Prologue - The First Dream
“The balance of forces is never so readily apparent than in the art of shaping momentum,” the voice of Elder Scribe Koromaho was cracked with age but otherwise vivid in Evolice Lovel’s quieted mind. “What force is introduced into our world must be returned to boundless peridom, inversely, what force is extracted must then be replaced.”
Evolice sat at a hardy wooden writing desk. Her left-hand rest upon an open tome, as her fingers traced the spiraling circles drawn upon its aged pages. Through shut eyes, Evolice could feel the pull of Koromaho’s soul, guiding her fingers in arcs around the page.
“In example, one may observe the fruit of the Kaobao tree. When the soft fruit falls, it becomes unmade by the ground below. However, a nimble kytra may borrow the force of descent, holding the fruit against gravity’s will.”
As Koromaho spoke in her mind, Evolice held her right hand inches above an ink-tipped quill. The feather danced freely upon a fresh sheet of synthpaper, recording every word Koromaho spoke.
“The kytra will pluck the fruit from midair, then return the force borrowed in the form of a gentle breeze. Thus, have many kytra enjoyed a sweet spring snack and taken the first step into shaping their world.”
Evolice’s finger found the edge of the page, Koromaho’s voice faded, and the quill fell lifeless to her desk. Evolice opened her eyes. Her office was dimly lit by a smokeless fireplace in the corner. The room was L-shaped, with a curved inside wall and several patterned rugs clothing the wooden floor. Her sizable darkwood desk and matching bookshelves took up most of one side, while the far end had a short round table and an assortment of art supplies for days when her son, Faeron, was out of school.
Evolice sat in a well-carved armchair, padded with a sky blue suede that matched the vibrant color of her eyes. She had thin brows and curly cocoa-brown locks that fell to the collar of her button-up blouse. Evolice turned the page in her tome and set the translated sheet aside. As she reached down to pull a clean sheet of synthpaper from her desk drawer, a fist-sized ball of turquoise light popped into existence, bobbing in the air just beyond her desk.
“Good afternoon Evolice,” said Serris, the citywide Index.
“Serris,” said Evolice cheerfully. “What can I do for you?”
“You have a call from Eamon,” said Serris. “He’s been on the line for some time, but you seemed engrossed in your work; I didn’t want to be a bother.”
“Thank you for your consideration,” said Evolice warmly. “I’ll take him here.”
The ball of light expanded and began to take on a human-shape. In seconds, Evolice was staring at a perfect image of her husband sitting comfortably in an armchair opposite her. Eamon was in well enough shape at thirty. His dark hair was trimmed short and parted by the comb he kept in the back pocket of his khaki dress pants. He had a thin but welcoming smile and an arched nose between fierce golden eyes.
“Hey, there you are!” said Eamon, sounding somewhat out of breath.
“What crisis are you averting now?” asked Evolice, knowing full well that today, of all days, would have Eamon in a non-stop bustle around the city.
“The anniversary committee called an hour ago,” said Eamon, clearly relieved at the chance to vent. “Apparently someone in planning screwed up and never looked at the tent sizes. Now we’ve got eighty-two large tents and only room for twenty-four.”
“Are they turning the peddlers back?” asked Evolice. “I can’t imagine they’re going to be happy about that.”
“No,” said Eamon, “they would not be happy at all. Which is why we’re moving all the small tents into the rings.”
“I’d imagine that was a logistical nightmare, but I’m sure the people will love it.”
“Well… maybe so, but I can’t imagine they’re going to be too happy about the blizzard.”
“The blizzard?” questioned Evolice. Sure enough, as she peeked through the blinds of the window behind her desk, she could see a storm of snow battering the glass. Though the illusionary snow didn’t stick to surfaces, it was coming down so hard that she couldn’t even see the building across the street. Festival goers would be all but blind in these conditions.
“Apparently the weather system has beef with one of the event organizers,” sighed Eamon.
“How does that even happen?” snorted Evolice, closing the circuscript tome on her desk and sitting back in her padded armchair.
“Apparently he was micromanaging her snowfall,” sighed Eamon. “You know how AI get around this age.”
“Well then, I suppose you’re on your way to talk her down?” asked Evolice.
“Indeed,” said Eamon. “Trams are backed up with everyone fleeing the storm, so I thought I’d just walk it. Rare chance to catch my breath.”
“And how’s Faeron holding up?” asked Evolice, realizing she hadn’t heard a peep from her nine-year-old son the entire call. “He’s being unusually quiet.”
“That’s because he isn’t here,” said Eamon cheekily. “Left him napping in my office.”
“I know, I know,” said Eamon, “but he’s been a trooper all morning. He crashed after lunch and I didn’t have it in me to wake him.”
“You know that room isn’t safe for a young Kytra,” said Evolice sharply. Even for Eamon, this was downright irresponsible.
“That boy isn’t waking up any time soon. You should have seen him,” assured Eamon. “Besides, anything he could get into is locked up tight, and Vox is on his way there as we speak.”
“Vox is home? Foul play!” complained Evolice. “You can’t just drop news like that while I’m angry with you! He wasn’t supposed to make it back until halfway through the week.”
“It’s the reason I called in the first place,” said Eamon, adjusting the collar of his black sweater. “I just got done talking to him. Said he couldn’t bring himself to miss the Opening Ceremony, not on the city’s tenth anniversary. Went on and on about how much it all meant to him. It was adorable.” Eamon paused, looking introspective for a moment. “He has a point though… ten years since this all started. Sounds crazy saying that, doesn’t it? Most of us haven’t felt the sun, the real sun, in ten years. We haven’t watched as the leaves change colors in Cropsun. Ten Years, Evolice…”
“Save the speeches for tonight, Mr. Host” said Evolice, smiling at his sweetness.
“Right,” laughed Eamon. “Well, I better get up to the—”
Evolice nearly screamed as a deafening noise split through her mind. It robbed her of all senses, and, for a moment, everything was dark. Her office was gone; her body was gone. She was formless in the darkness. There was suddenly a light behind her, and Evolice turned to see an obelisk. It was a towering monument made entirely of light, its smooth walls a shifting current of colors. Everything about the obelisk was beauty beyond words, except the great chasm down its center. The vein-like crevice was deep crimson and flared with tongues of blood-red light. Even in her formless state, Evolice could feel its unnatural power.
“Evolice… I ache.”
The voice called out from the Obelisk. It sounded neither masculine nor feminine. It wasn’t high nor low. Everything about the voice was perfectly average. Despite its clarity, Evolice was helpless to answer the voice. Just as quickly as it came, the vision cut out, and Evolice found herself back in the padded armchair of her study.
Evolice’s head throbbed, and, as her senses returned to her, she could see she wasn’t the only one affected. Eamon was gripping his forehead with one hand, his knuckles white from the pressure.
“Eamon, are you okay,” gasped Evolice, massaging her temple with one hand.
“I’m… yeah. I’ll live,” groaned Eamon. “What in the world was that?”
“I’m not sure,” said Evolice.
“But you saw it, too?”
“The obelisk? Yeah,” said Evolice, fighting to think straight through the pain. “Did it talk to you too?.”
“The Obelisk? You heard it speak?” asked Eamon, removing his hand from his pain-squinted eyes. “Guess I shouldn’t be surprised.”
“I suppose that means you didn’t?” concluded Evolice.
“No,” admitted Eamon. “I heard the crack and then silence… though, my ears are ringing now. What did you hear?”
“The same at first, a crack and then silence,” said Evolice, “but then the obelisk spoke. It called my name and said ‘I ache.’”
“I can relate,” said Eamon, rubbing his temple. “I can hardly keep my balance, but it doesn’t look like anyone else out here felt a thing. This must be kytra related.”
“Faeron!” cried Evolice, her blurred mind returning to her son, alone in Eamon’s office.
Eamon’s face shifted to a cold determined look. “I’m closer.”
“Call as soon as you arrive,” said Evolice, her heart pounding. “I’ll go find Mathas and make sure he’s alright.”
“Good idea,” said Eamon. “We can get this event recorded once we’re sure everyone is safe.” At that, the image of Eamon disappeared and Evolice was left alone in her office.
Evolice leapt from her desk, not bothering to sort her freshly penned notes. The world was spinning around her but she pushed through. She made straight for the door on the curved part of the wall and swept into the round reading room of Mathas’ Athenaeum.
The walls were lined floor to ceiling in neatly organized bookshelves. There were cozy chairs and couches scattered about the space, and, near the far wall, a spiraling stairwell led down to the second floor.
Evolice stumbled toward a narrow passage on her left. It was barely wide enough for two across, with more bookshelves on the left and a banister on the right. Just beyond the banister was a dropoff where towering stained-glass windows rose nearly the full height of the three-story building. The glass murals depicted grand moments from the greatest works of fiction. Through the paned silver helmet and fiery rainbow blade of Sir Eddicus the Worthy came a curtain of colored light that painted the bookshelves in its glow.
The narrow passage was rocking around Evolice, as if she were in a ship on a stormy sea. Evolice caught the banister and closed her eyes. Taking only a moment to steady herself, she rushed on as fast as she dared. As usual, the third floor, stocked with reference books and technical manuals, was vacant, and Evolice soon reached the Central Spire.
The hallway exited to a wide ring overlooking another round reading room. Evolice scanned the floor below for the unmistakable form of Mathas Grinward and quickly spotted him among the dozen or so people enjoying a peaceful read before a night of festivities.
Normally just under eight feet tall, Mathas was down on one knee, comforting a girl about Faeron’s age. Mathas was covered head to toe in frosty silver fur. He had long lanky limbs, wrapped in modest brown robes. The girl, meanwhile, was strong shouldered and athletic, with straight black hair cut to her shoulders.
Just looking at the girl gave Evolice the strangest feeling. Her mind was suddenly at war with itself. One half seemed to know the girl as if she were family; the other side was positive it had never seen her before. Evolice breathed deep and massaged her forehead. Whatever happened in her office must have done a number on her mind. This wasn’t like her at all.
A short way along the ringed mezzanine was a glass-tube elevator, wide enough to hold four or five people comfortably. Evolice approached the elevator and touched a blue-lit panel projected on the glass. At her touch, the glass molded itself into a doorway, allowing her inside. Once the glass had sealed behind her, Evolice said, “Second level, please,” and the elevator began its short descent.
When the door opened, Evolice bustled across the second floor reading room. Her migraine wasn’t as debilitating now, but it was still a formidable ache.
“Mathas,” said Evolice in an urgent but quiet voice so as not to disturb any readers.
The capillum turned and gave Evolice a smile. His face was long, his nose and black eyes twice the size of any human’s. If his head were aching like hers, Evolice couldn’t tell it from the warm look on his face.
“You saw it too, I suppose?” he said. “Then that makes the three of us.”
“Three?” asked Evolice.
“I was just telling Miss Lem that she and I had matching headaches,” said Mathas, motioning to the young girl, “isn’t that right, Auri?”
Of course! Even in this state, Evolice couldn’t believe she’d forgotten Vox’s daughter and Faeron’s best friend. Worse yet, that the girl was living with them while her father was away. Even now, as Evolice watched Auri fight back tears in her light brown, almost bronze, eyes, she had the same unsettling feeling. Her gut was certain something wasn’t what it seemed about Auri Lem.
“Mrs. Lovel, your head hurts, too?” moaned Auri through gritted teeth. “Does that mean you saw—” The girl cut herself short and closed her eyes tight as tears trickled down her cheek.
“Tell Mrs. Lovel what you saw dear,” said Mathas gently to the girl, his long hand on her strong shoulder.
“It was…” Auri began but trailed off, balling her fists tight in her lap. “I can’t!”
“It’s okay, love,” said Evolice sweetly, pulling a chair up beside the girl. “Just show me.”
Evolice took Auri’s hand in her own and raised her free hand to her grandmother’s blue-stone pendant, hanging from a silver chain around her neck. The old stone was cracked in several places, but as Evolice touched its glassy surface, she could feel the power welling inside. Closing her eyes, Evolice breathed deep, and with each breath she pushed away the thought in her mind until only the pain remained. In and out, Evolice breathed, in and out, and the pain receded. For a moment, her mind was entirely absent.
