He knew what they thought: those men upon that quiet hill on that fateful day of reckoning — sun spilling bright and relentlessly cheerful before pitched nightfall, the last light before the dawn of awareness.
He knew what they all thought; these sage, solid, washed out pontificates secure within the decaying spin of their petty world. When he cut and ran from the Vortex, the thud-thud-thud of his hearts like drum-beats within his ears, he knew they had deemed him a coward. Unfit. Unbecoming material for Time Lord.
As if there was truly any such thing.
What they didn’t know (and what he could never bring himself to admit to), was that he had no choice in the matter. It was either run, or look upon the laughing countenance of madness that so resembled his grandfather, a well-kept secret and a breathing terror within his life — and face the idea that this man would be himself. A perfect replica of a man that breathed insanity with every rattling intake of air. A man he had been forced to spend many a long day with, out of duty, out of purpose — out of false obligation. A man who told him of terrible deeds and even more terrible ideas that had never borne rotten fruit.
He would never be him.
He could never be him.
So out of denial, out of helplessness in the face of what would be, he ran, but not from what he saw. Not from the future as was told in the multi-dimensionally-folded glass. He ran from the fear that loomed within his chest — hard, unrelenting and yet as inevitable as his own beating hearts. He ran because he could, if only for a little while. And he told himself that Time could be rewritten.
Even if he didn’t believe it.
“I don’t know why he must tag after us so,” was the bored, noxious snipe of Theta’s elder brother. “He is at least a decade younger — and frightfully…unlike us.”
“Except in fearlessness, exceptional feats of brilliance, stultifying decorum and enough sense to make it all work, Brax?” Was the retort, a little smug and self-effacing — but that was Koschei’s best friend and co-conspirator for you. “You’re just jealous, really. Admit it. He received higher marks in temporal theory, theoretical mathematics and quantum phase-shifting, and beat out your record grade. You’re not even invested in any one of those things. You are only put out because Kosh beat you at the academic game. Hell, he is accelerating past all of us except Ushas…and he’s half a decade younger than I am, but then, you’re a full decade older — so that excuse doesn’t work out as well as you imagine it does.”
“I just think — ” Braxiatel started to protest, only to be cut off by the cool, liquid voice of Ushas, her very tone dripping poisoned boredom. Out of all of them, Ushas frightened him the most — only because she never saw people when she looked at anyone — just chess-pieces to be moved about as easily as she put on her robes each morning. If not worse.
She actually cared about chess.
“This whole discussion is boring and pointless,” she hissed in an icy, overly controlled monotone. “Koschei is one of the Deca. He has been since he first entered Academy. Petty jealousy is trite and unbecoming, Braxiatel. Hardly worthy of the Time Lord you will become. You have other things to triumph in, things that hardly interest the rest of us. Without one of us…”
“…none of us,” Theta said firmly, further lightening the heaviness that had started to weigh on Koschei’s hearts. “Pieces of a puzzle. Strengths and weaknesses in perfect balance. Save the debates for the mock Council arguments, Braxxie. Accept your loss here as a gain for your future. After all, everything he masters serves to make you look good in the end. Another notch in your belt for when you become Lord President.”
“Always so blasphemous, Thee,” Braxiatel complained, their voices fading towards the corridors as they moved the impromptu meeting from the Academy Garden Dome back to the Academy proper. “And don’t call me Braxxie —”
Koschei waited behind the thick trunks of the Liall’ieh trees, struggling for breath against the double thuds of his hearts, the thundering of them in his ears almost drowning out Theta’s teasing laugh as they walked away from the Deca’s safe haven. The book he had brought slid out of his fingers and he contemplated fate and the chance of stumbling across the meeting without that fate.
He wished he could be angry. Angry that they had chosen to leave him out of this discussion, take away his chance to say his piece — but all he could feel was warm. Warm and slightly lighter (that wretched Mirror never very far from his thoughts, much less what it contained). Theta had stood up for him. Even Ushas in her own, odd way. He was truly at home. He truly belonged. They didn’t see what he dreaded every time he gazed upon his own scrawny, overly small and pale countenance. They saw one of them — and in his world, that was more than enough. That was just as it should be.
