believe there are many people who can make that claim.

For the first time in years, there were no copies of Lucrezia anywhere near her. In fact none of them were even in Ibiza. It felt strange knowing that even if she called her wife would not come. And there was something wrong with that.

At first she put it down to simple discomfort at the change in conditions, but continued thought made her feel increasingly concerned. It was no secret to her that her wife was up to something. Lucrezia had been moving around Ibiza constantly for nearly three weeks, moving in and out of sound ‘dead zones’ where she knew Chang would not be able to hear her. For her own part, Chang had been walking in Lucrezia’s footsteps, using her unique abilities over sound to draw out the fading echoes of those conversations so she could listen to them anew.

Most of the content consisted of vagaries, of course. Lucrezia was a career politician, and before meeting Chang she learned from Narcosis directly. But Chang was no fool, and she felt a dark suspicion stirring in her heart. Lucrezia had leapt into action after Scrambler’s appearance in the crèche. She had become so active that she needed to take all of her away from Chang.

She did not think it was an overstatement to say that it would take something special for Lucrezia to do that. It was hardly an investment for her to leave one of her behind to give and take pleasure from Chang, and hardly a secret that she was Lucrezia’s favourite lover, for many reasons.

That raised a concern, though. When Chang had been so adamant that they needed the crèche’s existence kept secret, there had been six or more of Lucrezia hanging around the area. She could contribute very little, and could have done much to keep an eye on developments outside Ibiza and help keep information denial tight. At the time she never thought of it, but now…

In truth she didn’t know what to think. What are you up to, beloved?

Chang was looking forward to Lucrezia’s next chrysalis with mixed feelings. The period would hurt, and she was getting the feeling it might be a very long one. Lucrezia’s growth had seemed to stop, and that always presaged a long chrysalis when it came. Such had been the case for Scripture and Geryon, and by the looks of things for Leviathan as well. I may be alone for a very long time. I’ll miss her.

She wrung her hands. On the bright side, there would probably be another album in it for her and the world. Negative emotions always plunged Chang into a thoughtful state, and songs often blossomed from such musings.

All in all, Darrik had not picked a good time to have this talk with her. Chang relished it nonetheless. It would allow her to get her mental gears turning on other matters, and that tended to help her thinking across the board.

Chang waited for him in, of all things, a games room halfway across Ibiza. Shiv had said they would meet in the Rainbow Room, but the club, somehow, felt less like home without Lucrezia there. That sounds revoltingly sentimental, she thought with distaste. I’ll never live it down if she finds out about this. She had left Shiv with instructions to inform Darrik of the change in venue.

The walls around her were cool blues and whites, with a pattern of trees and rolling waves around her on three sides and a stylized beach on the south wall, complete with a figure seemingly looking out to sea. The chairs around the holographic chessboard before her were ergonomically designed and comfortable, though not as comfortable as furniture she made out of herself. For the purposes of this venture she put up with the slight discomfort. She was clad in a blue and gold robe formed of her hair, with a long, lustrous wave falling down around her hips.

The chessboard itself was a technological marvel. It looked like any ordinary chessboard, though one of exceptional quality and wrought of crystal. Built into the body of the chessboard, though, were hundreds of light projectors and directional mirrors. The end result was a board of holographic pieces that animated and moved when the instructions were programmed into small panels on either side of the board. This also allowed for the board to be used for solo and regular versus play.

Today, as she had been doing for the last few days, Chang was testing the solo AI, on behalf of her friend The Myojin, a Japanese Nova and fan of her artwork. He had considered joining the Teragen, and she thought of this small token as a way to maybe nudge him more towards the cause.

She studied the board in front of her. This particular game had been going on for several hours. The Myojin had provided her with all the program parameters for the AI and asked her to test it out in search of any bugs that might have slipped into the system. Thus far she had noted down seven different exploits, based upon specific moves taken in sequence that always resulted in the AI making a particular move and which meant it could never work as intended. Any Nova of her intelligence or greater, or with a specific mind for mathematics, would discover the exploits inside four games or less.