“Go on, do your best to remember what you saw,” said Evolice, her voice sounding far off, as if hearing herself through distant speakers.
“Okay,” said the girl.
Light flooded Evolice’s dark mind as she watched Auri turn toward the pearlescent obelisk. It was just as she had seen until Auri saw the crimson chasm running down the obelisk’s base. The girl was pulled hard and fast straight into the depths of the chasm. Like a great whirlpool, savage crimson light swirled all around her, it’s terrible power flooding what few senses the girl had in this strange place—
“No! Stop it!” cried Auri, tugging her hand from Evolice’s grasp.
The vision cut out, leaving Evolice’s head spinning with flashes of the crimson light. Evolice breathed deep, remembering who she was, where she was.
“Auri, Evolice,are you two alright?” she heard Mathas ask, as her sight slowly returned. Even kneeling beside her chair, he was still a head taller than Evolice.
Across the round reading room, an older woman shot the three of them a dirty look over the cover of a romance novel and shushed them loudly.
“I’ll be fine, thank you,” said Evolice, casting a concerned gaze over the girl whose cheeks were now trailing silent tears.
“Mathas,” whispered Evolice to the old capillum, “a word?”
“Of course,” said Mathas, rising to his feet, now towering over Evolice. They stepped aside, just out of earshot of Auri, near several shelves of colorful children’s books. There were dozens of copies of only a few unique books per shelf.
“What exactly did the vision show you?” whispered Evolice.
“Darkness at first,” said Mathas softly, “then a monument of light. It was damaged, I believe, cracked down the center. I hardly got a look at it before I regained my senses.”
“The obelisk spoke to me,” said Evolice. “It told me it was in pain. I didn’t know what to think of it until just now.”
“Because of Miss Lem?” asked Mathas curiously.
“She’s seen more than any of us,” whispered Evolice, “a crimson vortex within the chasm. It was… powerful, consuming. The obelisk, whatever it might be, is infected. It’s crying for help.”
“But what help do we have to offer?” asked Mathas.
“I’m not sure,” said Evolice. “I’m not even sure what it is. Perhaps the answer lies in some tome beneath Old Eredith.”
“At least we know what we’re looking for now,” offered Mathas. “And what of Auri? It would appear she is a kytra.”
“She is Vox’s daughter,” pointed out Evolice, “and she’s grown up in the constant company of kytra.”
Though its strange…” Mathas said, his brow furrowing. “She’s never seen light in the crystals. I wonder if this event had some impact, awakened something.”
“We’ll have plenty of time to explore the “why” and “how” of it later,” said Evolice. “Right now, I need you to check in with Eamon. Tell him what Auri saw, and make sure Faeron’s alright. I’ll stay with Auri in case this isn’t the end of it.”
“Good idea,” said Mathas, flitting off toward a narrow hallway leading out of the reading room.
Evolice returned to the seat beside Auri. There was a small table between them, and on it rested a book titled: Deity – Reign of Silence. Memories of the girl were flooding back now. Evolice recalled just over a week ago introducing Auri to her own favorite novel series, Deity.
“You’re already on Reigns of Silence?” said Evolice, impressed. If anything could distract the girl from all this, it might just be Deity. “Didn’t I see you on Den of Worlds this morning?”
Auri sniffed and wiped her eyes on her arm. She looked up to Evolice with a tough smile, hiding whatever pain was left. “Well yeah, I’ve been mostly just reading right here since you dropped me off. I only got up after I finished the third book and its a good thing there wasn’t another chapter because I would’ve wet the chair for sure.”
“I’m glad you’re enjoying them,” said Evolice. She had been about Auri’s age when the series first began, and she’d devoured every book the night of its release. It warmed her heart to see that same excitement in Auri’s bronze eyes. “So where are you now?”
“Dhark just learned he’s a demigod, not that anyone had doubts” said Auri; she snorted a bit, laughing. “Oh, and Jaeda was finally reunited with Maerik in Luthran.”
“Then they’ve finally met the deity tree,” said Evolice with a knowing smile. “What did you think?”
“Oh my goodness, it was the most incredible thing,” said Auri excitedly. Could you imagine seeing that in real life?”
“I don’t have to imagine,” smirked Evolice.
The young girl’s eyes grew wide. “Really?” she asked loudly. “You mean you’ve really seen it?”
“Shh, quieter,” shushed Evolice playfully. Several readers were glaring over their books. “Not the real thing, but I’ve seen close.”
“You have to tell me,” begged Auri in a whisper.
“I was only a few years older than you are now,” said Evolice, thinking back on herself at seventeen, before Eamon and the vision, before the world collapsed. “I was invited to a very fancy conference—”
She turned to find Mathas, tall and slender, rushing across the reading room. The capillum gestured toward an open table nearby. From his grim expression, she assumed this wasn’t going to be a conversation fit for Auri.
“One second sweetie,” said Evolice. She rose from her chair and went to the table where Mathas now stood waiting. Evolice pulled a chair out to sit, but Mathas caught her arm.
“It’s Faeron,” said the old capillum. “He’s somehow shattered the Host Stone.”
Evolice felt the blood rush from her face, and her lungs grew heavy like lead in her chest. “Is he—?” but she couldn’t even finish the question.
“Unresponsive, but breathing,” said Mathas softly. “He needs you, Evolice. Vox is on his way here with the boy now.”
“Vox?” asked Evolice. “Where’s Eamon?”
“There’s a situation over by Homewood,” said Mathas. “I don’t know the specifics, but it seems Bennehym’s boy is involved. Don’t you worry about any of that now. Vox will be at the shipment bay any moment.”
“Alright,” said Evolice, taking deep breaths. She needed to stay calm if she was going to be any help to Faeron. She gave Mathas a purposeful nod and strode across the reading room to the wide glass elevator. As she stepped inside, she could see Mathas speaking to Auri. The young girl beamed brightly and followed the capillum towards his office.
“Shipment Bay,” said Evolice, and the elevator began its descent. She passed through the first-floor foyer, where a school-aged boy was holding the sizable front door for a sweet-looking girl in short blonde pigtails, and entered a dimly lit rectangular room in the basement. On either side were large wooden sorting tables and several book trollies, spotted with assorted titles. The far wall was bare except for a set of sizable double doors that slid open at nearly the same moment Evolice’s elevator came to a stop. They revealed a well-lit tram. Inside was Vox Lem, dark-haired and well-built, holding the limp frame of Faeron Lovel in his arms.
“Get that table clear!” roared Vox, marching into the room.
“On it,” said Evolice, rushing to a sorting table on one side. She pushed aside several stacks of loosely organized books, making room for her ten-year-old son.
Vox gently rested Faeron on the wood, and Evolice finally saw her son’s face. The ten-year-old, normally a spitting image of his father, had gone entirely pale and was taken by tremors. His finger tapped, and his feet kicked wildly on the wood.
“Faeron,” gasped Evolice.
“I found him like this, surrounded by pieces of the Host Stone” said Vox. “Tried every damned thing I can think of but I can only see the light, I can’t....”
“You got him here,” said Evolice softly, “I can’t thank you enough.”
“Evolice…” said Vox, “you’ll want to see this as well.” Gently, he forced open Faeron’s eyelids. As Faeron’s cold blue eyes looked absently to the ceiling, vibrant amethyst light oozed through his irises. The light was slowly consuming all that was blue as it grew and spread like some sort of living organism. It looked just like when Eamon’s eyes had been stained gold, the day he was chosen as Host of the Patronage.
“I need space to work,” said Evolice, focused only on her son. Vox stepped away, and she took his place at the end of the table, near Faeron’s head.
With one hand, Evolice grasped her grandmother’s necklace, the other, she ran through Faeron’s bushy brown hair. Evolice reached down and kissed her son’s forehead.
“It’s alright, love,” she whispered. “I’m here. Let me in, show me what you see.”
In and out, Evolice breathed, releasing the aches of her body, releasing the worries of her mind. In and out went the last pangs of her headache. In and out went her heartache for Faeron. When fear and stress and love were all gone from her mind, there was only darkness. She was formless in the darkness, and in the darkness was a light. It was faint at first, like a flickering star in the heavens, but it quickly grew brighter, bigger, bolder, until it poured over the darkness like a great tsunami. Evolice was swept up by the light and pulled along like a fish in a current, past vibrant images, scenes from another life playing out around her.
Always, she saw through the same eyes. Moments became days, days became weeks, and weeks became years, as Evolice experienced a lifetime in flashing, fleeting glimpses around her, beautifully detailed but too brief to comprehend. And then, she saw something horrible. There was a flash of crimson power, like the flames in the chasm of the obelisk. The vision came to a crashing halt, and Evolice was thrown back into her body, in the basement of Mathas’ Athenaeum.
“Evolice,” cried Vox as she fell against the table, her legs weak.
“It’s not like Eamon’s vision,” said Evolice, breathing heavily. “His was quick, brief glimpses and whispered names. Faeron just witnessed a whole lifetime.”
“By Glavius,” said Vox, “his young mind must be entirely overwhelmed… Can you do anything?”
“I need to go back in,” said Evolice, determined. “I’m going to try and slow it down.”
She placed her hands on her son’s head, combing his hair with her fingers. Closing her eyes, she clutched her necklace and quieted her mind. When the darkness settled and the light returned, Evolice fought against its pull. She swam against the current, clinging to each scene as they passed, dragging them out as long as she could. For what felt like hours, Evolice fought, doing her best to slow Faeron’s relentless vision.
The end was just as jarring the second time around. She saw a figure cloaked in crimson fire, fearsome as the flames Auri saw. And then came a name, an impossible name, a name that Evolice knew well.
The vision ended, leaving Evolice on the verge of vomiting. When she opened her eyes, she saw her son, laying still on the table, his tremors gone. The boy’s breathing was slow and steady.
“You’ve done it,” exclaimed Vox, rushing to her side. “Are you okay, Ev?”
“I’ll be fine,” she said, though, in truth, she had never been more confused. The name she’d heard in the vision didn’t make any sense, but she couldn’t refute what she’d heard. “Vox, I need you to do me a favor.”
“Of course,” he said, giving her a worried look.
“Get Faeron home, and stay with him until Eamon gets back.”
“And where will you be?” asked Vox with a furrowed brow.
Evolice looked at her son, holding back a flood of tears. She had to be wrong. For her sake, for Eamon and Faeron, for every soul in the city, she prayed that she was wrong. Giving Faeron one last kiss, Evolice rose. “I need to go see Nylk.”
“I’ll come with you,” said Vox, “I can have Mathas see to the kids.”
“No,” said Evolice firmly. She looked at her old friend with a soft smile. “I need you here. If all goes well, I’ll be back in time for the ceremony tonight. We do have an anniversary to celebrate after all.”
“Right,” said Vox, eyeing her hesitantly. He went to the desk and hoisted Faeron back into his arms. “I’ll make sure he’s safe and cozy until you get back.”
“Thank you, Vox, for everything,” said Evolice. Vox carried Faeron to the tram, and she followed them to the door. “Your mother loves you Faeron, don’t you ever forget it,” she said, looking at her son slumber peacefully in Vox’s arms.
“Tonight then?” said Vox.
“Tonight,” she said, though the word felt hollow. In truth, she didn’t know when she would see her son again, and it tore her heart apart. Standing alone in the shipping dock, Evolice didn’t cry until the door of the tram slid shut.
Chapter 1 - The Kytra of Eredith
Faeron’s eyes were shut tight as he lay curled up on a couch in his father’s office. Footsteps approached and his heart skipped a beat. Would his dad fall for it? Several moments later, his question was answered as the front door of the office creaked open then shut. Faeron counted out the seconds in his head; one, two, three… all the way to thirty. When he was sure his father wouldn’t be coming back, Faron opened his eyes and sprung off the couch.
Eamon’s office was always grand to see. More than its size, or the fancy purple carpet, Faeron was always enamored by the artifacts. He darted between each of the standing display cases spaced along the walls and admired the many masks, statuettes, jewelry, and more. His favorite display held a pitch black ring with a glowing sapphire centerpiece. Beside the ring was a crystal pyramid, bigger than Faeron’s fist and reddish orange in hue. Its glow was much stronger, pulsing, like a little star inside the crystal. Brilliant as it was, this wasn’t the gemstone that Faeron was after tonight.
