He's listening to them now. They're not there just for decoration or listening pleasure - he needs to follow them, to the nearest artifact. For the past few weeks, it's been coming from back where he started - the scholar's city. But now - now he's far enough away that the artifacts collected there aren't interfering. And he's found a new chime, obviously different from the others by its direction and tone. After several days of frenzied travel instead of the more leisurely pace from before, they're close. Agonizingly close.
Zevaia is less excited than he is, but that's to be expected. She's not the one who gave up the right to keeping secrets just to himself. A side-effect of his tracking; he knew what he was getting into from the start. His father's at home, all of Aldaras's secrets in his possession. Even the embarrassing ones. Especially the embarrassing ones. Besides, he would be his sister's keeper if she'd been the one to touch the horn, and both twins are quite sure that would end badly for everyone involved. There are certain things Aldaras never wants to know about his sister. Ever.
They've been keeping nearly silent, to avoid interference with his tracking. So it's a surprise when she gets his attention with her voice.
"Hey. I'm scouting ahead. Don't like the look of this place," she says. Aldaras doesn't, either, the forest has gotten too unnaturally quiet, now. It wasn't like this, miles back - it makes Aldaras worry about what sorts of things lie this way. "And I'm the one with the pistol."
He nods. "It's in that direction," he says, pointing. "Scream if you see any of the cut."
"Nah. They'll be the ones screaming," shrugs Zevaia. "But I might if I see the knife." She winks.
Aldaras sighs. "Okay. Be careful."
"You too, dork."
Then Aldaras is alone. He keeps following the chimes. They're so tantalizingly close, he can't help it. For a few minutes, he wonders with a growing paranoia if he's accidentally tracking the knife. But no, the trackers have all recorded what it sounds like. It varies, from person to person, but it's never beautiful. It's been described as a screeching sound, or a screaming, or the sound of nails on a chalkboard. Aldaras isn't sure how that would translate to what he hears, but all trackers who escaped it have said it is the most wretched sound they've ever hear. This lovely chime isn't anything so horrific.
(He tries not to think about how ones who might have heard it as something pleasant, and how they would have never been able to tell their tales. He's scared enough, no need to add fuel to that fire.)
It turns out that the artifact is closer than he thought. He's surprised, at first, that he found it so easily, but - the chimes don't lie. Aldaras shifts the log muffling the sound, and then he sees it. Definitely not a knife. A necklace of blue stones, flat and shining and lovely. If it weren't an artifact, it wouldn't be particularly expensive, just unusual and unique. But it is, so it's more precious than gold.
Aldaras doesn't touch it. He doesn't know what it does, or what its side-effects are. As much as he wants - all magic ever, if it's the sort of magic whose price is sleeping for twenty hours a day, he does not want it. Carefully, ever aware of what one stray touch to its surface would do, he nestles it into his backpack, wrapped twice in cloth and tied three times with sturdy twine, to keep it from jostling loose. To be safe. He'll let the scholars at it when he's home.
Once it's safely away, Aldaras can't help but laugh. He did it. He actually did it, he found an artifact. The backpack goes back on, and he heads off to find his sister.
"Hey!" he calls. "Zevaia! I found it! Some kind of necklace, time to head back and celebrate!"
It's a pity, that he can't track people. Otherwise, this would be a lot easier. But artifacts don't do what you want them to do, or even go anywhere close to it, not without hard work and lots of patience.
He's in the middle of wondering what the necklace does when he notices that his feet are acting strangely. He'd meant to be walking straight ahead, back towards where he last saw his sister, but - now he's not. He's walking to what was his left, earlier. Aldaras frowns. This is not normal behavior, but there's no reason to panic just yet. Very, very carefully, he tries to turn around.
It doesn't work.
Okay, now it's time to panic.
Aldaras tries to open his mouth to scream, to cry for help - that's the thing that he swore to himself he'd do, first thing. But he can't manage it. All that comes out is a little pathetic whimpery sound. He can't bring himself to do any more - somewhere, in the back of his mind, he knows he's being silenced by the knife. His feet keep walking. Step. Step. Step.
It's too late for him now, he knows. Aldaras tries very hard to come to terms with - with death. Worse than death, actually, every step he involuntarily takes is one step closer to being one of the cut. The idea makes him feel sick, makes him want to throw up. But he can't, because he's walking. The knife doesn't want him to throw up, it wants him to walk. So he walks. Step. Step. Step.
Desperately, Aldaras wonders if there's a way to kill himself before he gets there. Or - or some way to stop the knife from getting another useful - whatever the cut are. Slave, thrall, soldier, convoy. Any of the above. All of the above. He has the necklace. He doesn't know what it does, but - literally anything he can imagine would be better than this. Anything the necklace could do to him, anyway.
It's a struggle, but the knife doesn't care about his hands, it cares about his legs, it cares about his mouth. Later, later is when it will want his arms, when he's close enough to reach out and touch it. Because that's what it'll make him do. That's when he'll just - stop being his own. He'll belong to the knife. So his hands are free to fumble into his backpack and scrabble desperately at the cloth around it. Why did he have to be so thorough with wrapping it, he's a fool, he should have - should have anticipated this. He should have known.