It was a difficult thing, making games to entertain Nova minds. Technology was, at the higher ends, unable to keep up with the raw power of quantum-enhanced mental processes. Chang was considerably less brilliant than the Scriptures of the world, but she compensated in other ways. The theory behind this exercise was that if the AI reached a point where Chang could find no exploit, the code would be as close to perfect as it could be. After that it would just be down to tweaking its level of skill to compete with the world’s greatest chess masters. Overall it was an ambitious project and she admired the effort behind it. The Myojin was unflinching in his belief in the power of technology. And thus we can tell he’s from Japan, she thought, smiling.

At her side on the floor was a small pile of books. While she might be meeting Darrik in an unconventional location, Chang did make sure to come prepared. Shiv had been unspecific on the reason for the rendezvous, but she could guess. Darrik’s progress in understanding Teras was minimal, as it was for anyone just into the organization.

It was always Chang’s way to provide little guidance at first, to wait until the student felt the need to approach her with questions. That way the student came to her wanting to learn, rather than her needing to try and drive the importance of such learning home to them. That rarely worked. The sort of Novas who became Terats were wilful, independently minded, and always apt to assume they knew best until they saw for themselves that it was otherwise.

Chang took another move, while her mind worked through all the iterations and strategies branching off from that move while parallel-processing all of the computer’s AI routines to predict how it would react. To date, chess computers of all varieties were pathetic opponents for her. They were never clever enough, or more precisely their behaviours were always predictable after a certain point.

If they reached a point where this system could surprise her regularly, the test would be done.

She leaned back into her chair, warping the crook of her spine to mould flawlessly into its curve, and waited for the computer to take its own move.

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The press of weight upon the floor seemingly out of nowhere told Chang that Darrik had arrived. When she rotated her head, he was there, clad in a simple semi-formal outfit. It wasn't exceptionally fancy by any means, but Darrik had not chose to have a planned talk with his mentor in simple t-shirts and shorts for this occasion.

"Welcome, Darrik." Darrik bowed his head in an extra measure of respect, seeing as the mentor-student relationship was being emphasized here. "Your majesty. How are you?" They took a brief bit of pleasantries, and as Darrik sat, he began to broach things. "I realize I haven't devoted more time to understanding Teras, hence I'm here. And... understanding, why Narcosis is still around. It's not taken much time to realize that she pays only lip service to Teras. And everyone else she's molded in her image." There was a hint of exasperation that hinted at... other issues with her.

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Chang followed Darrik’s progress with calm interest. He had a truly astonishing level of beauty, thrown into relief only by Puck’s recent transformation. It was always an effort of will to shrug past that and recall the truths she knew about him. He was young, and new, and in need of guidance more than bed mates. It helped that her desires ran far more to women, but not much. There was something about Novas of Darrik’s level of beauty that transcended desires and preferences, an elemental aspect that scythed right through to the fundaments of lust.

She inputted another chess move as Darrik sat, and watched her holographic pawn pick up his small round shield and set his spear into a charge at the AI’s knight. The knight took the spear on his shield, wheeled his horse around and hacked down at the pawn, but the pawn blocked. The duel was expertly designed and choreographed, a twenty second sequence that ended with the pawn spearing the horse. The beast went down and the knight plunged to the ground, winded, and defenceless when the pawn thrust his spear through the knight’s throat and raised his hand in victory.

The animations were dynamic, and in nearly fifty games she had only seen the same animation once. She would have to ask him for the animation randomization algorithms and see if there was an error there.

“She has made moves on you, then,” Chang said, her voices mild and relaxed. It was not hard to tell what his issue was. Darrik could probably hide his feelings if he wanted, but there was tension in his thigh muscles and all up his spine that bespoke a sexual origin of his issues. For there to be one he would have needed to refuse, and there were really only people beautiful enough to make someone regret that decision. One was Lucrezia, who would have told her, and the other was Narcosis, who had a veritable bag of quantum-laced tricks to make those who jilted her truly pay.

Darrik seemed slightly surprised, but just shrugged and inclined his head. “In a sort of launching herself at me from a catapult kind of way.”

