Discover more from Rhapsode Publishing 🪶
Genesis 💫: Episode 5 – Seeker
Gene confronts his past and steps into an uncertain future
This is Episode 5 of Genesis: Until The Stars Burn Cold, a fantasy story written in a psychedelic magepunk setting. It explores mental health through allegory along with an array of deeper themes: war and peace; love and loss; anger and forgiveness.
You can click here to start at the beginning, and you can subscribe below to get each new episode in your email inbox as they are written.
Episode 5 – Seeker
A gentle breeze stirred the grass as Gene passed strangers along the path, and the sun had risen high enough to fend off the worst of the cold. People and animals roamed among the yurts, tents, and wooden buildings, each on some mission of their own.
Birds called out from high above, occasionally descending to pick at scraps on the ground, and cook fires filled the air with a symphony of spices. All around, strangers had conversations in several languages.
After many minutes of walking, Gene reached the center garden, then made his way along the winding and shadowed paths until he reached the bath house steps.
Before him, a stairway led up to an old wooden building. Small streams poured out of the structure in small waterfalls on both sides of the stairs, then flowed into irrigation channels that led toward the gardens. Great braziers burned near the entrance, and each floor was wrapped in a wide balcony where people lounged in peaceful bliss.
Gene made his way up the steps to one of the service counters, where he paid the entrance fee and received a numbered key on a thin cord, a stack of wash cloths, a pair of wooden bath sandals, and a wool robe.
The attendant wore a mask, just like all the other bath house staff, and didn’t speak to Gene, instead simply pointing to a map on the counter indicating where Gene could find his locker and assigned bath.
Gene made his way through the corridors to a small locker room. Inside, he located his locker, then began to stow his belongings. When he removed his shirt, he glanced around cautiously, then looked down at the Seeker tattoo on his right forearm.
He knew the Oath of Honor and crossed tomahawks would signal his identity to any Seekers or spies who saw him, so he fetched a strip of fabric from the pocket of his clothes, then used his teeth and his left hand to tie it in place, hiding the mark from the view of anyone who saw him.
After a few minutes, he locked up the rest of his clothes and hung the key around his neck, then donned the wooden sandals and walked to the nearby showers.
He spent several minutes scrubbing away a week’s worth of sweat and dirt. The hot water felt incredible after the long walk through the cool autumn air. After cleaning up, he put on the robe and left the locker room, following the signs to his assigned bath.
With so many people dressed in plain robes, it was easy to blend into the crowd. The garments even had hoods for privacy. Gene wore his low to cover most of his face.
After several minutes, he found his assigned bath. The room was empty, which was a relief. Near the door, there was a table that held several ceramic jars full of fresh drinking water. Gene carried one to the edge of the bath.
He hung his robe on one wall, then removed his shoes and stepped into the water. The pool was large enough for half a dozen people to soak comfortably. He made his way to the far edge and leaned back against the wall, setting his jar of water on the ledge beside him.
The hot bath smelled of fine salts, and it quickly began to ease even his deepest body aches. Gene took long, deep breaths of the steam and closed his eyes. Soon, the steady splash of water pouring from a pipe in the wall lulled him into a meditative state.
Some time later, he heard a man’s voice. “That water looks divine. I hope you don’t mind a little interruption — this is the room they assigned me.”
Gene opened his eyes, startled. He hadn’t noticed anyone enter. He briefly glanced at the stranger. The man had tan skin, cropped dark hair, dark eyes, and a rugged, well-trained body. Aside from his obvious strength he didn’t appear otherwise out of the ordinary.
Then, Gene noticed a tattoo of crossed tomahawks and the Oath of Honor on the stranger’s right arm as he reached for a pitcher of water.
Gene glanced casually at his own right arm. His tattoo was still covered by the fabric. He breathed a quick, quiet sigh of relief.
For a moment, he prepared himself to leave, but then, he decided it might be a good idea to talk to the Seeker for a few minutes. He could possibly learn why the man had come to Yamafumura — and how many other Seekers had come with him.
Gene looked back at the stranger. “If you came to relax, this is definitely the place.” He took a drink from the jar of water to his right. “You don’t sound local. What brings you through Yamafumura?”
The stranger gave a slight chuckle. “My accent must give me away. I grew up in the territories. I came over the mountains on Coalition business.” He stepped into the water and took a spot near the stairs a few meters away. “You sound like you’re from the territories, too. How’d you end up here?”
Gene shrugged. “Never the type to put down roots. Wide world out there, so I’m doing my best to see it. Get by on odd jobs. Follow the caravans whenever I’m ready for a change of scenery.”
The stranger nodded, then raised his jar. “Cheers to that.”
Gene raised his jar, too, then took another drink. “Seems a bit late for the Coalition to send people in. Winter’s coming. Could choke up the mountain passes and lock you down all season.”