He sees a person, up ahead. With growing horror only barely muted by the knife's pull, he recognizes her as his sister. Her black hair's a mess, but that's not the only thing wrong with her. She has the blank, vacant expression of one of the cut. Her movements are unnatural, puppet-like. She steps towards him, slowly, staring into nothing. She's flanked by other cut, with the same blank stares.
Zevaia is holding a knife. Not one of her own, of course not. This one is more decorative and ceremonial than the utilitarian ones his sister carries. It's some sort of alloyed gold, twisted beautifully to make an ornate handle. The blade is the same alloyed gold - glittering in the sunlight. Sharp and deadly, not due to its materials, but due to what kind of artifact it is.
Aldaras is horrified to find that it's the most beautiful thing he's ever seen.
More fumbling. The first two knots of the twine are already undone, and he's given up trying to undo the third. He just needs to touch it. After that - after that he can die, and hopefully the side effect will be debilitating to the knife's purposes. By some miracle, it can't force people to use magic. So there's no potential loss, for him. Not anymore.
He wishes he could close his eyes, stop staring at the golden instrument of his - lobotomy. He can't. It's started to seize his arms, he's so close. His right goes as instructed, the left he manages to hold on to, for just a few scant seconds more.
Those turn out to be all he needs. His fingertip brushes the necklace.
All at once, his feet fall out from under him, and he's crumpled on the ground in a heap. He wonders, manically, if he was lucky enough for the necklace to convey paralysis. A twitch from his arms says no. No it hasn't. Shortly after, his legs agree. In fact, all of him agrees. His first instinct with this new information is to crawl away. Away from the knife. Away from the - thing that used to be his sister.
To his astonishment, this time his body obeys him.
He scrambles to his feet, breathing heavily and shaking. The pull is gone. His legs, his arms - everything is his own again. He looks at the knife, backing away. Just - an ordinary knife made of gold. How had it seemed lovely before? It was gaudy, if anything. Ugly and impractical and from how his - how the cut woman's carrying it, far too heavy.
His mind is his own.
Can he - can he throw the necklace at his sister, free her from the curse? Obviously the necklace is some kind of - of antithesis to the knife, that's the only way, maybe he can get her back, maybe she can be saved -
- Except she lurches away, growling that guttural inhuman thing that the cut do. Her - fellow cut move in front of her, only protecting her from harm by mere coincidence. It's the knife, that they're keeping safe. She's far enough that he doesn't trust his aim, not with something so precious, not with others in the way. If he loses it, if he doesn't get it back to the scholars... Then the knife will just continue running rampant.
"Wait, wait, no," he mutters, fumbling to get the necklace out properly. Maybe, says a small voice in his head, he can still save her. Maybe.
But then there are the others. The other cut, those the knife don't care about - emaciated as they are from lack of care, they outnumber him. And surround him. Maybe if he were his sister, he could fight past them, force them all to touch the necklace that so obviously saved him.
He manages to retrieve it, and weighs his odds.
There's no way he can manage it. No reasonable way. He can't do it. There's too many of them, he's too - scrawny and unarmed and if he dies then the necklace will take ages to get to the scholars. Possibly never, if another tracker never comes by here, which is entirely possible. And - that would delay the obvious immunity to the knife getting to people that could destroy it. That would cause more fathers and mothers and brothers and - and sisters to fall under its spell. He can't - he can't do that. Not even for her.
"I'm sorry," he chokes. "I'll come back, I'll - try to find a way to save you."
He turns and runs.
A wind kicks up and the hood of her coat flops back from her face.
He resists the urge to pace. He resists it very much. It'll help no one, especially not his sister, not right now. The attendants he gave the necklace to solemnly said that even with the necklace's abilities - saving the cut is probably impossible. Damn it all, he should have - asked that they not split up. They should have stuck together, and then he could have gotten her with the necklace too and they could have just run and she'd be fine.
But then she'd be subject to - whatever side effect he's going to have to put up with, too. It's been days, and he hasn't figured it out. No strange quirk, no crushing, unbearable guilt from an untold secret, no sleeping twenty hours a day. Just - nothing. Aldaras doesn't believe he could be that lucky, it has to be someth-
A woman is sitting by where he's trying desperately not to pace. He's jostled by the wind, and glances up in annoyance to see if there's a place he can try not to freak out in peace. Briefly, out of the corner of his eye, he sees her face.
And then he blinks, surprised, and he turns and looks at her, properly.
She turns a page in what she's reading, and then lifts a hand to tuck her hair behind her ears.