“A subtle woman,” Chang said, watching as the AI bishop hefted his robes and strode across the battlefield. The game was over. She had calculated every conceivable move that the AI could take and was predicting it perfectly every time. It wasn’t truly thinking about what to do, just taking the optimal path. A Nova player would right now be thinking of something insane in order to switch the pace and maybe force Chang into an error. She decided to do something illogical to see how it responded.

Chang inputted her next move, and her rook – personified as a club-wielding mountain of a man clad all in shining steel – built up to a rattling jog into an enemy pawn. He tackled the poor thing to the crystalline board, and proceeded to murder him with four brutal strikes with his warhammer. With the deed done he stamped on the pawn’s head and gave the battlefield a long, dangerous look. Ooo, I do like the design on him. I wonder if the Myojin would consent to me doing a little art design?

In truth, she was getting rather involved in the project. She had never done art design on a game before. It could be interesting.

“Tell me, Darrik, what is your impression of the Teragen so far?” She regarded him coolly. “Consider what you know of the Pandaimonion and our ongoing issues with Utopia before you answer that, by the way. I hope by now you’ve at least read the Null Manifesto. What are your thoughts on that seminal text?”

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Darrik leaned back and stretched out his arms and fingers. "I'll start with the Null Manifesto. As a call to personal exploration and evolution of our own natures, it is splendid, I think. But..." here he got a little cautious, as Chang noted he was formulating some opinions that, she suspected to be in opposition.

"Yes?" She prompted him to move forward.

"As for the other aspects... it's disjointed. Contradictory, both in itself and simply out of what I've seen so far in what I have of the Teragen in operation. Some of the leaps in logic I don't follow. And some places completely lack necessary clarity. I'll hearken back to what I know of the Pandemonium, or at least of Narcosis' people."

"To allow or encourage any nova to wallow in the base and rapine pleasures of Homo sapiens sapiens is the very definition of pointless waste of a rare and valuable resource, and is the most saddeningly flagrant waste of potential imaginable." Darrik quoted, reading off his first line of issues. "I think we can agree that Narcosis' side of the Pandemonium does just that. So why doesn't Mal slap them down outright? The fact that he hasn't is telling, to say the least. Which leads onto the issue of what precisely is Homo Sapiens sapiens, in morality and culture, such, and what is nova as well. Is art not nova, even with your own spin on it, if you're recording albums and painting just like Britney Spears or Picasso?"

"Then you get the next logical step, into a nova society. Leaving aside that we're pretty much mixed in with baseline society in someway or other, and won't be as a large group leaving Earth for a bit- well, what Mal calls for is very... anarchist and individualistic, Until a common governing body, composed entirely of novas qualified to hold authority, is recognized by the majority of the nova population..."

He let the entirely of the grandoise quote stand before moving on. "Leaving aside that it would take a massive shift in the world to make such a thing happen... how do we determine qualifications? Pick leaders? Punish those who flout that body? Not to mention the whole attitude of the Null Manifesto emphasizes in the interim, acting in a personalized way that completely runs in opposition to the idea of the social contract and a government, that some obey others, and accept limitations so that the society can function as a whole. Whatever problems I have with Utopia, their message is clear, well-defined. With absolutely little common ground and definitions of novahood in the Teragen, how are we supposed to compete with Utopia except for those who are naturally alienated by the Project? Multiplicity of view is one thing. Utter incoherency and vagueness is another."

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Chang inputted her next move into the chess board as Darrik talked, and calculated the AI’s response. Despite having taken an abrupt shift in her strategy, she was still able to perfectly predict its actions.

“I believe you may be developing some unfair bias towards Narcosis,” Chang said softly. “The Pandaimonion’s credo is not ‘have fun for fun’s sake’. The faction’s purpose – to use Narcosis’s own words – is to win the battle between baseline and Nova before it even begins. Essentially, The Pandaimonion is a literal representation of the battle of hearts and minds, appealing to the softer side of baseline nature and feeding their vices so as to make them unwilling to fight us. Where The Harvesters seek to eradicate humanity either by violent cleansing or by mass eruption, The Pandaimonion seeks to come to a non-violent accord between baseline and Nova. It is incorrect to believe that there is no purpose behind Narcosis’s actions, no greater or noble goal. In fact it was Mal who proposed the name ‘Pandaimonion’ and he was instrumental in Narcosis’s rise to power. Though unconfirmed I would place a high probability on the likelihood that Mal gave his specific and unqualified blessing to her endeavour. As such, your response lacks some historicity; I advise you seek out an article joint-written by The Mathematician and Leviathan on the Teragen’s history. It should help to clarify Mal’s inaction on many issues.”

