Short Story: What Scarlet Saw
Professor Omadd, Headmaster Emeritus of the College of Synergetics, anxiously twisted his ear as he waited for the sylvari woman to wake. She had been thrashing violently in the isolation module for days now, crying out random syllables and howling in…pain? Ecstasy? Omadd wasn’t sure. Even a genius of his caliber could only guess what was happening inside that leafy green head.
Omadd clenched his fist, squeezing his ear until it brought tears to his eyes. The most promising student he had ever instructed, conducting most important experiment of his long and storied career, and all he could do was stand idle and fret.
The woman gasped deeply and convulsed once more. Then she bolted upright, tearing clean through the restraints that bound her head and hands to the apparatus.
“Ceara?” Omadd put a reassuring hand on the sylvari’s shoulder, and then yelped. Her skin was hot to the touch, and the faint golden glow that surrounded her had shifted to vivid crimson.
She slowly turned to face him, her eyes sharp and focused.
“Ceara! Can you hear me? What did you see?”
The sylvari woman brought her open hand up and spread her fingers wide. A thin vine crawled from her sleeve and began weaving between her splayed digits.
“Scarlet,” she said. “My name is Scarlet now. Scarlet Briar.”
“Scarlet, then,” he snapped. “Tell me, please: what did you see?”
Small red thorns sprang up from the vine between Scarlet’s fingers. She smiled.
“Everything,” she said.
Ceara emerged from the Dream and stepped forward, savoring the wet grass of the Grove beneath her feet. With her eyes still closed, she inhaled, taking in the fresh scent of living things all around her.
“Welcome, sapling.” The voice was kind, the tone gentle. “My name is Mender Serimon. You are safe here.”
“Shhh. I’m thinking.” Ceara opened her eyes to a vibrant world of greens and golds and earthy browns. Sunlight streamed down through the canopy, nourishing the great trees and warming the ground level vegetation. All around, creatures of every shape and size called to one another, exploring, chasing, being chased, always in motion.
Ceara blinked, pleasantly overwhelmed by it all. The world was a fascinatingly complex system of smaller, interlocking systems that affected one another in an ever-changing dance. It was beyond fascinating: it was life itself, and now she was a part of it.
“Sapling?” Serimon said. “I’m here to help you acclimate. To help you understand your place in this world and identify the purpose Pale Mother has given you.”
Her eyes remained fixed on on the complex living dance of the forest. “I’ll find my own place, thank you very much. And it’s hardly ‘my’ purpose if someone else gives it to me.”
Serimon’s face soured, but he kept his soothing tone. “You’ve awakened with a wealth of confidence,” he said. “But don’t presume too much. We all make choices in life, but sometimes choices are made for us. Especially we children of the Pale Tree. It is the way of things.”
“The way of things?” Ceara smiled. Serimon’s world was so clearly defined for him. He would never challenge it, never test it, never seek to redefine it.
She laughed merrily and said, “Thank you for attending my awakening, mender. But where my life is concerned, I will be the one who chooses.”
After eight years of voracious study in the Grove, Ceara had learned all she cared to from her extended family. Her people were accomplished hands at many key disciplines, but they couldn’t provide the depth of knowledge she craved. She wanted to construct systems as complex as the ones she saw in nature, to build machines as sublime as the living things she saw each and every day. Her greatest joy as a student came from testing those established systems to expose their flaws in aid of strengthening her own designs.
She learned much from the master engineers among her people, but theirs were simple meals that could not sate her hunger. Ceara decided to strike out into the world to find something that could.
Her first stop was the smiths of Hoelbrak: if she wanted to make machines, she needed to understand metal. She impressed a grizzled old bear of a norn named Beigarth with her interest and energy, and on his invitation spent a long winter as his pupil, apprentice, and forge-tender. When spring came, she announced her intentions to move on, having learned all she needed to know. Beigarth tried to dissuade her, eager to pass along the full slate of his smithing knowledge to such a unique and promising student, but she left him with a wave and a breezy smile. She didn’t need to be a master smith to forge the kinds of creations she envisioned.