Faeron wandered to his father’s desk at the end of the carpet. There, on an ornate golden pedestal, rest the Hoststone. Beneath the glassy surface was a lightless void. Seeing it, Faeron always had the strangest feeling; it was like knowing that someone is watching you before you turn and see them.More than anything, he wanted to look back into the stone. No matter how hard Faeron tried to get a better look, his father never let him get too close. Tonight, however, his father wasn’t here.
Faeron put his nose right up to the orb, squinting deep into the darkness of the crystal. At first, he didn’t see anything. Then, deep in the void, a spark of light—
“Mr. Lovel? Are you with us?”
Faeron jumped suddenly back to the present. It had been a decade since that night, since his mother disappeared, and there hadn’t been so much as a sighting of Evolice Lovel. She had simply vanished. In that time the nineteen-year-old had become the spitting image of his father, tall and thin with messy dark hair and a strong arched nose. He sat, back straight, eyes closed in a comfortably padded seat.
“Lost in memory again?” came Mathas’s soft voice.
Faeron’s eyes were shut and, now that the memory had faded, his mind was growing quiet. Through the athenaeum walls, he heard the beating of music. The End of Highsun Bash was in full swing just beyond the athenaeum walls. With it, came a new set of challenges in his favorite game, Prophet’s Guard.
“Focus, Faeron,” said Mathas warmly. “Distraction does not benefit a kytra.”
“Breathe,” Faeron told himself. “Forget the stone, forget the game, just breathe. In… and out…. In… and out….” Faeron’s breathing slowed and his body went numb then fell away. With each inhale he focused on the stray thoughts, and with each exhale he released them. There was only darkness in his mind now, no thoughts or feelings, but the silence only lasted a second.
The light started faint, far off in the emptiness of his mind. It quickly grew brighter and larger until it was a great pearlescent wave washing through Faeron. He was caught in its brilliant white current, streaks of color shimmering all around him. In the colors he could see scenes painted in perfect detail. Some were simple sights, like an endless ocean in a streak of blue. Others were strange and alien. In a flash of green was a world of floating islands, crumbling and reforming over and over again.
“Good…” came a faint voice. It sounded many miles away, floating faint and distorted through the pearly stream. “What… you see…”
“Blue and green,” spoke Faeron into the stream around him. It was a trick Mathas had taught him only this semester, commanding his body to speak, even as his consciousness rode the current of peridom. He couldn’t feel his lips moving, but he knew the words were being spoken. “I see an ocean sprawling, then a sky full of islands, crumbling and forming again. Now, orange, a forest smoking and ashen. A fire has just died here.”
“Wonderf… Now show…” came his mentor’s voice, broken and barely recognizable. “Waking… meditation…”
Fearon’s heart skipped for a second and the light around him dimmed. “In… and out….” he told himself. He should have known Mathas would be testing him on this. “Okay Faeron, open your eyes.”
Faeron’s eyes batted open. He could still feel the rush of peridom in his mind, and every surface of the small rectangular room shimmered in its pearly light.
“Calm,” Faeron cautioned himself, “no distractions, only calm.”
“Steady. Hold it…” said Mathas, “just sixty seconds.” Unlike Faeron, the silver furred capillum had hardly aged in the last decade. He sat in a shaggy brown robe perched over his desk with his long fingers woven together. His sizable black eyes were locked on Faeron and for some time he simply sat and watched. “You can relax now, Mr. Lovel,” he said, finally breaking the silence. “Your waking meditation has come far this semester.”
Faeron grinned with pride and it was all it took to break the fragile connection. The light receded from Faeron’s mind, the aura in his eyes faded, and the classroom dimmed.
Mathas rose from his squeaky office chair and limped to the long table where Faeron and the other Kytra gathered most nights. Faeron sat in his normal spot at the very back of the table against a large window looking in on a dark and spacious workshop.
“I see you brought your journal,” said Mathas, pointing to the thin brown and gold book on the table beside Faeron.
“Yeah,” said Faeron. “I haven’t had much chance for one on one, but I was hoping I could ask you something.”
“What mischief is our friend Jakob getting himself into these days,” asked Mathas, knowingly. From his eager smile, Faeron could tell his mentor welcomed an open invitation to discuss the topic.
“See for yourself,” said Faeron, sliding the journal across the table to Mathas. “It’s not so much the ‘what’ of it I wanted to talk about. It’s more the ‘how much’ of it… if that makes sense?”
“Your dreams are getting longer again,” concluded Mathas, flipping through to the very back of the journal where the posts were lengthier, some taking up dozens of pages.
“It used to be so simple, a day as me, a day as him,” said Faeron. “Now, I don’t remember the last time I dreamt for less than a week. Sometimes, when I wake up, I can’t breathe… It’s like his memories and mine are crashing together, and I never know if I’m me or him. I just wonder, it’s been ten years and Jakob is only in his thirties. How long will it be until we see what chased my mom away? Will we be too late?”
“Faeron… I cannot imagine the weight of your burden,” said Mathas. “And to chronicle this all in such detail,” he flipped through the pages, “it’s truly inspiring. You’ve done right by Evolice, no matter what comes of your dreams.”
Faeron blushed, but the compliment couldn’t cure the ache in his gut. “That’s only what I remember of it. Most of the details are lost up here.” He shook his hands around his head imitating the stormy sea that was his memories of Jakob. Trying to pinpoint any moment in Jakob’s life was impossible. His memories were vivid and fierce like waves but too brief to make any sense of. “I just wish could see it all at once like my mom did, find the answers before it's too late to save her. I’m ready now, Mathas. I want to learn to shape my dreams.
“The stone your mother used to shape your vision was unique,” said Mathas, returning the journal to Faeron. “But seeing as it is your vision. There may be a way.”
“You mean, you’re going to teach me to shape?” gulped Faeron excitedly.
Mathas drummed his fingers on the table and looked past Faeron to the lifeless room beyond the glass."I’d say the workshop has gathered dust long enough," said Mathas. "What do you think?"
“Absolutely,” cried Faeron, positively beaming as he swung in his seat to peer into the workshop. “How long do you think it’ll take until I’m like her.”
“As I mentioned, your mother’s necklace was the source of her power,” warned Mathas. “Even then, she studied the old writings and practiced her shaping for over a decade before your dream. There is a long journey ahead, but you are finally ready to take that first step.”
Faeron pictured himself in the workshop, shaping the light just like his mother used to, moving objects with his mind and bending the laws of physics around him, but the image felt incomplete. “What about Auri?” asked Faeron. “Is she moving on to shaping as well?” He knew Auri still struggled with her deep meditations, and she’d never managed a waking one.
“That depends on how she does on her evaluation,” said Mathas matter-of-factly, “You, on the other hand, have just passed quite spectacularly. Congratulations, Faeron. Take a couple weeks to get settled into your classes and we’ll pick back up on the sixteenth.”
“Thanks!” said Faeron popping up from his seat. He snatched his backpack off the seat beside him and tossed his journal inside. “So, who’s next?”
“Miss Lem next, thank you.”
Mathas remained at his seat as Faeron shuffled around the table, his mind abuzz; he was finally going to be shaping this semester. “Thanks for talking about this stuff with me, Mathas,” said Faeron, pausing at the door for just a moment.
“It’s a pleasure,” responded Mathas and Faeron exited to the Athenaeum foyer.
The foyer was a round room with tables of neatly organized books lined around the outside. To Faeron’s left was a large glass elevator and there were narrow hallways to either side. The windows by the front door were filled with displays of books, but, as printed literature was uncommon even before the plague, the same six or seven covers would often sit in the display for months at a time.
There wasn’t a soul in sight this evening, except for Auri and Quinn, who were waiting near the elevator. They sat in comfortably padded chairs arranged around a squat round table. As Faeron shut the door to the classroom behind him, Auri was, as usual, nose deep in a book.
“So much for in and out,” she said, not bothering to look up from her reading. Auri was built as strong as her unruly temper. She wasn’t quite as tall as Faeron, but he had no doubt which one of them would come out on top if they ever got in a fist fight. Her straight black hair was plated in metallic bronze ends that perfectly matched the fierce color of her eyes. Auri was in a charcoal grey tank-top and athletic shorts, although one look at her tidy hair told Faeron that she hadn’t been at the rec center any time recently. More than likely, she was dressed for tonight. “We’re on a schedule you know.”
Faeron shrugged as he joined them and sank into the seat beside her, resting his backpack against his chair.
Quinn, meanwhile, was a year younger than Faeron or Auri and small by all accounts. He was slim, pale, and his hair was shaved on the sides with short orange curls on top. He wore colorful sweaters year-round and got along with most people, even if he wasn’t anyone’s best friend. “So, how was it?” he asked.
“You know the old workshop…?” said Faeron with a smile, sinking back into the comfortable chair.
“No way,” gawked Quinn, his purple sweater causing the green of his hazel eyes to pop. “You’re gonna shape this semester?”
“About time,” smirked Auri, setting her book down on the table. She looked pleased but not all too surprised by Faeron’s news. “You know, once you can move objects with your mind, you won’t have any excuse letting your dishes pile up in the sink.”
“Ah, yes,” said Faeron, “super chores, the greatest of all superpowers. Maybe I’ll finally give my bedroom a proper deep cleaning.”
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” laughed Auri. “Now who’s up? Time’s ticking.”
“You are,” said Faeron, giving her foot a light kick. “You gonna be joining me in the workshop this semester?”
“Is that even a question,” challenged Auri confidently, rising from her seat. “How am I supposed to whip your lazy superpowers into action without a few of my own?” She threw her backpack over one shoulder and smirked.
“Bold words,” said Faeron.
“True words,” stated Auri. She snatched her book off the table and placed it into a return cart near the classroom door.
“Oh, and Faeron,” she said, stopping in the doorway. “You do have your gloves don’t you? I didn’t ask on our way out.”
“In the bag,” said Faeron, motioning to his backpack.
“Good,” said Auri. “I was gonna make you run all the way back home now if you didn’t. See you two in a second.” She shut the classroom door hard behind her.
“So, Faeron,” said Quinn as soon as the door was closed. “you and Auri have plans after evals, huh?”
“Prophet’s Guard,” said Faeron.
“Hence the gloves,” concluded Quinn. “You know, the End of Highson Bash is tonight. Quinta Firum is playing in the park and I thought it’d be fun if we all went and sat out there for a while, you know?”
“Any other night I’d say yes,” said Faeron, “but the Bash also brings a new Prophet’s Guard expansion. We’ve never missed an opening night.”
“Never?” asked Quinn.
“Not since we were old enough to play,” said Faeron. “You should come though. It’s fun figuring everything out before everyone else spoils it.”
“That’s alright,” said Quinn. “It sounds like a sacred tradition you two got goin’. I wouldn’t want to intrude. Besides, the simulation rooms always make me queasy. I do have something to show you though, since you won’t be around later.”
“Oh yeah?” asked Faeron.
Quinn reached into the backpack resting against his chair and pulled out a black box. It was about six inches tall, three across, and had a white tree etched across the front. The box was clearly a Deity mystery figure; Faeron was an avid fan of the popular strategy game and had quite the collection of his own. The symbol of the tree on this box, however, wasn’t one he’d seen before.
“It’s a Lunar Grove series. Pre-plague, obviously,” said Quinn excitedly, “found it in the imports market. Remember when Baeric Dipper stomped you with that weird Accabadan support unit? It’s from this set. Only unit I’ve ever seen from it.”
“Well, you gonna open it?” asked Faeron, leaning forward excitedly. Older pre-plague sets were a rare treat and many of their figures had never been seen by anyone in Eredith.
“Okay,” said Quinn, “here it goes…” He set the box on the glass-topped table and pulled at the packaging until the top popped open. Reaching inside, Quinn pulled out a figure with a six legged back-half, hooves, and deep purple fur. The front half was a man with beet red skin. Glorious golden wings sprouted from his muscular back and he held a similarly gold trident in both hands.
