The room was the same as before. What had he expected? That it would have changed by itself? Mark felt foolish. They all sat themselves in the couch and the chairs. It was Rowen who broke the silence.
“I don’t know your names,” he said.
“Oh, we’re so sorry!” Mark said, feeling his cheeks grow warm. “I’m Mark Halley, This is Andrea Lin, Ron Clark, Sam Terence, Jake Murphy,”
Rowen inclined his head to each of them. “Now what is it that you wish to know?”
“What was the creature that attacked us?” Mark asked. That seemed like a good place to start. After all their kindness, how would it sound if they were to ask, “What the hell are you?” Nope. The creature was the better option.
“We call it a Wyrse,” Rowen replied.
“A what?” Mark had never heard of such a creature.
“A Wyrse,” Rowen paused. “It is a predatory creature, but also a parasite.” he frowned slightly. “Somewhat similar to what your race call a vampire, which is the closest approximation in your planet that I can find.”
“But- but that’s just stories,” Jake said. “They don’t really exist.”
“You seem to have a lot of literature about it,” Rowen said, again that expression of mild curiosity on his face. “So many legends and stories about something that doesn’t exist?”
“Yes, well,” Ron said. “We’re like that, but you’re saying that this thing is like a vampire?”
“It’s slightly more complicated than that,” Rowen said. “but ultimately they’re both parasites, so I guess so.”
“How do we kill them?” Jake asked. “Just like they say in our stories?”
Mark was surprised at how enthusiastic Jake sounded.
“Anything that can kill a man can kill them.” Rowen said. “They fear strong sunlight though, and stelor, a metal found in these planets.”
“What about the stake through the heart?” Jake persisted. “That’s the standard way in all the books.”
“That ought to kill anything, I should guess,” Rowen said, a glimmer of a smile on his face.
“And do they- “Mark paused, trying to think of anything he had heard or read about vampires. “Do they turn others into… like them?”
Rowen nodded.”Not exactly, but in a way, yes. Like I said, they’re parasites.”
There was something cold in Rowen’s voice as he spoke the last words.
“The one who attacked us,” Ron said, “He seemed to fear your father, he certainly made no attempt to attack him”
“Probably because of the stelor spear he carried. Ansell is a big coward anyway.”
“Ansell? Is that his name?” Andrea asked, sounding surprised. Mark was equally surprised. How could a parasitic creature have a name? Who named it? It also led to the possibility that the creature might also be intelligent.
“Yes,” Rowen replied.
“He got a friend of ours.” Sam said.
“I’m sorry,” Rowen said.
“Your father,” Mark asked, “Why did he say that he had to go because of what we told him? What did he mean?”
“Before I answer that, I think you should know something about this planet system and about us,” Rowen said. “I’m sure you’re curious. We are the natives of this planet system and we are born with certain special abilities.” he paused. “We are all born with a heart shaped stone over our hearts. We call it the pendant because of its shape-”
“I don’t-” Mark started.
“The pendant is part of our body and gives us certain abilities.” Rowen interrupted. “You may have wondered how my father vanished. And how we healed you.”
“You mean this pendant does it?” Sam asked, sounding awed. Mark was equally astonished. A magic stone in their bodies? That sounded unbelievable.
“Yes,” Rowen asserted. “We can do almost anything we want. The pendant has also given us certain protections. One of them is that wyrses cannot use our bodies to perpetuate themselves.”
“I see,” Mark said, beginning to understand how the wyrses survived and also what Rowen was saying. “They cannot use you, so they were probably dying out,”
Rowen nodded. “Yes. They were trying to survive, but their population was dwindling. They cannot reproduce, you see; they need others, who have approximately the same physiology.”
“And now we turn up, with two hundred people, two hundred potential Wyrses,”
Mark didn’t know what he felt anymore. A parasitic creature that killed and used the bodies to keep itself alive, and a mystical race which was immune to them. There was an uneven balance of power, and now they were caught in it, and he wasn’t foolish enough to think their arrival would have no impact. Yet, could they choose to leave? When they didn’t even know where the nearest habitable planet was? Or even if there was one?
“Two hundred people who will die if we turn you away,” Rowen said quietly.
“So if we stay, we will be killed by wyrses; if we go, we will die of starvation; doesn’t seem like much of a choice,” Sam said, his voice equally quiet.
That was an accurate summary of their situation. Everyone was looking worried, even Jake, who no longer looked ebullient.
Damned if we stay and damned if we don’t.
Mark could feel despair fill him again. What was the right choice to make? Was there even one?
“Is there any way to defend ourselves against the Wyrses?” he heard himself ask.
They weren’t soldiers, except a few. Most of them didn’t know weapons except perhaps the basics of using one. He doubted if even the ones with military training knew anything more. But they at least had to learn to defend themselves.