Nothing could stand between them. Nothing.
The fact that Borusa had laughed at him was what finally decided him.
It wasn’t intended as an insult or even a slight — but the tone of his mirth indicated that he thought the matter was closed. Over and done with. Any further questions, queries or curiosity would lead anywhere from mild rebukes to disciplinary action. And considering Koschei was asking about one of the Lost Relics, he could lay a pretty heavy guess as to which one it would be.
“It was deliberately placed by Rassilon himself so no one would find it. The coordinates…well, it is like the maps that pirates of old would draw of the locations of their so-called ‘treasures’, which usually turned out to be fake. Those coordinates don’t exist. They are not possible. Time Lords far older, wiser, more experienced and cleverer than you have tried and failed to find this Artifact, some with those exact points you have in your hands. A deadly and dangerous Artifact that was lost for more than a few good reasons, I am sure. The Dark Times are not to be trifled with, my dear Koschei. Let their failures be a lesson. Don’t look for trouble when it will be more than happy to find you without guidance.”
To compound the injury Theta had also tried to warn him off of it. His golden champion. His best friend and co-conspirator in all things. His brave, dashing and handsome companion — the best of all of them, even as he could be the worst — he tried to beg him off of it, out of a misplaced sense of fear and worry. For what, Koschei could not fathom, but he furthered the disappointment by echoing Professor Borusa’s own words, even if in a roundabout fashion. The words ‘impossible’, ‘undoable’ and ‘dangerous’ floating from Theta’s lips to fall upon Koschei’s disbelieving ears.
His Theta did not believe in him. He didn’t even consider it remotely possible. The one person Koschei had thought would be at his side through any and all things…and he didn’t believe in him. He had become what they had sworn they would never be —
lying back on the red, red grass at the Lungbarrow estate, youth in their limbs and hope in their hearts for a future that was free of the shackles of the ancient, fettered minds around them. They would sail the stars and discover so much more beyond what they could be here, just the two of them forever, with Forever at their feet —
and just by his speech, the worry in his eyes and the twist of his lips, Koschei could feel that childish dream shatter like so much Destallent crystal. He had been a fool. They would never leave, never be free. They would never break the mould of their forbearers and become something New, something More. Not together anyway.
His hearts were breaking and for the first time in a long time, the shadow of that twisted image within the Vortex Mirror rose up to smother him. There was no golden champion to help him break away from it. They were not opposites of the same pole. He didn’t want to think of what that may truly make them. He just knew he wanted to be more than what he was. And he didn’t want to do it alone, even if that looked to be the only way it would come about.
He wanted to be what they had promised each other two decades ago in that long, red grass. He wanted that feeling back, that security. He would never have it again. Even if he proved Thee wrong. Even if he proved them all wrong, he would never see goodness and happiness reflected back at him.
There was no winning here. There was no losing. Now there was only one thing — to prove he could master these coordinates, these directions to ‘no-where’ and ‘no-when’. To prove he was right. He could walk away now, but he would never know — and worst of all, it would change nothing. He had no choice.
He told himself that as he slipped out of the student quarters that night and stole a TARDIS from the Temporal Bay wing of the Academy. He kept telling himself that as he retraced the steps of their ancestors, the call of the Relic the only thing he could hear aside from the thud-thud that seemed to take residence within his mind. It was a distant noise and could be borne — but it was only on accepting that idea that he realized it had never left him. And it likely never would.
He let it guide him, the brilliance of his temporal engineering combined with the almost uncanny instinct that told him the points where the temporal shifts varied — the full story not marked to completeness on the crumpled, ancient pages of that diary of a long forgotten Time Lord. It was only when he relied upon those instincts that he knew how the (older, wiser, cleverer) Time Lords before him had failed — and why. The map was not complete. And fate had not guided their hands and minds. They had not been open to the possibilities that existed outside of the map itself and that had brought their doomed quests to an abrupt end…for some of them, that ending was fatal.
They would have been considered the more fortunate ones.
When he finally landed, he knew triumph and joy. The pure, exhilarated kind from a youth too far away (even as he deemed it too near), one he thought he would never taste again. It was only when he turned to share his elation with his best friend (that was not at his side as he should have been), that the triumph turned bitter, the joy to ashes. He had won. But he had not. He had shown himself to be better, greater than those who came before him. Though what was the point when there was no one to celebrate it with you?
