He’d been born first, of all of them. There was Motherwater, and then suddenly, there was him – no gender then, of course, but that didn’t matter. One with Motherwater and so new he knew nothing, he floated on her surface in playful, weightless joy, and then it got even better: he saw things and mimicked them.
Sundered Ones were made to be fluid, malleable, to take in all things and become all things. He reveled in the shape of great wings over the water and the long, limp blades of grass along the water’s edge, in swimming with fins alongside deeply confused fish, and the amazing shapes water made when flung through the air. How much time passed this way (in perfect communion with Motherwater, so never alone), he did not know. Then he one day, he saw clouds overhead, really saw them, and thought them beautiful. So Aakesh tried to mimic them.
It had not gone well.
He’d been unable to match their color outright, and certainly unable to match their form, and his child-like frustration with the blobby, water-black mess he made was responsible for what came next: Bakura and all the second-born came out of the water just at his moment of ripest frustration. His anger – his tantrum – was the first awareness with which they joined.
Of course, there was no real anger. This was babyish frustration, immature and still half a game, and so the second-born (so many of them; Aakesh was the only first-born, and Motherwater never explained why that was) took it upon themselves to act out his play-rage at once. They attacked each other, splashing and beating and silent but with the feel of laughter and roars, diving into the mud and bursting out in volcanic explosions of ridiculous ire.
Aakesh was one with them as he was one with his mother, and the shock of their rage shocked him out of his. Oh; but they dug great dents in the muddy pieces of land that rose here and there like (he thought much later) feminine curves. Oh; but they splashed so wildly they scared birds and fish and even little bounding creatures that lived on land and ate the grass. Oh; oh! Play-rage brought damage.
Moved to pity and urged to heal, he descended on those islands and smoothed the holes, caught up with fish underwater and whispered them calm, flew with great birds (now he could fly; it just happened one day) back to their nests to reassure them their babies were safe. And in the midst of this, the third-born came.
Even more brethren sprang from the water like sparks from a flame, greater in number than second and first combined, and in their moment of first awareness, the third-born knew Aakesh at his moment of greatest compassion, and that became their immediate joy.
Healers; lovers; comforters. Third-born (this “tier” nonsense was just insulting) were beautiful.
Three entire generations of siblings filled the sky, and Aakesh (feeling more complete than it ever seemed possible) continued restoring the muddy earth to what it had been. Days passed; he realized he could shape the land and make it even lovelier than it already was. New joy! Muddy, delicate, detailed joy – and just then, the fourth-born arrived.
They surged from the water and into awareness at the peak of his intricate creativity, and they took to that like fish to water and clouds to sky. They had no fingers (or tentacles or anything like them) because they had never seen them, and so the fourth-born mimicked bird-claws and fish’s tails and began to shape the little mud-hills the humans would someday call landfall. The fourth-born built entire birds’ nests out of mud and decorated them with fish-fins and curves like waves and enormous ovals like water-drops. Detailed as roots and the endless water’s gleam, they relished variety, and joyed to make things to look different from the way they began.
All Sundered Ones started out shaped like puddles, growing to incorporate all they saw (with the exception of clouds – Aakesh still couldn’t manage that). They transformed both sky and water into a riot of color and shape. But Aakesh was not satisfied yet. All the creations made by the fourth-born were small, but Motherwater was huge. Would she not love large things made as gifts to her?
He tried to make enormous mud-clouds and failed. Clouds were hard. That was all right. Joy and ravenous fun-fights and tender compassion flashed through all the Sundered like light on water, simultaneous and perfect, and filled with the enormousness of his brethren, Aakesh acted on his new idea (which came as close to new as any idea from the Sundered could be): he would move Motherwater’s very bones.
Power (and the ease of it) belonged to him the way wetness belonged to water, and it was neither a strain nor surprise to be able to do as he wished. The land shook, tiny mud-hills trembling as he began his work (and the fourth-born laughed when their creations fell down because all they had to do was make them again and even better).Deep below the water, the churn of mud and muck came together in the vortex of his will, and land rose from the water into wider, smoother mud-hill shapes than ever before. Huge, still in the form of those islands (for he’d never seen land take any other shape) but broad enough for his entire family to dance across, it towered over the black water, and just as he exerted his maximum effort, the fifth-born came along.