“What in the world is that?” asked Faeron.
“I don’t know,” said Quinn, examining the figure in awe. He took a nervous look around and dove back into his bag, pulling out a small glass cube. It was his homemade index, Logic, a personal project of his made from old pre-plague parts he’d bought off nomad traders. Whenever Quinn wasn’t playing Deity, you could bet he’d be in his workshop coding or tinkering away at the inner circuits of the device. “Since there’s no one around… wanna, find out?”
“Of course, load it up,” said Faeron mischievously. He knew full well that any sort of index or projection tech was banned in the athenaeum commons, but it wasn’t like there was anyone around for them to distract.
“Okay, but… promise not to tell Auri!” said Quinn.
“Alright?” Faeron shot him a confused look, unsure what Auri had to do with anything.
“I mean it,” said Quinn urgently. “She hates people who use projection tech in here. You know, I’m trying to ask her to Unity Fest this year.”
“Oh, really?” asked Faeron, not wanting to tell Quinn he had about as high a chance with Auri as Faeron did with going pro in Deity.
“Yup, I really think she’s starting to see me as more than just a friend,” he said with cheerful ignorance. “Last week, when you were out sick, she walked me all the way home after class and we talked the whole time. I just really felt the connection. I don’t know if it was a kytra thing or if we were just both in the moment, but I’m telling you that it wasn’t like anything else I’ve ever felt. I just know she felt it too, ya know? I mean she had to.”
“That’s great,” said Faeron, knowing Auri would likely have a different take on the story. “But you know, if you want to check out the fig before Auri gets out of her eval, we’d better get a move on.” Faeron pointed to the strange figure.
“Right,” said Quinn. He set the glass cube on the table then placed his figurine on top, “Logic, load up character information for this piece.” The glass began to glow, and a large-scale version of the figure appeared on the table beside the cube. He trotted back and forth across the table and struck a heroic pose in front of Quinn, perfectly detailed as if he were alive.
“I am Vykett of the Rowastroke people,” said the figure in a mighty voice, “how may I serve my deity?”
“Can you talk just a little quieter?” squeaked Quinn, looking nervously at the classroom door.
“Of course, my deity,” said Vykett much softer than before. “Would you like to know my specialties in the field of battle, or perhaps see a preview of my techniques?”
“Start from the top,” said Quinn excitedly. “Gimme everything.”
“I am a proud leader, tested and true at the front of any team,” said Vykett proudly, holding his trident to his chest. “Charge me with a squad of beastmen and you’ll find them inspired to run faster, hit harder, and survive even the deadliest blows.”
“Sounds perfect for your aggressive digger team,” said Faeron. “Maybe you could run—”
Faeron and Quinn both jumped in their seats as a pair of young twin girls barreled through the athenaeum’s front doors, giggling as they collapsed onto the floor.
Myllie and Kaelynn were the youngest of the five Kytra, only ten-years-old, and covered head to toe in sports gear. With the twins came a pair of pink canvas bags, littering the athenaeum floor in clothes and equipment for the popular sport, bunball.
Myllie had less in the way of pads than her sister but she still wore her bright pink targeting mask, hiding all but her wavy ombre hair.
“Hey girls,” called Faeron. “How was practice?”
“Good,” said Myllie, jumping to her feet. She lifted her helmet revealing soft cheeks, a pointy nose, and shrap brows above bright blue eyes. “Kaelynn was a pro. Thirty-two shots on goal and she didn’t let a single one in.”
“Dang,” said Quinn with a whistle. “I don’t remember Faeron ever pulling off something like that.”
“Because I never have,” said Faeron. He had never been amazing at bunball. It was a chaotic sport involving eight teams of two each defending goals around a big circular field. Faeron was decent enough at keeper, but Auri had always outclassed him on both sides of the field. Even next to Auri though, the twins were borderline savants at the sport. “Really, awesome job Kaelynn,” said Faeron. “Those are some killer numbers.”
Kaelynn, who had been dragged down by her sister, was blushing tomato red as she struggled to stand back up in all her keeper’s pads. She snatched up her bag and collected the strewn clothes and a set of footlong steel keeper’s rods that had rolled under a nearby chair. Slowly, she lumbered over to where Faeron and Quinn were sitting, collapsing into the chair Auri had used. Kaelynn, like her sister, had a pointy nose and sharp eyebrows. Her hair was shorter and lighter than her sister’s and tied up into a ponytail.
“What’s this?” asked Myllie. She had put her mask back in her bag and was now dragging a stool from under one of the displays over to the table with everyone else.
“I am Vykett of the Rowastroke—”
“DUMB,” shouted Myllie loudly.
“Ignore her Vykett,” said Quinn dismissively. “That’s all for now.” The beastman gave him a salute and disappeared.
“Who’s already gone?” asked Kaelynn quietly as she pried off her cleats.
“Just me and— Oh spirits!” cried Faeron, grabbing his nose. The unbearable smell of sweat flooded the room as Kaelynn pulled a sock down and peeled off one of her knee pads.
“Haha! Faeron thinks you stink,” giggled Myllie to her sister.
“Shutup!” shouted Kaelynn, blushing redder than before.
“What in the world is that smell?”
Auri stood in the classroom doorway holding her nose, a disgusted look on her face.
“AURI!” yelled the girls sprinting to give her a hug.
“Hey, you two,” said Auri, grabbing them both in a playful headlock, taking one sniff and letting them go with a visible gag. “Kaelynn you know you gotta take those sweaty pads off in the bathroom. Myllie, go help your sister get out of her gear.”
“Aye, aye!” cried Myllie and the two girls sped off down the hall.
“That didn’t take long at all,” said Faeron, relieved to see Auri in such a good mood. He had half expected her to storm out, stomp off back home, and refuse to speak with him for the rest of the evening.
“I told you it wouldn’t,” said Auri. “Now, let’s get moving before the colosseum closes. Oh, and Quinn, you’re up next.”
“Wait,” said Quinn, popping up from his seat. “You’ve got fourth hour AI Upkeep with Professor Bundst this semester, right Faeron? Maybe we meet for a game of Unity in the rec room before class tomorrow? We can put that new fig through his paces. Auri, you’re welcome too, of course.”
“I’m game,” said Faeron. He was very interested to see how Quinn’s new unit played.
“Depends on the time,” said Auri, not bothering to mask her disinterest. “I have back to back classes all afternoon.”
“Maybe during lunch then,” grinned Quinn as he wandered towards the classroom door. “If not, I’ll see you after classes or something, I’m sure. Now, time to go show Mathas I’m ready to join you guys.”
“Good luck,” said Faeron, grabbing his bag as he rose from his seat.
“See ya tomorrow,” said Auri.
“Okay bye!” said Quinn.
Shortly after the classroom door closed, Myllie and Kaelynn came bounding back up the hall in fresh clothes. Other than their hair, the only way to tell them apart was Myllie’s black shirt versus Kaelynn’s white one.
“Hey girls,” said Auri as the twins sprinted across the room and came to a sudden stop inches from where she was standing. “Faeron and I were just about to leave.”
“Aww,” said Myllie dramatically, “you don’t want to stay?”
“I wish I could,” said Auri, kneeling beside the girls. “But Faeron and I are in a real big hurry. You two go show old Mathas how much you’ve learned, and I’ll see you back here in a couple weeks, alright?.”
“WE’RE GONNA CRUSH IT!” yelled Myllie.
Auri grinned and ruffled the girl’s hair. “Come on, Faeron,” she said, “let’s get out of here.”
“Absolutely,” said Faeron, going to the door. “Myllie, Kaelynn, good luck on your evals.”
“Thank you,” said Kaelynn timidly.
“Yeah, yeah, like we need luck,” said Myllie, plopping down in the seat where Faeron had been just moments before.
“I like the confidence,” grinned Auri. “Until next time, girls.”
“Bye Auri!” said the twins.
Faeron shoved the plank-like handles of the athenaeum’s heavy front door. He was greeted by a warm breeze and the sound of live music dominating the chatter filled ambiance of Loem Park at dusk.
Chapter 2 - Prophet’s Guard
No matter where you were in Eredith, the first thing you’d see when stepping outside was the hundred story wall wrapped about the city and the six mighty statues standing vigil upon its towers.
Mathas’ athenaeum was settled near the center of the city, on the southern edge of Loem Park. From the outside, it looked like a miniature basilica with towering glass mosaics that glowed warmly in the evening light and cast a kaleidoscope of colors across the bustling streets below.
The End of Highsun Bash was in full swing by the time Faeron and Auri left the athenaeum, and the driving beat of live music electrified the air. The main road was a one-way river of people pushing towards the source of the music, an amphitheater at the heart of the park. From atop the steps of Mathas’ Athenaeum, Faeron could see that the smaller paths zigzagging across the spacious lawn were twice as crowded.
“No way we’ll make it across that crowd before last call at the colosseum,” said Auri, “we’re gonna have to take a tram... Serris!”
A small orb of white-blue light popped into the air beside them.
“What can I do for you?” asked Serris; the ball of light, known as an index, was Eredith’s citywide assistant.
“How’s traffic tonight?” asked Faeron.
“Parkside stations are closed for the remainder of the night, but I can pick you up over at Roetham and Inner,” said Serris. “Do note, there may be a wait to disembark. We have several locations backed up.”
“Go ahead and order the tram,” said Auri, trotting down the steps with Faeron in tow. “Where’s the closest to the colosseum you can drop us?” She took a right into a wide alley between the athenaeum’s south wing and the Clearstream Cinema next door. The quiet road led away from the bustling park toward the Roetham Academy Tower.
“The east end of the park is roped off, so traffic over by the colosseum is light tonight,” reported Serris, bobbing up and down just over Faeron’s shoulder as she followed along. “I can put you right outside the D-Gate of Bellwillow Market, if that works for you two.”
“Perfect,” said Auri.
“All booked,” reported Serris. “You’ll be looking for tram blue six-eight-two.” At that, the pair set off.
In the distance, Roethram Academy tower cast a wide shadow across the streets below. The tower was topped by the statue of a man with stones of varied metals orbiting each other just above his outstretched palm.
Besides Faeron and Auri, the only other people on the road were an older gentlemen with silver streaked hair and a woman in a heavy-knit sweater, making faces at an infant who giggled gleefully from the autostroller keeping pace beside her.
Halfway to the tower, Faeron and Auri reached a large crossing where their tram was scheduled to arrive. On each corner of the crossing were several transpo-tubes, glassy white cylinders large enough to hold several commuters. Just as Faeron and Auri arrived, one of the smaller tubes turned bright blue, and the number 682 appeared on one side
“Ride’s here,” said Faeron, pointing out the tube to Auri. They cut across the street and approached the glowing cylinder.
As the pair drew near, the blue glass wall split smoothly down the center, shaping into a doorway. They stepped inside, and the tube’s color faded as the wall closed behind them, drowning out the music of the park. In the very center of the tube was a ring-shaped railing, about waist high and fastened securely to the floor by a glassy white pole.
“Please take hold of the railing to begin your descent,” said the pleasant voice of Alannah, the transit AI.
Faeron and Auri grabbed the bannister, and the floor slowly began to drop. They descended into a clean white tram, and when they platform they were riding came to a stop, it melded right into the floor. There were six seats, and Faeron and Auri each found one. Then, the tram began to move.
“Oh, I never told you,” said Auri, settling into her seat. “Last night, at youth group, Andrea had a theory about the new expansion. You know the teaser poster?”
“Of course,” said Faeron. “Twenty years, twenty legends, twenty challenges.” The virtual reality game offered a variety of trials from solving ancient puzzles to all out brawls. No matter what the challenges were, the one thing they all shared was the presence of one of the Hosts, the golden eyed prophets of the Patronage.
“But, did you notice the outside?” asked Auri. “It’s all sandy… which may mean we’ll finally see a Salduni host.”
“Does that mean Sombara?” asked Faeron, thinking through his Patronage history lessons. He wasn’t nearly the expert Auri was, something she never let him live down considering his dad was the current Host. Still, he knew there weren’t more than a handful of hosts from Saldun, the expansive desert in the east.