“I’ll look it up,” Darrik said.

“You have furthermore made a critical error in your interpretation of the Null Manifesto. Mal’s entire point was that there is not yet a ‘Nova culture’ nor society we can call our own, but also that the society and culture of homo sapiens sapiens is inapplicable, ill-fitting and fundamentally counterproductive to the growth of the Nova genus. For you to highlight Utopia’s message in this discussion is telling. Utopia has no message. It is nothing but starry-eyed idealism built on the backs of having Novas do all the hard work, the regurgitation of an idea that has existed since the dawn of time. It is the superhero, the god-king, swooping in from on high to wash away all of mankind’s errors and sins in order to usher in an unearned and undeserved golden age.

“Mal’s message is for Novas to walk their own way, as one people, in order to eventually become one people. How can we ever do so without beginning such a process? Moreover, how can we ever do so while Utopia is corralling our kind into their humanocentric cause? A cause which, I might add, has led to the deaths of dozens of Novas. I brought some heavy reading for you.”

Chang lengthened her right arm down to the books she had brought with her. She stroked her finger down the spines, feeling the slight shift in height between spine and letter, finding the one she sought. Kashmir: Nova Graveyard, an unofficial history.

She presented the book to him. “Despite the rather inflammatory title, it was written by an N! reporter. She joined the Pandaimonion about a year ago, largely due to what she learned researching the events in Kashmir. That’s the destiny Utopia envisions for us, even excluding the obvious extremes of Project Proteus, whom I exclude from this discussion despite their existence being an inevitable consequence of Utopia’s ideology. Indeed, Utopia cannot succeed without necessarily creating something like Proteus sooner or later.”

Darrik looked it over and nodded. “I’ll have a read. I’ve heard about an OpNet address where you keep supplementary writings? The Alchemist mentioned it.”

“Yes,” Chang said. She grabbed a second book and handed it to him. “A hard copy of all the essays and information stored at that location. The address is in the front cover if you require the soft copies for dissemination or annotation. I did write an essay about the Kashmir conundrum, as I call it.

“The criticism you’re raising is the exact criticism raised by our enemies, and it’s meritless. It stems from the idea that a Nova society has not sprung full-formed out of the aether. The Null Manifesto was an attempt to get the discussion started in face of an ideology that would gladly strangle that discussion without any mercy or hesitation, that tries to do so even now after twenty years of us actually talking about it. Nonetheless, you’ve touched on the central flaw with the Manifesto. The problem is not what it says, but the timing of saying it. It’s a radical philosophical/political text in the line of many others throughout history, but it was published in response to the growing rise of Utopia and from Mal’s fear that his people would be suffocated by their doctrine. However, as you’ve neatly summarized, the Nova populace was not in a position to hear it and respond in a healthy manner. Mal was hoping we would make a quantum leap from nothing to something, not anticipating the extremely rocky road we would walk.

“As for competition with Utopia, I have my own feelings on that matter. Simply put, we can’t compete with them. Their ideology is brainless. Anybody can pursue it specifically because it requires and promotes no original thought whatsoever. The path Mal wants us to walk requires constant thought, re-evaluation, self-examination and growth. Quality over quantity, you might say. This is, unfortunately, a messy process. In my opinion, Utopia has been afforded far too much importance. The group is our enemy, yes, but beyond that it should have been ignored. Too many of us have become twisted by hate, and it’s stunting our growth as a people.”