Next she spent two years with a gladium named Asagai, late of the Iron Legion. An expert sniper and demolitionist, Asagai could tell by feel if a firearm was not assembled properly, and correct a misaligned site on a field gun just by listening to the sound of its thunder. When Ceara had learned all the lonesome soldier’s secrets and declared her intent to continue her studies elsewhere, the charr veteran cursed her for a feckless cub and threatened to gut her with a rusty blade. Ceara gracefully avoided Asagai’s wild swings and bid her a respectful farewell. Firearms and artillery were fun, but they were far too simple. Knowing there was only one place that could expand her knowledge as broadly and as quickly as she required, she set out for Rata Sum.
She found that convincing the three great colleges to let her in was the hardest part. Apart from their inherent bias against non-asura, they did not relish a lowly sylvari with delusions of academic excellence “diluting” or “contaminating” their student body’s collective brain power. When Ceara constructed a fully functional golemite on the fly from a small power crystal, a handful of raw ore, and a few select spells, the Arcane Council begrudgingly granted her provisional status as Dynamics student.
She completed the Dynamics coursework in under a year as the highest-ranked student in her class. Chagrined, the councilors give her the same opportunity in Statics. When she achieved similar results in a similar time frame, they were intrigued enough to see if she could do the same with Synergetics.
Synergetics took quite a bit longer, however, as Ceara finally found a field of study that was a boundless as her interest. She immersed herself in Synergetics’ miasmic mix of mystical energy patterns and arcane probabilities; in its focus on chaos theory and mapping unpredictable connections; in the pursuit of hidden knowledge and secret mechanisms derived in equal parts from the contemplation of the ephemeral and the application of the practical.
It was here, under Headmaster Omadd, that Ceara first began to grapple with the Eternal Alchemy. The deeper she delved into it, the more convinced she became that the pinnacle of asuran thought was not a metamagical engine or a transcendent equation, but a key that allowed one to access the basic fabric of reality itself.
Though backed 100% by Omadd, Ceara’s thesis was not well received by the colleges or the Arcane Council. “Unsupportable conjecture,” they called it. “Unsubstantiated claims that border on academic heresy, or at very least, criminality.”
She barely noticed: she had already begun to separate herself from the collegiate system in the hopes of finding a research organization that would be more receptive to her ideas. She found it in the Inquest.
Ceara’s time with the Inquest was brief but extremely productive: they taught her things the other colleges wouldn’t even discuss, and allowed field tests without those irritating and unnecessary safety precautions.
Things ended suddenly and badly, however, when Ceara and her krewmate Teyo broke into the city’s archives and tampered with several of the designs they found there. It was presented to her as a means to give the Inquest a competitive edge in the upcoming Snaff Prize competitions, but Ceara also left her stamp on a few unrelated projects she found.
When caught, Teyo teleported herself to safety and left Ceara to face the consequences. The Council stripped Ceara of her academic credentials and the Peacemakers ejected her from Rata Sum. She laughed and left the city without any of her research notes or belongings, whistling as she went.
She wandered for several months before settling in with the Michotl hylek just outside Rata Sum (which required her to disguise herself under a hooded cowl to avoid the attention of the Peacemakers). Hylek alchemy was diverting, but she considered it a cul-de-sac on the road she had chosen.
Mixing potions, poisons, and elixirs to produce specific effects was similar to building devices, but there was too much horticulture and not enough engineering for her tastes. If she wanted to spend her life harvesting pollen or distilling extracts from exotic blooms, she would have never left the Grove.
Fortunately, proximity to Rata Sum made it possible for Omadd to track her down. Her mentor offered the chance to explore the Eternal Alchemy again. Ceara agreed and left the Michotl village without a word of explanation.
After months of painstaking preparation, Omadd’s experiment was ready. Ceara would enter his isolation module, a vast array of thaumechanical devices wired to a coffin-like chamber. Once activated, she would be unfettered by her physical body and could delve into the metaphysical vortex of reality as no one ever had.
He warned her repeatedly about the danger to her life and her sanity. “You have to survive,” he told her. “The module’s one shortcoming is that it can’t record what your mind experiences. If you don’t come back or can’t articulate what you’ve learned, it will all be for naught.”
“Noted.” Ceara’s face was bright, her eyes wide and hungry. “Let’s get started.”
Inside Omadd’s machine, the universe stretched out before her, an endlessly vast star-flecked sea. She moved through it, struggling against its currents, floating effortlessly above them, or standing perfectly still as strange lights and magical energies swirled around her.