Everything about her is - perfection. If there is a single flaw in her face (which he seriously doubts) then it serves only to highlight her other features' greater beauty. Her eyes - gods, her eyes, soft and warm and brown. He'd compare them to chocolate, or some other favorable material that's brown, but he's absolutely certain that the only material that could even hope to match them is her hair. Soft and smooth and healthy and the loveliest shade of understated brown. Aldaras wonders, faintly, if her skin is competing for points with her hair, vying with its impeccable, unblemished and wonderfully understated splendor. If Aldaras were asked to be a judge for the winner, he couldn't possibly hope to say. Perhaps he'd expire from the effort on the spot.
It's obvious that there's more to her than mere beauty, though. That's the admissions policy for the artifact studies department. She was obviously brilliant, the way she's reading is with a practiced air. Not boredom, frustration, he can tell it, now. Frustration at what, he wonders? Surely someone like her has no reason to be frustrated, she is the type of woman to be worshiped, not face hardship.
Unless she's worried about the knife? The cut? Trying desperately to find a solution, like he is - he needs to tell her, there's a solution, there's a cure, this gorgeous angel is safe from the likes of the knife. She just needs to -
Touch... the... necklace.
Oh, fuck. Aldaras just figured out what the side effect was.
(He doesn't know how long he's been staring at her. A while, by now, he thinks.)
Is that guy staring at her?
Why is that guy staring at her?
If she has to be stared at by some guy, she supposes this guy is doing it pretty non-creepily. He doesn't look like he wants to drag her into an alley, he looks like he wants to peel grapes for her or something.
Still. What the hell, dude?
She's looking at him, the most gorgeous and perfect woman of all time in the history of forever is looking at him. Aldaras's mind draws a complete blank. What does he do, how does he explain himself, how can he even begin to explain himse-
Why isn't he telling her everything right this second?!
Aldaras makes a little whimpery sound and clutches a hand uselessly at his heart as crushing, all-consuming guilt slams into him. She is obviously brilliant, why is he keeping secrets from her? She needs all of the information she can get, he is keeping it from her, what kind of monster is he? How can he do that to her, how can he do that to the most perfect woman in the world? In the universe.
If he doesn't, if he doesn't how will she know how to be safe? How will she be able to make smart decisions with excellent foresight if she doesn't get all of the information he has to offer? She needs to know about - about everything, absolutely everything, he needs to give her as much information as he possibly can.
Abruptly, he sits next to her.
"I need to tell you every secret I know, right now."
"You seem to have mistaken me for your keeper. I don't know you."
"No, you don't understand," he says, obviously under the effects of some crushing guilt. "I really need to tell you every secret I know, I - I know you have absolutely no idea who I am and I am genuinely sorry, I don't know what's going on but I feel like I'm about to die I need to fix it I'm sorry!"
"I - okay. Go ahead, don't hurt yourself."
"My mom's in an asylum. I'm a bastard - a literal one, I have no idea who my birth father is. The magic department's given me basic access to all of its safe artifacts, there's a passcode to get in, it's -" He winces, and closes his eyes. "-846B29. Damn, that was a bad one - when I was little I used to dress up in bedsheets and run around the house and pretend to be a wizard." He continues in this vein for a while, on embarrassing things he did during childhood, before: "- I recently found an artifact that grants immunity to the knife. The knife. I found out when I touched it in desperation because it was about to cut me, but it got my sister and I didn't manage to save her - oh fuck, really, I have to-? - oh god damn it, its side effect has made me fall hopelessly in love with you. I've never felt this way about anyone in my life, I've never even kissed someone. My first crush was on a man, the celebrity Keijo Abdon -" more continuations in this vein of harmless and stupid secrets, and then, with a final shuddery sigh, "- and also your hair is gorgeous and smooth and shiny and I kind of want to pet it."
The guilt is gone. He buries his head in his hands.
"I - don't know how this works, the keeper thing, not in detail - if I ask you questions does it flare up, how do I not - hurt you?"
He sounds vaguely sort of miserable.
"But for ordinary probably non-secret information, like - what's your name?"
"But I mean if I ask you a question is there a grace period before you do the heartclutch-feeling-like-you're-dying thing?"
He nods. "A brief one. If I am not immediately doing all I can to enlighten you as quickly as I possibly can - guilt trip. The worst of all time."
"And I'm your keeper all of a sudden because of a different artifact, and now it's interacting funny with the tracker one. Why me?"
He doesn't sound like he's mad at her for it, just - sort of frustrated by an unexplained answer.
"And the Dean hasn't gotten around to explaining the thing yet?"
"Asleep. I handed it to his assistants - three hours ago? Or so?"
"I'm Annabelline, by the way. Annie's fine."
"Nice to - um. Meet you."
"Please give me a summary of how the artifact that has made you fall in love with me seems to work."
Especially if, say, he's going to drag her off to his basement or something.
"It's - done a thing where I think you are the most perfect woman in the world. Actually, I think my thoughts were 'in the universe, of all time.' I - want to make sure you are happy and safe and that no one would ever hurt you. You've neatly become my favorite person ever, I - my head doesn't normally work like that." Pause. "It's also seem to have made me want to make out with you a little. That's bewildering."
"That's bewildering even with the rest of it? Are you usually not attracted to girls?"