The chess AI made its next move. Predictable, predictable, Chang thought, as she observed a battle between a bishop and a knight. Myojin’s take on the bishop was that of a warrior-cleric, wielding quarterstaff and magic. After two passes and the knight cutting the bishop’s staff in half, the bishop charged one half of the staff with energy and tossed it into the knight’s face. It clanged off his helm and sent him toppling from the saddle. The bishop summoned the half-staff back, and proceeded to launch a rapid and dazzling combo of blows at every level, ending with a brutal blow to the top of the head. The Knight collapsed, dead, and the bishop spoke a prayer over his corpse before turning to face his other foes across the board. It struck her that the bishop’s staff did not reappear. He still bore two halves, holding one in each hand as a pair of weapons. Now that’s impressive. She found herself oddly eager to see what other animations might be generated by the bishop’s changed weapon. She inputted her next move, this one intended to make the bishop go after another piece.

Darrik was considering what she said, and watching her play. “So, how do we pick our king?” He said, tapping his hand on the berobed and sceptre-wielding black king on his side of the board. “Or do we just pick Mal because he’s the easy choice?”

Chang smiled. “Well, isn’t that the issue? The problem is not that the discussion is inappropriate, but that is has not advanced. It has not advanced in part because the Teragen’s primary focus has been on survival for the best part of twenty years, because the Nova race has been sterilized and incapable of breeding while Utopia fills our heads with lies about us being a non-viable mutation on the human genus. You should look into The Nursery. Though I have severe issues about the implementation of Bounty’s non-faction, the Children of Teras appear to be almost exclusively focusing on these social issues. It’s time for a change, though, and I intend to make my case to the others before too long. By the way, though the Manifesto does indeed promote actions in violation of the social contract, it does emphasize a certain unity of Novadom. So I must ask, which is the problem; is it that Novas are a meaner people than Mal believed and that we are fundamentally unworthy of the grand words of the Null Manifesto, or is it that we are as yet unable to live up to our true potential due to socio-environmental pressures?”

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"The latter, I would hope." Darrik stated, observing as the bishop of Chang's moved up against another pawn, the cleric being preemptively assailed by the foot soldier, but using the broken stave pieces deftly batted the spear away and took him down with a stream of head blows. "Still, I have my concerns about the Nursery, from what I've gotten so far, admittedly limited."

Chang fixed him with a glance that screamed, explain pupil, and he did. "As has been well apparent, I will be a father soon enough. Puck somewhat discussed with me his suggestion of sending our children to the Nursery. That and I heard a little from Puck and Infinity when we'd first met about the Nursery. In any case, Gwen and Agatha- when given a more vague version- had no interest in separation, I agreed, and my deeper concerns too. First off, aside from abdicating what I feel is a parental responsibility to raise my kids- sending them off to the Nursery perforce removes their choice, if they take it when they're old enough, to follow Teras. It's a fundamental choice, and not mine to make. I'm aware that most Terat parents may simply be thinking of their children's safety, but I have my own family's support and safe spots."

"Also... it reminds me in some ways of an agoge." Mentioning the ancient Spartan education, for Chang well-educated knew what he meant- really put Darrik on the spot here. "Granted, Bounty and Scripture hardly sound like individuality-crushing pandaimos, the opposite in fact... but it's still a curriculum enough that they're controlling. They're spoon-fed from birth, and the older kids I've rarely heard of venturing away from the Nursery. Sure, they could go many places, have access to the OpNet, but why the heck would they think of seeing other perspectives and experiences, good or bad? You said 'constant thought, re-evaluation, self-examination and growth' are needed. How conducive is this setting to their growth as Terats, and examining the social issues ahead?"

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Chang sighed and leaned back. She rubbed her brow. Darrik was touching on one of the more difficult areas of her own thought. Her talks – and arguments – with the young Nova Sakura came storming back into her mind.

“I have my own… uncertainties, about The Nursery, but that is not what we are here to discuss. The Null Manifesto is every Terat’s first step in Teras, but it’s a long way from the end, and your children’s future is essentially irrelevant when we are discussing your personal growth. It might be that you will need them to assist that growth, but it is far more likely that you will not, or at least, not want to.”

Darrik looked confused.