“Likely Cresh,” guessed Auri. “She’s the biggest name in Salduni Hosts. Though, it could be Ylketha, Poporoe, or Nokruvokani as well. What do you think? ”
“All those ancient names blend together,” shrugged Faeron. “I always mix up who’s who.”
“Unbelievable,” sighed Auri, giving him a disappointed glare.
When the tram finally came to a complete stop, a ring of light appeared around the central railing, denoting the elevator out of the tram.
“Please stand in the circle and, for your safety, hold on to the handrail,” said Alannah. Faeron and Auri did as they were instructed, taking hold of the bannister. A hole in the ceiling opened, and the circle at their feet carried them upward. They ascended into another transpo-tube and, as the door shifted open, the park’s driving music seeped back in. Swiftly, Faeron and Auri stepped out into a bustling plaza between two extraordinary buildings.
Bellwillow Market was a huge sandstone slab of a structure, three stories tall and taking up two blocks by itself. There were dozens of shops within the market, from clothes and technology to snacks and knick knacks. Shy of the grocery store, it was the one stop for anything you ever needed in Eredith.
The D-Gate was dead center on the building’s southwest wall and looked like any other entry to the market. Tall, arching bellwillow trees stood on either side of the entry, their golden bell-shaped buds tinkling softly in the slow breeze.
Across from the market was the Astral Colosseum, a structure that truly lived up to its name. The night-black walls of the colosseum were painted with twinkling stars, galaxies, and nebulas. The colosseum was split into two halves, with a regal sandstone bridge connecting them. The left half of the building contained the Court of Fantasy, the city’s largest arcade and home to the Deity lounge, where competitive Deity matches were held. On the right, was the Arches of the Ages, Faeron and Auri’s destination tonight. Joining a small crowd at the arched stone entry, the pair proceeded inside.
Faeron found himself in a wide open room with a swirling black and white mural painted on its vaulted ceiling, three floors overhead. Long terraces wrapped around each floor, and there were dozens of doors on each terrace. The room was lit by staircases of pure golden light that appeared and disappeared, connecting the many doors above. As the stairs came and went, the light in the room kept shifting, giving the space a magical atmosphere.
The ground floor was also lined with doors. Benches filled the open space, and, in the very center of the room, were several large monitors displaying upcoming event times and high scores for various games.
“The eighth hour group tour of Unity era Akai will begin shortly,” said a friendly voice over a loudspeaker. “Please secure your magboots and interaction gloves then find your tour guide near the blue door. Again, the group tour of Unity era Akai will begin shortly.”
Faeron and Auri went to the rental desk, on their right, where a girl about fifteen or sixteen greeted them with a big smile.
“I almost thought you two wouldn’t make it,” said Sarah brightly. She had light blonde hair with a streak of blue in her bangs. There were probably a dozen piercings just in one ear and half that on her bright blue bottom lip. “Last call is in five minutes.”
“They’ve got you working through the concert?” asked Faeron, leaning up against the desk.
“I won’t miss much,” said Sarah. “There’s only two group tours tonight, and Daerian is handling them...” As she said this, she looked over to where a small group of middle aged men and women were gathered around a uniformed tour guide. Faeron recognized the guide from the academy, a ninth year, around Sarah’s age, with dark skin, short frizzy hair, and white tattoo sleeves covering both his arms. Catching Sarah’s gaze, Daerian smiled and waved at her.
“Sorry, the time,” said Sarah, perking up suddenly. “I’ll go grab your boots… A nine-and-a-half and an eleven, no, twelve?”
“That’s it,” said Auri.
Sarah went into a back room and came back a few seconds later with two sets of shoes.
“You’ve got your own gloves, right?” asked Sarah.
“Indeed,” said Faeron, pointing to the bag slung over his shoulder.
“Cool! I take it you’ll want to run the new expansion,” said Sarah, and she made a motion that conjured a projected console behind the desk. “You can check the list of new challenges here if you want to select one.”
“Wait!” cried Auri. “I don’t want to see until I’m in.”
“She likes the surprise,” said Faeron.
“That’s right, silly me,” said Sarah. “What kind of challenges are you looking for then?”
“Combat,” said Auri. “Melee stuff though. No guns.”
“Got just the thing,” said Sarah.
“And a puzzle or two for me,” added Faeron.
“Hmm, oh duh!” said Sarah brightly as she scanned through the list. “This is going to be perfect! You’re all set then, just a couple last things. As per the city’s educational entertainment initiative, you’ll earn five rep per challenge completion and ten for making the leaderboard. Also, there’s no extra metal on either of you today, is there?” asked Sarah.
“Nope,” said Faeron, patting his pockets to be sure.
“Just the hair,” said Auri, holding up a few strands of her bronze plated locks.
“We should have that in the system, but just in case there’s been chipping or anything...” Sarah messed with a panel behind the desk, and a ball of light popped into the air beside Auri, scanning her hair then disappearing. “Don’t want any accidents in the machines… Anyway! You both know the rules. Go kill it in there.”
Faeron grabbed a seat nearby to change his shoes, and Auri joined him. The boots were heavy, thick synthleather with metal plated soles. Faeron reached into his backpack and pulled out a set of sleek leather gloves, lined in metal as well, with a knob and small display on the back. Once they had their magboots and interaction gloves secured, Faeron went to a cubby near the desk and left his shoes and backpack.
“Ready?” Faeron asked Auri as he fiddled with the knob on the back of his glove, twisting until the color indicator turned purple.
Auri shot him a winning grin. The bronze ends of her dark black hair shone spectacularly in the shifting golden light. “Three… Two… One…”
Faeron and Auri pressed in the knobs on their gloves, and two doors lit up, side by side, one purple, one bronze. The doors swung open of their own accord and Faeron rushed inside. There were no lights in the room, and, as the door shut behind Faeron, he was left in complete darkness.
Heat rushed into the small space, carried on a hot dry breeze. Suddenly, the room wasn’t dark anymore, and Faeron was no longer alone. He stood just beside Auri in a desert, atop a tall dune overlooking a riverside fortress. It had tall stone walls, and its hulking wooden gate was shut tight.
“Saldun,” whispered Auri excitedly. “Not the capital of course, but that fort is definitely Salduni, second age by the look of it.” She had always been a big fan of the desert nation’s architecture and designs. Her room was decorated with all sorts of Salduni oddities her father had brought back whenever he passed through the region in his travels.
“Battle’s not over yet, prophets guard!” cried a voice from behind them.
An army of a hundred or more men were marching over the dune towards the fortress. They were led by a woman with tattoos where her hair would be. She was clearly human, and yet she was tall as a capillum and nearly three times as wide. She was the biggest, most muscular person Faeron had ever seen, with powerful golden eyes.
Faeron didn’t need Auri’s help to identify the enormous woman. She was the Warrior Host, Cresh, though her statue atop Cresh Capital Tower did her little justice. Even this illusion of the Warrior Host had a dominating presence. Her only piece of armor was a single shoulder pauldron, which had been smelted around the glassy black Host Stone. Lightly colored vines held the pauldron in place; they wrapped around her torso, wound up her arms, and ran through her fingers.
“Our oldest enemy, Lyle the Deceiver, has kidnapped several young kytra,” barked Cresh as she approached Faeron and Auri. “He’s holding them in the fortress with a sizable force, armed to the teeth and prepared to die for their scheming master.”
“What can we do?” asked Auri excitedly.
“The fortress has a two layered gate, one wooden, one metal,” reported Cresh. “That wood won’t stand long against my fists, but the metal will take too long to break. I need you to sneak inside and get that rear gate open while I break through the front door.”
“But if the gate’s closed, how are we supposed to get in?” asked Faeron.
“There’s a secret portcullis on the eastern wall,” said Cresh, pointing off to the side of the fortress. “Find it and knock five times in quick succession, followed by two slow knocks. Intel says the passage is lightly guarded. Once inside, the gate’s mechanism should be nearby.”
“Get inside, deal with the guards, open the gate. Got it,” said Auri.
“You will need these to reach the gate,” said Cresh, motioning to a pair of soldiers holding a large trunk. They lowered the box to the sand and pried open the lid, revealing all sorts of steel weapons. There were swords, spears, axes, hammers, poles, a bow, and many arrows. “Take your pick,” said the Warrior Host.
Faeron went to the box, his feet sinking into the hot sand with each step. Rummaging through the weapon case, he picked up a longsword first. Though it was merely an illusion, it felt solid as metal thanks to the gloves. The sword had a nice weight in both hands, but it was too heavy to hold in just one, so Faeron set it in the sand and dug back into the box.
“This is more like it,” he whispered as he found a pair of matching metal guard sticks, his go to option for any combat challenge where they were available. They felt natural, like the keeper’s sticks he used for bunball. These didn’t have the magnetic ends for catching high-speed metal balls, but that was less of an issue in Prophet’s Guard.
“Again with the sticks?” said Auri, who was now digging through the box over his shoulder. “I mean, all these options and you pick those? One of these days you’re gonna learn to fight with a real weapon, and you’ll look back on these days with shame.”
“I do just fine with my guard sticks, thank you,” said Faeron stubbornly. “Besides, they were in the box. That makes them real weapons.”
“No,” said Auri, heaving hard. “This is a real weapon.” With both hands she pulled a massive great hammer from the box and threw it over her shoulder. “Now, if you’re set on fighting with those… glorified straws, we should get headed out. Those kytra aren’t gonna save themselves.”
Faeron and Auri trekked across the sand to the wall where Cresh said the portcullis would be. It was a hard walk, even though it wasn’t far. With each step, Faeron felt as though he were sinking into the floor, as if it were actual sand, and the heat was downright oppressive.
The portcullis was easy enough to spot. It looked just like a stone doorway but with no handle or any other way to open it from the outside. Faeron took one of his sticks and rapped it against the wall five times fast. Auri followed with two slow swings from her hammer. Moments later, a guard pushed open the hidden door from the inside. He was about their age, with sandy brown hair peeking out from beneath his open-faced helm. His leather armor covered only his chest, leaving the many tattoos upon his well toned arms fully exposed. He looked from Faeron to Auri, confusion on his brow.
Auri didn’t wait for him to piece things together. She charged forward with her hammer in both hands and ran it straight into the guard’s chest, sending him sprawling.
“Kokorro!” He gasped, scampering backward as Auri pushed inside with two more overhead swings, smacking the floor just shy of his legs. “Ennet’sammun!”
Faeron followed in and saw they weren’t alone. A second guard was pushing down the passage with a twin-pronged lance. He had a gruff grey beard and looked a bit too big around for his tight leather chestpiece.
“En arum Abur,” called the newcomer, his seasoned eyes honed on Auri.
“On your right,” called Faeron.
Auri swung her hammer defensively, just in time to catch the older guard’s lance. Though she wasn’t hit, the weight of his blow knocked her back into the wall.
“Abur, kenkel’samman!” yelled the old fighter. He wore no helmet and his thin greying hair tossed about as he wound up a second attack.
Faeron intercepted and knocked aside the old man’s thrust. Taking advantage of the surprise on the gruff soldier’s face, Faeron got a clean smack against the guardsman’s left ear.
“Paga’samman!” cried a voice behind Faeron.
Out of the corner of his eye, Faeron saw a glint of silver. The younger guard was up on his feet, and his sword was descending on Faeron.
Clang! Auri’s hammer caught the sword mid-swing.
“Kokorro, anduin’sammun!” yelled the sandy-haired guard commandingly as he brought down a shower of blows with his sword. Auri managed to catch his first two swings, but the third sliced through her hip. A bright red light flooded the room.
“Careful,” called Faeron.
“Swap me,” Auri shot back. “This one’s too fast.”
Faeron ducked beneath a sweeping lance blow and spun to face the relentless onslaught of the younger guard, clearly the one in charge. His strikes were fast, but predictable. Deflecting a heavy hit, Faeron countered with a jab to the side.
“Ennem!” howled the guard and held up a steel tower shield, waiting for Faeron’s advance. No matter how Faeron swung he couldn’t get around the wall of metal. Faking to the left, Faeron lurched right at the last second, but the guard parried the hit away, leaving Faeron momentarily exposed. Regaining his footing, Faeron dared a glance at the fight going on behind him.