Strong, strong, strong, the fifth-born carried strength in their limbs and a love of moving mass that made the second-tier seem weak, and they were not stupid, not the way the humans thought, but steady, even, calm, as Aakesh had been at the moment of their birth. Their peace and joyful focus spread across the hearts and souls of Sundered brethren like oil over water, a soothing balm.
And they were complete, so complete, and Aakesh joined them all. He fought with the second-born, healed with the third, shaped and created with the fourth, and helped the fifth move landmasses in a slow game across Motherwater’s whole face.
And somewhere in this time of completion came the last-born.
Quimby, Gorish, many others with no names and no genders (sentient beings lacked those, so the Sundered had not mimicked them) rose from the water in terrifying splendor and joy, and as Aakesh indulged in the best of every generation, so the last-born took on the features of them all.
The humans considered them too pitiful to label. The humans saw them as weak and stupid and worth so much less. Aakesh knew them to be the greatest of all, and the most worth protecting.
The last-born had taken the brunt of the humans’ foolish greed far more than anyone else. Seen as small and weak, they were in fact the most precious – and the last children Motherwater spat out, as if with their creation, with their birth, she knew her children were complete.
And they had suffered. Suffered.
Gorish, compassionate and clever, spending his life over and over for undeserving humans. Quimby, creative beyond ordinary ken, throwing herself among the humans again and again so she could see their imaginative souls. And Aakesh could not save them when the humans came.
Sundered. It was a human term meaning severed, cut off, broken apart, given to them as a mockery of the unity they’d lost. Severing their ties even a little severed their will, their wholeness, their abilities to think for themselves and even change shape. They were locked in the forms they’d taken, and horribly alone. What little planning and communication remained to them was not enough to overcome Jason Iskinder’s too-clever commands.
In the end, it was Iskinder’s arrogance that provided freedom. He’d thought of nearly every way to stop Sundered Ones from saving themselves – but he never considered that a human (his own flesh and blood, no less) might do it in their place. It still took four hundred years to bring to life, four hundred years to outwit Jason Iskinder’s dark legacy.
Aakesh’s plan was bold and dangerous, but the only other option was death. It was based on the gleanings of human plans he’d seen, on these humans’ understanding of the past, on how human understanding evolved and adapted from generation to generation. It required knowledge of human psychology, empathy with human emotions, until some days, Aakesh nearly felt human. Felt separated from his brethren even more than the Hope had already done. And on those days, he wept. Small Sundered Ones (those not claimed) surrounded him then as they could, cramming themselves around him as if trying to become one large puddle together. One.
At his lowest, his most alone, he’d considered death for himself (would returning to Motherwater really be that bad, after all?) – but he could not consider it for the little ones – the last-born. Their deaths, he could not abide… and so, he learned deception.
He learned sadism and greed.
He learned what it was to be proud and arrogant, and learned the weight of shame and guilt and sorrow.
He learned terrible things, which his brethren shared because what one knew, all knew. And yet it was not the same. He was not the same.
These terrible truths remained simple fact to his brethren, impossible to comprehend, but to him, they were reality. They were a foreign acid of thought-patterns, burning in his psyche.
Aakesh was never alone; none of them could be alone. Yet he was alone. No Sundered One knew humans the way he did, nor could they.
He did not want them to. These sour truths were flavors he alone would swallow.
Enough. Aakesh waved his hand and produced paints. It was so easy to form the air, the earth, the very molecules of Harry’s shed skin-flakes into the perfect set of colors.
Harry gaped at them.
“Will these suffice?” Aakesh asked deadpan, privately delighted with his success and well-aware the sarcasm would go right over Harry’s head.
It did. “Buh,” Harry said, or something similar (which Aakesh found adorable, though he’d never say it out loud). “They… they’re gorgeous!”
Aakesh didn’t bother to look down at the twelve perfect jars of vibrant, magnificent color. He knew they were perfect.
He did allow himself to smile.