“Teras is not easy, Darrik. It’s more than just sitting in a dark room, thinking really hard about not being human. It requires practical action, testing your limits, challenging every preconception and assumption you make. You must dive deep out of your comfort zone into the terrifying realm of the unknown from which all of our powers stem. Teras is you against the future you, and he’s not going to make it easy for you to get to where he’s waiting. You’ll need to do things that make you uncomfortable. Has it occurred to you that you will upset your wives, perhaps even your child?” The look on his face suggested that he had not. “A Terat I know of – a telepathic police officer – sought out chrysalis after years upon the path. In order to trigger it…” Chang ran one finger over the holographic image of her beautiful, haughty white queen, “she went deep into her own soul and reconstructed her mind into the wave patterns of a psychopathic killer.”

“Why did she do that?”

“Her paradigm was fear, she had been a homicide detective, and her entire life was oriented around the study of such people. But it was being a Nova which allowed her to understand what it meant to be one.”

“What happened?”

“She murdered her parents. She stalked them through their house – having locked the doors and windows to prevent escape – tortured her father to death, and then cornered her mother in the attic and finished her off. That was what put her into chrysalis. An action I believe you might consider unconscionable.”

There were some moments of silence, then.

Chang smiled. “Like I said. Re-evaluation. Challenging your self-conceptions. Every single thing you believe about yourself must be challenged, beaten, pressed, so as to reforge you anew. Your child, your lovers… they’re all fair game, Darrik, and sooner or later you are going to have to press hard upon that relationship. It may be that you’ll lose one or both of them. My own actions have been less extreme, less violent than hers. My medium is art, but you are rather different, Darrik. You are a being of shadows, of darkness. Of fear.” She studied him closely. “You’ll have to explore that. And you might not like what you learn. But if you wish to be a Terat, you will have to accept it, whatever it means. And it will change you. Your body and mind will warp and shift, towards who knows what? And you’ll not flinch from that, Darrik. You can’t. That’s what holds back those Terats of the Pandaimonion whom we both look down on. They’re cowards, with preconceptions about what is Nova, and they are petrified of staring into the abyss. Teras is the abyss, and there’s no metaphor here. The abyss will look into you. Because you’re in that abyss, and you’re now standing on the precipice, and you came here specifically to jump in headfirst.”

She inputted her next move in the chess game. Her queen gathered up her skirts and moved forward. The Myojin’s white queen was a beautiful lady with rather improbable hips. In battle she actually summoned armies of ninja to assassinate her targets, and occasionally a poisoned dagger. The big irony of it all was that the black queen was altogether more straightforward and honest, a fangs-bearing vampires who used her strength to rend her victims limb from limb.

“This is why we are individualistic. Perhaps it gives you a better perspective on things. We must jump from those extremely personal, internal self-examinations to attempting to forge a society for all of us. Some are capable of doing so, many are not. Some of us who succeed on the path, as I have, are not suited to be a leader of Novas. Some others who succeed are suited. Those will be our future leaders. Mal and Scripture are most likely to lead, my misgivings besides. I would follow either of them, though I’d torment Scripture by second guessing most of his decisions. In truth, I disagree only with a few of Mal’s actions, and most of them centre on the horrific timing of the Null Manifesto – he should have known better – and his actions concerning The Nursery. But as mentioned, those are larger political concerns, and not what you really came to talk about.”

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Darrik didn't recoil, but Chang could so easily see the tension build up as he'd considered those words of hers.

Darrik had always regarded himself as the converse of Chang's version of darkness presented now, the 'music of the night', Rice's vampires, the midnight lover... Those preconceptions belonging to those in the Pandemonium? They were HIS, he realized with shame. And what would in the end, he have to do to change? Undoubtedly, even if he didn't know now, at some point, he might just drive away his lovers (or much worse, as one of the deepest wicked wishes lying in his brain held- making Gwen and Agatha into mere toys for his gratification; seeing as he held the power to do so) or alienate his foster family utterly... it was an instinctive sense down the line.. For a moment, Darrik was afraid, tempted to tell Chang maybe this wasn't the right fit for him... that he was wasting her time... that he couldn't be anything like that---

Demon expired, leaving Pip staring in horror at him. The memory seemed to interpose itself between the fear, and inconvenient as it was, served to whisper in his head. We know you are capable of this, even though you struggled to disclaim it afterward. Or this... and he got a flash of a naughty dream he'd been embarrassed to have mere nights after the Demon's Carnival, mounting his mother against the crystal walls...