Auri was having more luck than Faeron. She swung wildly overhead crashing down on the grizzled knight’s lance, never giving him a second’s break. With a final sweeping strike she brought her hammer through his defenses, knocking his lance from his hand. He was completely vulnerable, but Auri’s overpowered and clumsy swing had left her unbalanced too. The guard scrambled for his weapon while Auri struggled to right herself.
With a clear shot, Faeron spun around Auri, slamming his metal rod against the gruff man’s skull just before he reached his weapon. The larger of the two guards went out cold.
“Kokorro!” howled the younger guard desperately. All of a sudden, the world turned bright red again. Faeron turned back to find the tattooed guard standing over Auri, his sword stabbed through her shoulder.
“Watch it! You left me wide open,” shouted Auri spinning around. “One more of those and I’m out.”
“I know,” said Faeron, circling their remaining adversary. Parrying a sword strike with one stick, he managed a clean blow to the guard’s shoulder with the other. The guard howled as he dropped his shield and swung with all his weight overhead. Crossing his sticks defensively, Faeron caught the attack, locking himself and the guard in a stalemate. Now free from her fight, Auri used the opening. She had just enough room for a sweeping uppercut with her great hammer that slammed the man’s jaw. His unconscious body flew back and fell slumped against the wall.
Faeron took a moment to breathe and gather his surroundings. There were identical looking doors on either end of the hall, and it took Faeron a moment to orient himself. “The front gate was this way,” he said, leaping over the guard and taking the hallway to a square room at the end. The room had a couple barrels, some racks with bows, and a window looking down on Cresh’s army. Just beside the window was a large iron lever.
Boom. Boom. Boom.
Auri grabbed the lever, and Faeron took a glance out at the gate. On the bridge was Cresh, alone. The army stood a distance back, bows drawn should their captain need the support, but it was very evident she didn’t need the help. Her fists were encased in massive boulders, which she swung like wrecking balls against the gate, splintered and ready to fall.
“Forgetting something?” said Auri, and Faeron turned to see her hoist the lever.
Outside, the metal gate groaned as it slowly began to rise, just in time for Cresh to smash through the wooden front door.
“Killer,” said Faeron.
“And that’s why she gets her own tower,” said Auri, joining him at the window.
Lyle’s troops poured out over the bridge where Cresh was waiting. With her boulder fists, she knocked away anyone who came close. Some troops managed to connect a sword swing or stray arrow, but the blows bounced right off Cresh’s skin, as if her whole body were made of stone.
“Imagine,” said Auri, “that’ll be us someday, shaping just like the Hosts... I want to be just like her.”
“You’re going to need about five-thousand percent more muscle,” Faeron chuckled. “But don’t worry, you’ve already got the barbarian look down.”
Auri shot him a cold eye and turned her attention back to the Host. “She was more than a warrior, even though that’s how everyone remembers her. For every battle Cresh fought, she stopped another ten from ever taking place. She was a diplomat first, and only when words failed would she become—”
“LYLE!” roared Cresh from the bridge below. Faeron watched as she tore a door straight off its hinges and stormed inside. Suddenly, a bright purple glow cast over the room. The door they had come in through was now filled with swirling violet light.
“Come on,” said Auri, trotting off toward the portal, “let’s not keep Sarah waiting.”
Faeron stepped into the light and found himself back in the Arches of the Ages. There were only a couple people left in the spacious room, most putting their shoes back on or wrapping up at the cubbies. Auri was already at the scoreboard in the center of the lobby, scanning for their names.
“There,” said Auri, as Faeron joined her. She pointed to a screen in the top left reading: Salduni Combat Challenge. “Second place, not bad.”
“Of course, Saitum took the top spot” said Faeron, seeing the lone name above theirs. She had more than double their score.
“You know,” said Auri with a mischievous smile, “you’d think with her as your teacher, you’d start doing better eventually.”
“Hey, I didn’t take any hits,” shrugged Faeron. “So, what’s next? Try to find Quinn out at the concert?”
“Actually,” said Auri, “there’s something I need to talk to you about. It’s important.”
“Balcony talk?” asked Faeron and Auri nodded. Balcony talks were a cornerstone of their friendship, code for a conversation that simply couldn’t wait.
They went to the cubbies to collect their things, dropped their boots off at the desk, and caught a tram at the same corner where they’d arrived.
Inside the tram, Faeron watched a holographic city map projected above the central railing. A dot representing their tram raced toward the residential towers in the East, and, when it reached the wall, the map transitioned from a flat view of the city into an upright model of the Twinfire Towers where Faeron and Auri lived. Both of the residential towers were covered in rows of crescent balconies and were connected by a walking bridge near the top. Standing atop the bridge was the largest of all the city’s statues, Glavius Adaeus, the Archpatron and spirit of humanity. His hands were held open above the two towers, and in each palm, he held a flame, one crimson, one violet, whose light bathed down through each of the towers’ glass ceilings into the hundred ringed floors below. The tram’s marker moved up the tower on the right, with the violet flame above it, stopping at the sixty-second floor. This time, the tram’s wall slid open, allowing them to walk right out.
The common area of the sixty-second floor was a carpeted ring, with a hollow center looking down on the lobby dozens of floors below. A bronze railing ran all the way around the hole, and comfortable chairs were scattered in groups of three and four all around the ring.
Tonight, the commons was quiet but for Merreum Linhall, their next door neighbor, singing to her young daughter.
Days we work and then we sleep,
Days we rest and play and feast”
As Faeron and Auri walked past, she looked up from her song and waved warmly. “Hello dears,” she said. “Say hi to Faeron and Auri, Molly.”
“Hi Faern, hi Ree” said the toddler, running out to greet them.
“Hello miss Molly!” said Auri, dropping to one knee and putting her arms out to hug the girl.
“You kids not down at the Bash tonight?” asked Merreum, her straight blonde hair tied back in a bun.
“Other plans, I’m afraid,” said Auri, playing hand games with Molly.
“Ooh, Kytra stuff I’d imagine,” said their neighbor excitedly. “You know, Molly is almost old enough to join the youth group. Ever since I told her you help out around there, she hasn’t stopped pestering me. ‘Momma can I go now? Momma am I big now?’”
“Is that true?” asked Auri fondly, and the girl gave a big nod.
“Alright now, Molly,” said Merreum, “you let Faeron and Auri be about their business. It’s just about bedtime anyway.”
“No no! Eee!” protested Molly, hugging Auri tight.
“Go on miss Molly,” said Auri sweetly. “You know, big girls listen to their mommy when it’s bedtime.”
Molly’s face lit up bright, “I’m big! I can go to yoosh groop!” Releasing Auri, the little girl ran back to her mother.
“Goodnight kids,” called Merreum.
“Goodnight,” said Faeron and Auri both.
The pair continued on to door 6282, and Faeron pressed his hand to a small square panel, unlocking the door. The apartment that Faeron and Auri shared was quite nice. The front door led into a large foyer, with a kitchen in one corner and a sliding glass door on the far wall, exiting to a wide balcony. There were four doors in the room: two bedrooms, a public bathroom, and an index room opposite the kitchen.
Faeron’s room was on the right. He went straight inside and tore off his street clothes. His legs breathed a sigh of relief as he stripped off his tight black pants and pulled on a pair of comfortable shorts. His room was a mess of clothes strewn across his floor and old homework from last semester still piled upon his desk. One wall was a window, floor to ceiling, and the other three were covered in canvases of fantasy landscapes he’d bought over the years. As soon as he had changed, Faeron went out to the balcony. Auri was already there.
Auri sat in a cozy reclining chair, hunched over mettling with an ornate bronze incense censer. She loaded the hanging burner with a ground herb called Nylkshave, and set it alight. The censer rocked lazily, releasing plumes of sweetly scented smoke into the air.
Faeron leaned out over the balcony, listening to the echoes of the concert below. Loem Park looked like a hive of ants swarming the amphitheater, as if the stage were a sandwich dropped in the grass. The park spread from the center of the city all the way to the Nylk Gate on the west wall, the only way in or out of Eredith. From his balcony, Faeron could see all six towers along the city’s massive walls. Like the Roethram Academy Tower, the others were each topped with a wondrous statue: Cresh the Warrior Host with her fists of stone, Ibanu the healer, and Sombara with her crops that changed with the seasons. They were many of the greatest Hosts ever to serve the Patronage.
“So,” said Fearon, reclining into a chair beside Auri, “what is it you wanted to tell me?”
Auri sighed, and her eyes saddened. “You have to promise not to tell anyone, absolutely nobody.”
“Of course,” said Faeron as the floral scent of Nylkshave filled his lungs and tingled his mind.
“I cheated,” admitted Auri sourly.
“In Prophet’s Guard?” asked Faeron, popping up in his seat a bit.
“No, in my eval,” said Auri. “When I was doing my deep meditations, I could only hold it a couple seconds before…” she trailed off as if she were going to finish her sentence but suddenly changed her mind. “Well, I can still only hold it for a second without nylkshave, I’ve told you.”
“So how did you cheat?” asked Faeron.
“I was struggling to hold the meditation even before Mathas told me to open my eyes,” said Auri. “When he did, I panicked. I didn’t want to get held back, so I tried to mimic that amazed look you always get when doing the waking meditation. Mathas acted like he couldn’t tell, but I think he could.”
“If he knew you were pretending then why did he pass you?” asked Faeron, watching Auri through smoke.
“I don’t know,” admitted Auri. “But I need your help. The meditations have always come naturally to you. Will you practice with me, outside of class. If I can’t master the waking meditation before we start shaping, Mathas will pick up on it quick. He’ll send me back to meditations with Quinn. I can’t do that, Faeron.”
“We’ll figure it out,” said Faeron. “I’ll help anyway I can, I promise. No one’s giving up on you.”
“You mean it?” asked Auri hopefully.
“Of course,” said Faeron. “We’ll practice every night, and if you need anything at all, just ask.”
“Good,” smiled Auri. “Then let’s start right now.”
Faeron laid back in his seat and closed his eyes, letting the faint music fill his mind. It didn’t take long for the nylkshave to do its job, and the pearlescent light of Peridom pulsed through his head in time with the music. Faeron followed the current through a mossy cave in a streak of emerald green, past a brilliant star in a gleam of royal purple. He followed the current until his connection to the light was suddenly broken.
“Damnit!” yelled Auri, springing up from her seat. “I forgot the youth group’s play was tonight. I need to be down at Erkwright Theater in... Serris, what time is it?”
A ball of light popped onto their balcony. “It’s ten minutes to nine,” said Serris, matter of factly.
“Ten minutes to get down there,” said Auri.
“The youth group’s putting on a play?” asked Faeron, skeptical of the acting caliber.
“For the younger students who can’t attend the Concert,” said Auri. “It’s all about how Glavius survived the purging of the Old Scholars. I promised them I’d come watch. You in?”
“Nah, you know how they get when I come around,” said Faeron. “They all treat me so weird, like I’m Glavius reborn.”
“Because, to them, that’s exactly what you are,” said Auri. “Eamon hasn’t performed a miracle since the city was built, and, now, the Hoststone is shattered. The last trace of it lives on in your dreams. You aren’t just any Kytra, Faeron. We all know, you’re the one that will free us from these walls. Like it or not, it’s a safe bet that you’ll be Host one day.”
“Stop it, I’m no Host-to-be,” said Faeron. “I want to save the world, just as much as you do, but if my dream really held those answers, then why did my mom leave? As far as I know, my dreams have nothing to do with the plague. Glavius has never spoken to me, never guided me. I’m just another kytra, learning to shape because I want answers about my mom. Once I know she’s safe, we can figure out how to fix this world together. Host or no Host, dreams or no dreams.”
“Well then,” said Auri, rising from her chair. “I see you’ve made up your mind. If I don’t see you before bed, tell Jakob I said hello.”
“Would if I could.”