His hearts seemed heavier than before, the turn of his thoughts darker as he finally stepped foot onto a planet that had less than two minutes to live. He had found his fate.
And his fate had finally (finally) found him.
The way back was more obscure.
He couldn’t think for all the pounding in his head — his hearts doing double-time inside his chest for no reason. No reason at all. There was no one here but him (something he had to tell himself again and again) — and the Relic. The Ancient Artifact known as the Dark Heart. Or at the very least, the odd compartmentalized mechanism that once held it.
And then there was the Voice…
‘But it is empty. It’s just a box.’
But it was not. It wouldn’t be. It never had been. An ancient Time Lord secret that he knew (the moment he touched it) should have stayed lost. Buried beneath the sands of another Time and Place. He had wanted (almost immediately) to return it — but he told himself (even as it was a lie) that there was no Time or Place to return it to. His bitterness, his hurt and rage forced him to keep it close, even as the bright, pure soul he had been, the one he had determined years ago (in front of a Mirror so bright and dark all at once), that he would remain, cried out at his helpless self-destruction.
But in the end (only after it was long over), he realized he truly had no choice. Fate had guided. Fate had decided. And the decisions that would come after would be his own, but not truly. Not in the way he had always believed.
Time Lords far stronger and older had not been able to combat the Nothingness that lived within the Box — and It hadn’t been made for them. There was only one in all the cosmos that It had been made for and It chuckled in Its soft, silent way as Its one and only true victim struggled against himself and the pride that had brought him to It. It would never reach the only place he called home (the Academy of the Decaying Youth), as It refused to be anywhere but within the Chosen One’s hearts, joined with the thrumming, the endless drumming inside his mind. It settled in, found Its place…and then promptly soothed the memories away from his mind.
Koschei remembered landing the TARDIS back in the Temporal Bay. He remembered lying down beneath his warm blankets, wrapped safe within the soft cloth confines of his bed mere seconds after he had left. He didn’t know why he would leave in the first place. Sure, discovery was important — but was it worth the risk of being lost forever — that was truly the question.
He didn’t remember erasing the TARDIS’ memory banks of the slow months of travel he had endured to reach that fateful destination. He didn’t remember systematically destroying every map that led to the Artifact.
And he didn’t remember why Theta’s lost faith, his worry and fear should crush him so.
He only became numb to the fact that it did.
The Darkness of his Hearts spread and grew…the Koschei of Before dying by degrees as he slept the sleep of the tainted innocent and frightfully young.
It would take weeks to see the change. And years before it settled in.
No one would remember the sweet, frightened genius that mastered the Halls of the Academy with little more than a bold set of hearts, a bright mind and a purity rarely encountered since the days before there were Time Lords. Soon, they would only come to know him as the ruthless student, unrelenting rival and bitter enemy to all who opposed his iron will both inside and outside of the Academy.
There was only one who remembered. One who held hope that his friend, his companion and co-conspirator in all things would come back to him. A faint, feckless hope. One that (in the end), was hardly of consequence.
He was no champion, golden or otherwise. He was no shining shore to be crashed against or rested upon. He was just Theta Sigma of the House of Lungbarrow, (acquaintance and semi-ally in the Deca), no more, no less. He was a mirage, a counterfeit piece in the long game — but one that must be suffered if Koschei was to succeed in all of his ambitions…and Koschei had many. When he became more of a hindrance than a help, he would be dealt with, but (like all of the Deca), he had his uses.
Strengths and weaknesses. The separate parts of a whole.
Love, happiness and wonder coalesced by slow, agonizing degrees into hatred, rage and contempt. The Time Lord who would become known as ‘The Master’ (an ironic twist on Theta Sigma’s fond teasing), would rise from the inevitable ashes left behind. But that was many years and far away, through the endless thrum of his blackened hearts and the sibilant whisper that lived now within his mind.
So many, many years…
Plenty of time Young One, plenty of Time.
But for the soon-to-be-Time Lord once known as Koschei, those years ahead couldn’t come soon enough.