At what cost though? Was understanding just who he was to the fullest extent truly worth the potential costs?

When it comes down to it, you have to do this for yourself. All you can hope is that your family will still love you in the end. Let yourself fall in.

"All right." Darrik finally stated. The tension in his body lessened, though it did not completely vanish.

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A slight smile creased Chang’s lip. His responses felt right. The right mix of hesitation, doubt and determination. One of those three would emerge from the man as the years rolled on and he left the boy behind.

“Very well,” Chang said, inputting her next chess move with one hand and picking up a book with the other. “Given that you have chosen to follow the path of the Marvel, I have requested a collection of essays from Jeremiah Scripture on the subject. Obviously he is more experienced with the dangers of that path than I am. Read it well, but remember always to question what you read. They are a guideline only; you must seek your own path rather than follow ours.”

Darrik took the book from her and studied it with a grave expression. He touched the leather cover, stroked it with his flawless fingers, and nodded.

“Now let us talk of the specifics of Teras. The mechanics, if you will. Teras is fundamentally based around taint. Smaller minded people such as the adherents of Qi Meng and the ignorant servants of Utopia view taint either as a disease or a problem, something to be avoided at all costs.” She raised a finger. “One addendum concerning Qi Meng: my experience with its teachings is limited to your sister Coraline and our discussion concerning it, which was not as in depth as I would have liked. It is possible that those further along the path are wiser, but I can only form opinions based on that one talk with Ms. Boehm. It was not promising. If you still have contact with your sister, I advise you discuss your diverging paths, do so soon, and do so frequently. It may well prove a valuable educational tool as you progress.”

Darrik nodded, and his pale skin seemed that little bit whiter when he did.

Chang’s enormous, armoured rook engaged a knight. The knight rode by and laid a clanging blow upon the rook’s helm, but he seemed more annoyed than anything else. On the second pass the rook swung his warhammer around in a savage horizontal arc, striking the horse full on the side of the head and killing it instantly. The beast went down while the knight jumped nimbly from the saddle. He tried to fight the rook, but the hammer smashed his shield aside and then collapsed his helm. The rook posed over the corpse, turned and prepared for the next foe. Mate in three, if I want it, Chang thought.

“We – and now you – do not have such a limited view of taint’s nature or potential. Within the confines of Teras it is our lifeblood, the means of our growth and our transformation. Understand that this is a decision which will govern, change and affect the course of your life going forward. If you fail to follow Teras, if you balk from what is demanded of you, taint will be your end. It is your lifeblood, but that blood is dangerous if allowed to flow outside its proper course. Like acid. If you succeed,” she parted her hands and gestured at herself, “you end up like me. You will become something new, something changed, something Nova.

Darrik seemed more encouraged by that idea. “How does Teras work, though? I’m still not clear on what it does, or how it does it.”

Chang inclined her head. “Physically, Teras works by pushing your node to its utmost, channelling more quantum than it is normally used to, so as to cause it to suffer what might be compared to muscular tears. The quantum ‘burn’ you may have heard tell of or experienced yourself. This must be done in specific, measured ways, however, in ways that will push your limits and expand your understanding both of your powers and yourself. It is in this that the danger lies greatest. Knowing when to and when not to push is the greatest pitfall, and you will fail sometimes. On these occasions regular taint will form. If you do it correctly, you will be able to grip that taint and shape it into something new, the beginnings of a chrysalis.” She fetched yet another book. “This text governs meditations and exercises to become more adept at node control, to better prepare you for controlling the taint when it comes. Unfortunately there is only so much I can say. Teras is in the end all about the doing. You will learn through your failures and successes.

“Psychologically – the key to triggering chrysalis –Teras estranges you from the familiar, not by supplying new information, but by inviting and provoking a new way of seeing. But, and here is the risk, once the familiar turns strange it’s never quite the same again. Self-knowledge is like lost innocence, no matter how unsettling you find it, it can never be unthought or unknown, what makes this enterprise difficult but also riveting is the knowledge that Teras Is a story, and you won’t know where the story will lead, but what you will know, once you have begun the first chapter of that tale, is that the story is about you.”

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