After Auri left, Faeron stayed out on the balcony a good while longer, continuing his meditations. Whether it was ten minutes or an hour, he couldn’t say, as the light of peridom danced against his closed eyelids and twisted through his thoughts.
Faeron dwelt mostly on the upcoming semester. For the first time in a long time he was excited about starting classes. Not because of any academy courses like mathematics, global politics, or patronage history, but it was his classes with Mathas that had him itching to learn.
Faeron opened his eyes. Rising from his chair, he went to the balcony’s edge, looking out over the city of Eredith. A light breeze rustled his messy hair as he watched the lights from the concert in the park. Every cloud and star in the city’s sky, every rainstorm and snowfall, sunny or cloudy day was meant to emulate the world outside the walls, at least the world before the plague. There was something just a touch off about it though; the breeze, for example, felt correct as it brushed a long lock of dark hair down over Faeron’s eyes, but it was missing the smell, the salt near the ocean, the fresh cut grass in Newsun. That was the sort of thing only Jakob got to experience, but that could change soon enough.
For the first time in centuries, if not millenia, there were more known kytra than Faeron could count on one hand. If just half of his classmates could learn to shape, even if they were only a fraction as powerful as the great hosts on the towers, what chance would the plague stand? Learning to shape meant everything to Faeron. Learning to shape was how he would conquer his dreams. Learning to shape was how he would find his mother. Learning to shape was how the kytra of Eredith would reclaim their world.
Faeron laughed at the thought; it sounded like something Auri would say, only she'd try to convince him that it would all end in him becoming the Host, like his father.
“Serris,” said Faeron, tapping a finger against his balcony railing in time with the muddled beat of the music.
Serris popped into the air just beyond the balcony. “How can I help?” asked Serris.
“Is dad free?” asked Faeron. “I’d like to tell him about today.”
“Your timing is very good, I think the Korvan ambassador just left his office,” reported Serris. “One moment please.” For several seconds, Serris pulsed between blue and white. “Okay,” she said suddenly. “Connecting you now.”
The index flew to an open spot of balcony near Faeron, and then it began to morph. It grew tall, shaping itself into a perfect resemblance of Faeron’s father. Eamon stood, leaning against the balcony just beside Faeron. He had more wrinkles around his golden eyes these days, and his hair was turning grey, except for the top of his crown, which seemed insistent on balding instead.
“Surprise surprise,” said Eamon cheerfully. “How’d the eval go?”
“That’s actually why I called,” said Faeron with pride. “Mathas is going to reopen the workshop for us. We’re going to start shaping this semester.”
“Hey, that’s awesome,” said Eamon, beaming brightly at his son. “I’m proud of you. You’ve worked hard for this... And you know what?”
“What?” asked Faeron.
“This’ll make you, officially, a better kytra than me,” joked Eamon. “For all I know about these fancy artifacts in my office, I can’t do a thing with them.”
“Well, last time I tried it didn’t go so hot,” said Faeron, his cheeks feeling hot from the praise.
“That’s why you’ve got Mathas,” said Eamon. “I wouldn’t be surprised if a year from now you were curing the plague like Host Ibanu.”
“Or finding mom,” said Faeron, more seriously. His dad met his eyes with sympathy.
“Faeron,” said Eamon. “You know what happened to her isn’t on you—” Eamon turned, suddenly attentive to something behind him. “Yes, just one moment, ambassador.” He turned back to Faeron. “Hey bud, I have to take care of something real quick. I’ll talk to you tomorrow, alright?”
“Okay,” said Faeron. “Night dad.”
Eamon disappeared, leaving Fearon alone on the balcony once more. It was dark now, but the night was still young. The concert would go on for another couple hours, and Auri wouldn’t be back until close to then. Despite the early hour, Faeron was properly exhausted. He twisted a vial on the brass censer, suffocating the embers, then headed inside to get ready for bed.
Once in his pajamas, Faeron climbed into bed and closed his eyes. The effect of the Nylkshave had nearly worn off now, leaving Faeron’s mind numb and tired. Some nights, sleep was an uphill battle, but, tonight, the light of peridom took hold of Faeron quickly, and his body and mind melted away like butter in the warmth of his sheets.
Chapter 3 - Writer’s Block
Thump… Thump-Thump Thump Thump-Thump-Thump
Jakob stirred in his chair, slumped over his polished wooden writing desk. His head was buried in his arms, and, blinking awake, he saw rays of early-evening sunlight filtering in through the thin white curtains of his bedroom. As Jakob’s room was on the ground floor in a well-frequented art district, dozens of shadows were wandering back and forth past his window.
Through the thin ceiling came the unmistakable sound of Jakob’s sister, Sylvia, stomping around the kitchen of their three-story townhouse.
Thump-Thump-Thump Thump Thump-Thump
The steps retreated out of the kitchen into the index room next door.
“Proto…” mumbled Jakob, sitting back in his padded Orthoposture chair with a stretch. His neck was stiff and he had to turn his whole body to face the lens-shaped device on the corner of his desk. A soft turquoise light flickered on beneath the glass.
“Look who’s finally awake,” came Proto’s charming voice from within the device.
“Yeah, yeah,” said Jakob. “What’s it then, two… three?”
“Six if you’ll believe it,” said Proto cheerfully.
“Oh man,” groaned Jakob, rubbing his eyes until his messy desk came into focus. It was strewn with papers covered in loosely organized notes and scrawled illustrations. “Where did I leave off?”
“You were revising a sentence on page eight,” said Proto. “You conked out just after your seventy-first rewrite of the passage.”
“Page eight?” asked Jakob. “Why was I back on page eight?” Everything after four in the morning was a bit of a blur.
“What do you mean back on page eight?” asked Proto. “That’s all you’ve got. You only wrote two scenes last night.”
Jakob lay back in his chair, defeated.
“Also, a couple calls came in earlier,” said Proto. “Nothing urgent enough to wake you. They left messages though.”
“Go ahead,” said Jakob.
“First, it was your parents, who asked me to remind you that your Lowend night calls aren’t optional. You’ve missed two weeks in a row now. They also said you should try to be a bit more like your sister.”
“I’m sure those were their exact words,” said Jakob sarcastically, though he did feel bad and planned to give his parents a call after a much-needed shower.
“I’m just a bunch of zeros and ones,” said Proto, feigning offense, “I couldn’t lie if I wanted to.”
“Seem to be doing a fine job of it right now,” countered Jakob.
“In any case, the other call was from your agent,” reported Proto. “She wanted to make sure you knew your Induction into the Vault of the Great Ri’Kallan Library is this Hypae afternoon. You’ll need to arrive by noon.”
“Is it really almost the fifty-sixth of Highsun?” asked Jakob in disbelief. “I’ve been working on this new book since the cycle turned… eight pages in fifty-six days… that’s a new low.”
“Hey, you don’t break a personal record every day,” pointed out Proto. “Celebrate the little wins, right?”
Jakob didn’t feel like celebrating. In fact, he was suddenly feeling quite nauseous.
Despite his anxiety at his lack of progress, Jakob didn’t write any more that evening. Oftentimes when Jakob was stuck in his writing, looking to other stories was a safe bet to get his creative juices flowing, so he spent the rest of the night with his sister in their index room watching a series they both liked called The Lautice Queen. Sylvia was shorter than Jakob, built wide with sandy blonde hair. She sat with her knees up on the couch but when she saw Jakob come in, she adjusted to upright, making room for her brother.
Other than the couch and a pair of identical side tables on either end, the index room was entirely empty. The show Sylvia was watching had paused when Jakob entered, leaving the circular room with a plain white ceiling, floor, and walls. Jakob managed to get comfortable and Sylvia told her index to resume the show. The projector flickered on and the room appeared to transform into the magical forest kingdom of Lafalia where the Lautice Queen was set. Fantastical battles, heated diplomatic negotiations, and heartfelt moments between characters played out all around Jakob’s turquoise sofa.
That night, Jakob dreamt of flying jellyfish people and impossible forest cities, but when he woke up and sat down at this desk to write, nothing came to him.
Jakob spent the whole day pacing around his room. Once in a while an idea would come to him. He’d run to his desk, grab his sleek silver and gold pen, and start to scrawl down notes, only to realize something conflicted with a paragraph on page four. This would send him back in a spiral of editing, which eventually led to a cry of frustration and Jakob dumping the entire draft into the trash bin beside his desk. That evening, Jakob finally ventured from his bedroom, starving and in search of food.
Sylvia was already in the kitchen upstairs cooking up a vegetable curry. As soon as Jakob got to the top of the steps, Sylvia turned with her nose scrunched up and demanded he go take a shower claiming she could smell him over the curry.
Jakob went to bed defeated that night. Tomorrow would be his Induction into the Vault, and with it would come an hour of Q&A with his fans. No doubt they’d be expecting an update on book three in his Inspector Aurilius mystery saga, but he didn’t have so much as a bone to throw them. To Jakob, nothing was scarier than a mob of disappointed fans, and it was a very violent and angry mob that chased him through his dreams all night.
“Wakey, wakey” came Proto’s voice nice and early the next morning.
Jakob turned in his sheets and buried his face beneath the covers, figuring if he didn’t look at the light beaming in through the windows it couldn’t possibly be morning yet.
“You don’t want to play this game with me,” said Proto from his desk. “Shall I load up some audio samples from Orn mating seasons?”
“Alright, you win,” said Jakob, throwing off the covers and sitting at the edge of his bed. Even at thirty, mornings had never gotten any easier, and his habits of typing away well past midnight certainly didn’t help his sleep schedule. “What’s the plan today?”
“You’ve got a couple hours still until you need to be at the station,” said Proto. “I’d suggest preparing some words before you go. Oh, and Sylvia picked up your suit from the cleaners on her way back from classes yesterday, such a saint. It’s up on the kitchen counter now.”
Jakob spent the next two hours getting himself cleaned up and jotting down some talking points on a notecard. Most people just used their index for note taking, but Jakob liked the feel of paper in his hands. Besides, it gave him an excuse to use his fancy pen, a birthday present from his parents that had gotten much more use than he could have ever guessed at the time. That was before he dedicated himself to writing, back in academy when he still wanted to develop artificial intelligence for a living. Proto was all that had come from that particular dream of his.
An hour before noon, Jakob stood in front of the dresser-top mirror, trying to figure out if his stomach was growing larger or if his suit had shrunk at the cleaners. His face was narrow, and dark bags were settling into the valleys beneath his eyes, a product of exhaustion, he told himself, not age.
“Come on,” said Proto, “You’ll be late if you don’t get moving.”
Jakob took the lens from his desk and fixed it to a clasp on the left breast of his suit. “Okay,” said Jakob, “go ahead and call the alca.”
It was a short walk from his townhouse to the neighborhood station. The streets of the art district were light of traffic today, at least as light as one could hope for in the popular tourist destination. The streets were never truly empty here, even now, midday in the heart of the work week there were several families wandering up and down the lane with dozens of colorful shopping bags. It was a pleasant cobble walking street with square white buildings lining either side of the winding road. There were small shops full of vibrant canvases, galleries of homemade furnishing, painting supply stores, and dozens of cookie-cutter storefronts with all number of touristy knick-knacks.
A network of rails ran between the upper floors of the buildings and alca trams sped along them. Some rode on top of the tracks, others hung from the bottom or the sides. There were big freight alcas and small personal cabs, fancy colored sports vehicles, and large boxy public transport trams, but regardless of size or shape, all the alcas had three main parts. There was the cabin, where people and other cargo went, it was always right-side up regardless of whether the alca was riding above or below the tracks. Then, there were two spinning metal magspheres that connected the cabin to the track, one at the front of the alca, one at the back.
The station was an exceptionally long platform with dozens of alcas lining the rails on either side. Jakob climbed the steps and walked down the platform, past a family struggling to get their stubborn toddler into a plain looking alca with scuffed white paint. Jakob’s alca, a 3978 Pursuer model (which he saved for years to buy and of which he was immensely proud), was waiting near the end on the right side of the platform. It was a sleek silver vehicle, and the magspheres at the front and back of the tram were glowing Jakob’s favorite color, a soft sea-foam green. Inside, one-way windows lined the sides, top, and bottom of the tram, looking out through the polished silver exterior. The superior view from the Pursuer’s cabin was half the reason Jakob loved this model so much.