The stranger shrugged. “This is a long-term assignment. We’ve heard some troubling rumors come out of Yamafumura lately – insurgents, defectors, and the like. We’re here to make sure all law-abiding citizens in the Freehold are safe.”
Gene took a deep breath. “Big job. Must be quite a few of you. Can’t imagine a small group of soldiers managing all that.”
The stranger took a drink of water from his jar. “We’ve got plenty of people. We can handle it.” He tilted his head slightly toward Gene with a raised eyebrow. “You look like someone who can handle himself, too. Muscles like that don’t come from chopping wood. You must be pretty strict with your training.”
Gene nodded. “Keeps me out of trouble.”
The stranger chuckled. “I don’t know if I believe that. I see those scars. It’s tough to earn those without dozens of fights. Dangerous ones.”
Gene didn’t say anything.
The stranger gave a dark smile. “How about this: I’ll tell you a little more about me, if you tell me something that isn’t a lie. I’ll start. One of the men we’re looking for is tall, dark-skinned, and covered with scars from his time serving in the Coalition.”
There was a splash as the stranger lifted his arms out of the water. He pointed to his Seeker tattoo. “This man’s most noticeable feature, though, is a tattoo that looks just like this. It’d be right about where you’re wearing that armband. Does that sound like anyone you know?”
Gene took another drink from his jar of water. “People pass through every day. Can’t say anyone like that stands out.”
The stranger cocked his head to one side. “Can’t say?”
Gene stood up. “Yeah. Sorry.”
He made his way toward the steps.
The stranger grabbed Gene’s right wrist from his seated position. “I’ve shared one of my secrets. How about you show me what’s under that armband?”
Gene stopped, but didn’t look down.
He took a breath, then exhaled slowly. “There might be other Seekers with you, but in this room, there’s only us. ”
He looked down and stared the stranger directly in the eyes. “I’m a whole head taller than you, and at least 20 kilos heavier. You don’t have many scars, which means you probably haven’t been in many real fights.”
There was a splash as Gene poured the last of his water out of the jar. “With one movement, I could break this jar on your skull, then push you under the water and hold you there until you stopped breathing.”
Gene took a deep breath. “I won’t, though. Because you’re young, and for all I know, you were forced by your family to become a Seeker. I don’t blame you for doing your duty. But I’m planning to walk out of this room. It’s your choice if you want to walk out, too.”
Neither man moved. The only noise in the room was the sound of water pouring in from the supply pipe. The Seeker wore a bold face, but his eyes showed fear.
Finally, after many long seconds, the Seeker let go of Gene’s wrist and dropped his gaze.
Gene climbed the steps, listening carefully for any movement in the water behind him. He set the empty jar in a box marked for returns, then grabbed his robe from the hook where he’d left it. He pulled the garment over his shoulders, tied it shut and raised the hood, then put a hand on the sliding door.
The Seeker spoke up from behind Gene. “Why’d you leave? You rose from enlisted to the Special Unit in record time. You were a symbol of honor.”
Gene stopped, then turned and faced the stranger.
He breathed deeply, then exhaled slowly.
He lifted his sleeve and began untying his armband. “They use us like game pieces. Turn young people into killing machines, then send them out to sow chaos and fear. Tear up all the remnants of our past, brick by brick, until we forget where we came from. All so a few thousand rich scumbags can live forever inside of machines.”
He clenched his fist. “While Primes sit in their domed cities chasing immortality, hard-working people all over the world freeze, starve, and get ripped apart by demons.”
His face became a mask of rage. “And instead of finding a way to protect the people stuck in the Open, the Coalition just taxes and abuses them. Then, when the people get too rowdy, they send us in to silence them. ‘Seekers.’ The bloodhounds of the coalition.”
He raised his arm to reveal his Seeker tattoo. “I got tired of being their whip. The people of this world deserve better than us.” He dropped his arm.
The stranger laughed. “So you think a life of aimless floating does more good for the world than serving as a Seeker? You’re out of your mind.”
Gene turned to open the door. “You might be right.”
He stepped into the hall in a cloud of steam, then slid the door shut behind him.
He made his way at an easy pace through the bath house back to his locker, taking careful note of faces as he passed them. He saw none that he recognized.
In the locker room, he changed back into his clothes and reclaimed his possessions, then tossed the towels and robe into a wash bin. He made his way to the check-in counter and dropped his key and sandals off with the masked figure at the desk. It was a different attendant than before. Or perhaps a different mask. Gene couldn’t tell.
When he stepped onto the bath house steps, the sun sat high in the sky. As he approached the gardens, he turned and spotted the Seeker standing in a white robe on an upper balcony of the bath house.
The stranger seemed to be speaking to a raven perched by his side – most likely a Seeker Mage in disguise. After a few moments, the dark bird took to the air. The stranger’s gaze lingered on Gene for several seconds, then he turned and walked back into the bath house.