“There is.” Rowen stated softly, but with conviction. “And if you decide to stay, we shall try our utmost to teach you how and to protect you.”
“To protect us?” Mark asked, hope burgeoning within him. “Will you be able to do that?”
“Like I said, we do have some abilities. My father has gone to talk with the others of our kind. We will be able to offer you a limited amount of protection, but ultimately, you will need to learn to defend yourselves against them.”
“And you’ll teach us how?” Andrea asked.
“Yes,” Rowen replied.
“Is it really our decision, though?” Andrea asked again. “This is your world, your planet. Without your permission, we cannot settle here.”
“That is what my father has gone to decide,” Rowen said. “It has to be a unanimous decision,” he sounded regretful, causing Mark’s heart to plummet. “That is how it has been with us for centuries. But I’m hopeful that we’ll be deciding in favour of you.”
“Aren’t you part of that decision?” Ron asked.
“My father knows my wishes,” Rowen said. “Even this place isn’t safe from Wyrses, and they aren’t the only predators in these woods. One of us needed to stay, and he is more eloquent than I. He’ll plead your cause better than I could.”
Mark tried to tamp down the hope that had started to unfurl its wings within his chest. He cast about for a topic for discussion that wouldn’t involve Wyrses or their fate.
“This pendant of yours,” he asked, “What else can it do?”
“Even we do not know all of its powers,” Rowen replied, “but at least one of you must have wondered how it is that we speak your language.”
Mark stared at him. startled, It hadn’t occurred to him. And yet, hadn’t it been one of the major concerns he had when they were about to leave the ship?
“It never occurred to me,” he admitted. “So it helps you understand and speak other languages?”
“Any thing else?” Jake asked. “I mean, does it make you immortal or something?”
“In a way.” Rowen said.
“In a w- Immortal? You mean you don’t die?” Mark asked, stunned in a way he hadn’t believed possible, though really nothing should surprise him any more.
“Not naturally,” Rowen said. “but if the pendant is separated from our body, yes, we do die. Also, we can be killed, the same way that Wyrses can be, or you can be. We’re not immune to weapons.”
“Separating the pendant from your body is possible?” Jake asked before Mark could process this information. In a way, it was good to know that these people weren’t invulnerable. “I thought it was part of your body.”
“It is,” Rowen clarified. “Just like an arm or a leg.”
“Oh,” Jake said, looking like he understood.
“So you don’t die naturally,” Andrea said. “Do you grow old?”
“If we choose.” Rowen said.
“If you- you mean you don’t grow old if you don’t want to?” Ron’s voice was high.
“That’s right.” Rowen seemed to have no inkling of the shock he had caused them. “Once we are past adolescence, we can choose whether to age further or not. If at a certain age, we decide we don’t want to age further, we won’t.”
“Eternal life and eternal youth,” Mark said, “and a lot of other powers to boot,” he paused, “do you need food to survive?” He was curious.
“Of course we do,” Rowen smiled.
“So you can die of starvation?” Sam asked.
“It is possible I suppose, though it has never happened to any of us,”
“Well, at least it’s possible,” Mark muttered. “One more question, if you don’t mind- how old are you?”
“I stopped my age at twenty eight. Had I not, I would have been over two hundred now.”
“That’s – old” Mark said.
He didn’t know what else to say. Two hundred? How old did that make Swar? Was this all real? He surreptitiously dug his nails into his own palms. The pain was real enough. Was Rowen pulling their legs? There was nothing they did so far that wouldn’t be possible with advanced technology. And yet, there was a part of whom who knew that this was real, and true, that Rowen meant every word he said.
What did it mean for them was something he dared not even contemplate. Even if they were allowed to stay, what would be their position in this world?
Of course, it was good that they would not be in charge. They didn’t have a stellar record of being in charge of a planet, did they? But that didn’t mean Mark was happy with the idea of being treated as slaves. True, nothing in Rowen’s or Swar’s demeanour had indicated they had anything like that in mind, but the thing was these people had no reason to let them stay, only to ask them to leave. So, if they were allowed to stay, there had to be a catch involved. Perhaps the group of all powerful beings got tired of having no one to boss over.
Rowen stood up suddenly.
“Father’s back!” he exclaimed. “And he has brought all of them here!”
“Who has he brought?” Mark asked, standing again.
“The other leaders. Those of my kind. They’ve decided what to do.”
“What to do with us, you mean,” Mark said drily, wary though perhaps he had no reason to be.
“You could say that,” Rowen said.
“How do you know they are here?” Andrea asked, “I don’t hear anything.”
“I can feel them,” Rowen replied.
Of course. Mark was feeling on edge now, his heart hammering in his chest. They were all on their feet and standing as close to each other as possible. Andrea’s hand found its way into his and he gripped it hard. She returned the pressure of her fingers, and he felt inexplicably comforted.