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.
"Okay," says the receptionist. "You, are you a student?"
"Yeah. Undeclared, first year. Annabelline Swan."
"In that case we have to change the passcodes... Aldaras, if this happens again and you wind up with a collection, you'll let us know right away, yes?"
The very thought of - winding up with a collection makes him wince. "Yes. Of course."
"Are you okay?" asks Annie.
"Mostly. The idea of randomly falling in love with enough people to start a collection is - sickening, but I vastly prefer it to - the obvious alternative of if I didn't touch the necklace."
"Sickening because you just generally don't want to be in love with a bunch of people or sickening because at the moment being in love with me is doing Extreme Monogamy to your brain?"
"... Second thing."
"There's a - oh, that's probably good, unless it just gives people ideas. Learning that there is a handout just gave me ideas. I will not enact them, but - yeah, give me the flyer."
The receptionist gives Annie a flyer.
He's gone back to looking at Annie like she is the center of his universe. Nothing strange going on here, carry on.
"Does giving this thing out usually help? I wasn't likely to think of half of this unethical abuse of the guilt trips on my own."
"I don't make the policy," shrugs the receptionist. "Or write the flyer."
"Okay. Well. Thanks."
He does not mention the one exception. She's a smart woman, she can figure it out on her own.
"Is there a good daytime phone number for you? When the Dean has results?"
"Yeah, sure -" Annie writes it down. "That's my mother's landline, I won't be home all the time but she can take messages."
"And you already have mine," says Aldaras.
"Okay, great," says Annie. "Uh - Aldaras - I don't have any more classes today. We are probably going to be hanging around a lot, you and me, where's a good place for us to go and - talk?"
"I... have an apartment, or we could go some place less freakily mine."
"I live with my mom. I haven't decided how to describe you to her, so your apartment works."
"It's within walking distance," he says, as they exit the building. "Um - it's not going to bother you being in my apartment?"
"...should it? I mean, realistically, if you were going to club me over the head and drag me off for nefarious purposes you should have done it before letting the receptionist get my name and telling her that you're touched about me."
"No, no," he says assuredly. "I'm - you're the last person I'd ever hurt or do - terrible things to. Of any kind. I'd just be freaked out in your position."
"It turns out that if somebody wants me to trust them the shortcut is handing me large amounts of unchecked power."
Aldaras quirks an eyebrow. "... Huh. Okay."
"I mean, pretty obviously you didn't do it on purpose, but regardless. Anyway, I should be fine in your apartment unless it is squalid, floored with bear traps, or inhabited by ravening hordes of barbarians who you keep around to help with the rent."
That one actually causes him to laugh.
"No. To - all of those, actually."
"Good. That's definitely a case where it can't be even one of the listed things."
"Ah, darn. I'll have to tell the ravening horde of barbarians to find some other place to go."
"Barbarians are not meant to live in apartments anyway, it's really the kindest thing."