Gene looked up and saw dozens of birds soaring overhead. From this distance, he had no way of knowing which were birds, and which were spies. He shook his head and stepped into the tangled gardens. In there, at least, he could hide and try to come up with a plan.
He navigated the maze of passageways, taking care to spend as much time under the vine-wrapped arches and trellises as possible. He had spent many hours wandering the shadowed paths in preparation of a time like this. Few people in Yamafumura knew of as many hiding places among the garden growth as he did.
After several minutes, he turned a tight corner, ducked under a low tangle of vines, and found himself face-to face with Neon. Gene reached for the knife strapped to his hip and prepared to lunge at the boy.
Neon raised his hands. “Wait. I’m here to help. There are Seekers here – a lot of them. We need to leave. Tonight. I can get us both out. But only if you don’t make a scene.”
Gene kept one hand on his knife. “This is all part of your plan with the old man, isn’t it?”
Neon shook his head. “No, that’s ridiculous. Seekers are just as bad for us as they are for you. Besides, they sent a whole squad. They’ve got an airship and everything. This isn’t about you.”
Gene relaxed and nodded. “They’re escalating. With winter coming, Freehold leadership won’t do anything to jeopardize the incoming food supply. And the Resistance can’t move easily once the snow sets in. So the Seekers will have a whole season to shake things up here undisturbed.”
Gene sighed. “How did you find me?”
Neon smiled and gave a short laugh. “I put a tracking spell in your boot. You got so distracted by our fight that you didn’t even think to check.”
Gene rolled his eyes and sat on a nearby wooden bench. He removed his boots and searched them until he found a small piece of folded paper in one of the hidden pockets. When he smoothed it out, he saw the tracking spell written clearly in black, iridescent ink. He tore the paper in half, watching as the spell dissipated into a mist of many colors.
He glared at Neon, but the boy’s only response was a casual shrug.
Gene pulled his boots back on. “Alright, what’s your plan? I’ve already crossed paths with one of them, and he raised the alarm. And now, I’m pretty sure they’ve got magi watching from the air.”
Neon nodded. “That’s no problem.” He took a small pack off of his back and opened it up, digging around inside until he pulled out the old collapsible samurai helmet Gene had been looking at in the old man’s shop. He laid it on the ground at Gene's feet along with the detachable mask and a set of travel clothes.
Neon looked up at Gene. “Put these on and head straight to the old man’s yurt. The mask will buy you a few minutes. The old man can hide you from the Seekers until nightfall.”
Gene picked up the mask and gazed into its furious eyes. “Why are you helping me?”
Neon stood up. “Because, Artemis told me to.”
Gene looked up at Neon. “This doesn’t mean I’m planning to go with you.”
Neon shrugged. “Like I said, this isn’t about you. I’m going to the Hidden Village, and I’m taking the heartstones with me. Because that’s the only way I’ll ever find Artemis. I was hoping you’d come with me, but if you don’t, that won’t stop me.”
He turned his back to Gene. “I don’t care what you do, but I still suggest making a deal with the old man. You’ll have a much harder time getting out of here without his help.”
Neon’s form faded into the dense growth of the garden as he walked away.
Gene waited for several minutes, weighing his options on the shadowed bench. He didn’t have many. If he tried to run to his yurt to claim his pack, the ravens could track him. If he tried to wait until evening, there would be Seekers posted all over Yamafumura.
The old man was his only option. And Gene knew his price. Of course, Gene could just agree to the job and then bail, but had it really come to that? Besides, Neon had spoken with a conviction that made it hard to doubt him. He either had some kind of connection with Artemis, or he was a total lunatic. But there was really only one way to find out.
After a few minutes, Gene changed into the new clothes and donned the samurai helmet, then ducked under the tangle of vines to return to the garden path. He wove his way through the labyrinth of greenery, taking care to avoid getting close to anyone until he emerged on the north side.
When he stepped out into the sun, he glanced around and didn’t spot any Seekers – at least none that he could immediately identify. He set off toward the black yurt with the oni painted on its door.
He kept a steady pace as he wandered along the crowded path to avoid giving the impression he was in a hurry. And as hard as it was, he avoided the temptation to check behind him for pursuers. A few times, he saw birds take flight as he drew near, but he just kept walking.
Soon, after what felt like an eternity, he found himself standing before the oni-painted door. When he raised a hand to knock, it opened, and the old man stood just inside, beckoning Gene to enter.
Gene took a breath, then stepped into the yurt as the old man closed the door behind him.
Maybe You Can Do Me A Favor?
This story is only possible thanks to the generous support of Kickstarter backers and community members like you.
If you’re enjoying this story, I have a request: please share it.
Post it in your favorite Discord communities
Send it to your friends and family who might enjoy it
Share it on LinkedIn, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter
Promote it to other readers on Substack by restacking it in a Note