She saw Tyria as a life-sized globe, fixed in place among cosmic storms and massive clouds of potentiality. She wondered if she would see herself in Omadd’s lab when Rata Sum rotated into view, but then impatiently went on, plunging deeper into the churning void.
Stop, my child.
Ceara paused. She hadn’t heard the Pale Tree’s voice in years.
Please: go no further. In seeking to comprehend the forces that shape us, you will unleash them. Society cannot withstand that.
Ceara felt an electric tingle and she wondered if her body was smiling back in Omadd’s lab. Deliberately and with great glee, Ceara thought, Shhh. I’m thinking, and then pressed on.
She soon saw a vague, glowing shape ahead. A tree, she thought…the Pale Tree. Its great off-white trunk connected a broad network of branches and leaves to a root system below. Instead of nuts or berries beneath its leaves, there were sylvari. Thousands of her people hung from the tree’s boughs like ripe fruit ready to fall. Their bodies did not move, but their eyes shifted and rolled, eagerly taking in their surroundings.
Some dropped like autumn leaves, slowly drifting down to root level. There they stood, stretched, and then set out into the void, disappearing as they cleared the spreading canopy. Some never made it that far, staggering, falling, and withering within the shade of the great tree.
Disappointment soured Ceara’s fascination. Was this it, then? Were the lives of all sylvari so easily encapsulated? Birth, travel, experience, death, all played out under the dictates and philosophies of the godlike entity that created them?
She refused to accept that. Everything she had learned said that no system, no matter how complex, can perpetuate itself indefinitely. Those that did not evolve inevitably failed.
It was then Ceara saw the thorn vine. It emerged from the roots at the base of the tree and began to climb, wrapping itself around the trunk and scoring the bark with its dusty red barbs. Green-black ichor oozed from these wounds, and the great tree shuddered.
Then Ceara was the vine, squeezing the great tree’s trunk like a desperate lover. The tree struggled against her: she was meant to be part of it, to participate in its grand purpose. Instead, she was no more than an irritant, a provocation.
Now do you see? The Pale Tree’s voice was faint and distant, but it snapped Ceara back to viewing the tree from a distance. If you are not one with what you were born to be, you are lost. Worse, you are dangerous.
Sheer joy surged through Ceara. Dangerous, you say? Her thoughts boomed loud as thunder across the void. So be it.
With the Pale Tree’s desperate words and her own raucous laughter growing echoing across the void, Ceara plunged through the vision of the great tree and beyond.
Motionless, Omadd stared wide-eyed at his former student.
“It worked,” Scarlet said. “I suppose I should thank you for that, though I bet I would have figured it out on my own eventually. Still, no reason to begrudge a genius his due, right?”
Omadd did not reply.
Scarlet giggled as she raised her hand to her face and watched the red thorn vine chase itself between her fingers. “So much makes sense now. The Pale Tree, the Nightmare Court, Caithe and Faolain…it’s all part of a grand design.
“But I see the flaws in that design. My people don’t have to take what we’re given, or be what we were “born to be.” No people do. We can change the rules…well, I can. And I’m going to.”
Omadd said nothing. With dusty red thorn vines wrapped tightly around his throat, wrists, and ankles, he could not. He hung silent and still, suspended from all four walls and the ceiling on a tangled deadfall of thorns, as blood dripped and pooled below him.
“I’ve learned so much,” Scarlet continued. “Now I have to put that knowledge to use. An insurmountable challenge is rising, and my people have been called to meet it. We are compelled by our creator to do so.
“But I reject that call. I reject the notion that that I must choose the Dream or be lost to Nightmare. The forces that push us this way or that can be redirected. They can be set against one another to the detriment of both, and now I know how.”
Scarlet gestured and the thorns around Omadd tightened. They raised his lifeless body high, and then turned it to greet whoever entered the room next.
Scarlet’s voice rose as she went on. “I have a great deal of work ahead of me. I don’t know what the world will be when I’m through, but I will very much enjoy finding out. Empires will fall, continents will burn, and when the conflagration is over, I’ll be there to put my stamp on whatever new world this one becomes.”
Manic glee flashed in her eyes and she said, “Good-bye, old friend. All good students should take up their master’s mantle and share the wisdom they’ve attained. And I am a very, very good student.”
Laughing, full of renewed purpose, Scarlet blew Omadd’s body a kiss and danced lightly out into the cool evening air.