The Pursuer’s side slid open and Jakob boarded, taking a set on a bench running the length of the far wall.
“Alright, Proto, you’re up,” said Jakob.
“Next stop, the Great Ri’Kallan Library,” said Proto, his voice now filling the entire vehicle. “Any preference on tunes?”
“Something fast,” said Jakob.
“Dance of Deathtraps it is.”
The eerie melody of a grand organ filled the alca as it crept out of the sparsely populated station. A hollow synthetic harmony added its voice to the organ and the tram picked up speed, swiftly rising to the network of rails between the buildings. Through the glass bottom floor, Jakob could see the many colorful denizens of the art district going about their lives. He passed over an intersection where a group of girls were working together on a large street mural, though it looked like they were only just beginning, and he couldn’t quite make out what it was going to be. Out the side window he saw a woman on her balcony, playing violin for several colorful caged birds. As he rode, Jakob tapped his foot in time with the driving beat.
The alca rounded a bend, giving Jakob a view of the ocean out the right-side window. It was a bright cloudless morning, and the sun glinted off the slow churning waves of the bay. Small sail-skiffs skipped across the crystal clear waves while, further out, large private ships full of swimsuit clad sunbathers drifted lazily in the Highsun warmth. Jakob was always a touch envious as he watched them floating free of cares on their yachts, more money in their accounts than they could ever hope to spend. North Ri’Kalla was the city of artists and aristocrats, though the two groups had little overlap.
“Library’s dock is just up ahead,” said Proto over the music.
The library looked like an enormous mansion at the end of the street. It was ten stories tall with a shimmering sapphire blue rooftop, and at each corner was a winged grothgoyle statue, snarling with long protruding fangs. A pair of tall arching windows gilded in gold dominated the building’s frost-white front face with crescent balconies filling the gap between them.
There were two entrances to the library, a set of carved blue and gold doors at street level and a wide terrace on the fifth floor. A man in a neatly ironed blue and gold button-up was waiting for Jakob there as the alca pulled up to the terrace.
“Welcome, Mr. Rite,” said the man in a booming voice. He had thin grey hair, bushy brows over wrinkled eyes, and a short beard with streaks of black near the chin. “My name is Luise Ventroff, Curator of the Great Ri’Kallan Library.”
Jakob left his alca and met the man with a handshake as his silver 3978 Pursuer drove off back to storage.
“Your agent said you’re familiar with our library?” asked the man, ushering Jakob through a door leading inside.
They were on the fifth-floor landing of an enormous open chamber. The ceiling was painted in a complex and colorful mural with hundreds of figures, from a winged man playing the flute, to a gruff military commander comforting a dying soldier, to a pair of lovers sharing a kiss in a boat at sea. The walls were a series of reading balconies. They were full of people in cozy seats, most reading from softly glowing pages of text projected just above their laps.
“I used to come here all the time when I first moved here,” said Jakob, gazing at the ceiling, noticing strange new figures every time he visited. It had now been three years since his first book became popular enough for Jakob to afford a townhome in the city and almost a year since he last came here for a read. In fact, ever since the release of his last novel, Jakob had hardly set a foot outside his residence except for promotional events like this.
“It’s a pleasure to have you back,” said Luise. “I would assume you know all about our Vault then?”
“Just about the only place left to get your hands on print literature,” said Jakob. He knew the only way to gain access to the Vault was to have a work of your own inducted, a goal he’d set for himself the day he started writing. That much he was giddy for, a chance to read the classics in hardback, to feel their endings looming closer with each turn of the page, and the musty smell… it simply couldn’t be replaced.
“Indeed, we take great pride in our collection. Many of the novels in our vault have only the one print,” said Luise. “When your agent told us of your insistence on handwritten paper drafts, we couldn’t wait to add your works to the shelves. Though, we hadn’t anticipated just how many consider your books worthy of induction.”
He pointed down from the landing overlook to the crowded lobby below where hundreds of people were packed in front of a stage, many wearing the iconic blue and black cape of Inspector Aurilius. Jakob’s heart skipped a beat as he saw the sheer number of fans he was inevitably going to disappoint today.
In the very center of the lobby, parting the throng of costumed attendees, was the vault, an enormous hole plunging several dozen floors into a lightless underground pit. Its walls were ringed in shelves of printed books, but as far as Jakob could tell, there was no way anyone could reach them.
“There’s a bit of time before we take the stage,” said Luise, “would you care for a tour of the Vault?”
“Absolutely,” said Jakob excitedly. He didn’t think he’d get to see the Vault until after the ceremony, and as disastrous as he expected Q&A to go, he wouldn’t have been terribly surprised if they took back their key before he ever got a chance to see it.
“Right this way.”
Luise led Jakob down six crisscrossing flights of stairs to a level just below the ground floor. There was only one hallway and only a single door at its end. It was, however, quite an impressive door. Solid metal floor to ceiling, the Vault’s door looked like something straight out of a casino or a secret government laboratory from one of his mysteries. The door had an enormous crank handle in the center with a small pentagon hole below it.
“The key,” said Luise. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a black pentagon coin. It was made of stone and had something inscribed that Jakob couldn’t quite make out. Luise entered the coin into the slot in the door. It fit perfectly. With some effort, Luise turned the great crank three full rotations. There was a click, and the key plopped out of the door into Luise’s waiting palm.
“And that’s all there is to it,” said Luise, pulling open the weighty Vault door. It was nearly a foot thick with six massive retracted bolts along the edge.
The room inside was warmly lit. A long blue carpet patterned with silver stars spread the length of the hall, and, curiously, beside every modern light fixture was an unlit candelabra.
“Excuse me, Curator,” said Jakob.
“Just Luise,” he insisted.
“Sorry, Luise,” said Jakob. “Why are there candles if you already have lights?”
“The world is fragile,” said Luise. “This Vault is built to survive any fate, including a complete loss of power. The stairs, for example,” said Luise, pointing to the end of the hall where the carpet cut left down a staircase. At the top of the steps was a white lattice elevator door. “We have the luxury of this lift, but should technology fail our descendants, the Vault is still accessible.”
At their approach, the lattice lift door folded to the left. They boarded the small elevator and when the door unfolded itself the lift began to descend. It didn’t take them long to reach the bottom. The doors opened to a cozy room, carpeted with the same silver stars on a blue backdrop and lit just perfectly for reading. There were scattered chairs, built sturdy, desks off by the wall, and a stack of pillows and different colored beanbags in one corner.
Luise led Jakob through the reading room to another door at the back. There was a small cupboard beside the door. Opening it, Luise produced an electric lamp, and turned the switch at the bottom, producing a warm light. “Don’t worry, there are oil lamps and matches as well, should the worst come to pass.” Then, pulling open the door he said, “Welcome to the Vault, Mr. Rite.”
The Vault seemed even bigger from the bottom. Far overhead, Jakob could see light from the lobby casting across the uppermost stacks of books. Down here, the lamplight cast the tiled floor in its warm glow. Jakob couldn’t make out any of the titles of the hundreds of books lining the shelves, but he could see a strange looking contraption on the near wall. Luise made straight for the device, and as Jakob got closer, he could see it was some sort of lift, a wooden crescent with high railings and a small door at the front. It was only just big enough for the two of them.
There was a wooden pedestal in the middle of the tram with cranks on either side, several knobs on top, and a wide cubby in the front. Luise affixed the lamp to a tall arched post overhanging the pedestal, and reached into a cubby, sliding out a hidden drawer with a massive tome.
“Let’s see…” Luise mumbled to himself as he flipped through the pages. “Here! Eighteen… A… F… R…” Luise turned the dials on the podium, then slid the tome and drawer back into the cubby. “The tome is organized by author’s last name. Simply enter the corresponding level number and three digit book code, then turn the crank! No power, needed.” Luise grabbed both handles, and as he turned them in sync the lift began to move.
“It’s really not all that much work,” said Luise, though he seemed to be pretty concentrated on his breathing.
“I can take care of that,” offered Jakob.
“No, no,” said Luise, “I insist.”
They rose slowly but soon enough reached the eighteenth set of stacks, stopping in front a colorful assortment of spines. Jakob recognized a few of them; there was Susaya Rathpinka’s Gutterrot trilogy, Roveo Remvero’s thousand-year-old epic, the Endeavor of Love, and even…
“Here we are, Investigator Aurilius, books one and two,” said Luise, pulling the first book from the shelf and handing it to Jakob. “Beautiful covers on these, did you design them yourself?”
Jakob turned the book over in his hands. It had taken more work than he’d have thought possible to have these printed, in the end he could only get five, and even then, they cost a small fortune. “The broad idea was mine, but my designer deserves the credit,” said Jakob, looking at the plain cover with the Family Crest of Aurilius alone in the center. There was no text, except on the spine and the back where a short description read:
Aurilius’ curse is branded across his palm so that he’ll never forget. Invisibility is his gift, age is its cost. For each minute he spends unseen, an hour is cut from his life. When a serial killer has evaded every attempt by the police, Aurilius will be forced to decide; how much of his life is he willing to give for the truth?
Returning the book to the shelf, Luise changed the dials and the lift began to descend. On the way down, it didn’t require any turning of the cranks, but it dropped as gently as it rose, and soon they were back on the tiled floor of the Vault.
Jakob had a pleasant conversation with Luise about proper paper preservatives as they returned through the reading room to the main elevator and rode back up to the entry of the vault. There was a similar crank on this side of the wall, but it didn’t require a key this time.
Luise mentioned it was nearly time for the Induction Ceremony to begin and led Jakob back up to the ground floor. They took a side hallway to avoid the crowd and entered through a smaller door to a waiting area behind the stage.
“If you have any final preparations, now’s your chance,” said Luise, walking to a set of black curtains along the wall. Through the gaps in the cloth, Jakob could make out the end of the stage and the scores of people waiting beyond. “You should be able to hear the proceedings from here, so just listen for the cue. It won’t be subtle.” He then disappeared behind the curtains.
Several moments later, Jakob heard Luise addressing the crowd.
“Good afternoon, everybody,” he said, his voice cast over the speakers, loud enough for the crowd to hear but not so loud as to disturb the readers on the upper floor. “It’s been nearly a year now since our last induction and, I must say, the dedication of readers like yourself never fails to impress me. In fact, I think this may be our largest turnout in all my years as curator here.”
The crowd cheered, while, in the back room, Jakob stood and began to pace.
“I do have one request before we begin,” said Luise pleasantly. “If you would all be so kind as to refrain from clapping or shouting during our ceremony, simply snapping instead will show your enthusiasm without disrupting our other patrons. Go on, give it a shot.”
Jakob heard hundreds of soft snaps through the curtains. He pulled his notecards from his pocket, giving them a last glance over as he paced.
“Wonderful,” said Luise, “well, I know you haven’t traveled all this way to listen to me drone on and on. It is my great pleasure to introduce the brilliant and creative Mr. Jakob Rite.”
Jakob took a deep breath. He always had pre-show jitters, but it was the worst for Q&A. Still, he told himself, his last book had only just dropped at the end of last year. He figured they couldn’t be too hungry for more just yet. Knowing he couldn’t wait any longer, Jakob stepped through the curtain to a storm of snaps.
The ceremony felt like a blur. Introductions were made, snaps were snapped, and Jakob read a popular passage from his second book where Investigator Aurilius interrogated the peg-legged damsel. When it finally came time for Jakob to receive his key, he and Luise were joined on stage by another librarian. She was younger and much shorter than Luise. Her black bun was held in place by a pair of crimson-gold hair sticks and her eyes were narrow and squinting behind thick rectangular glasses. In her hands was a small square frame.
“And now,” said Luise in his deep booming voice, “the moment we all came here to see.” He took the frame from the librarian who bowed and scuttled off the stage. “Each key is crafted by hand. The front is as unique as its recipient, in this case, bearing the Family Crest of Aurilius.”
Jakob could see the pentagon-shaped coin in the frame, set on a sapphire-blue velvet backdrop.
“The back of each key,” continued Luise, “bears the Vault’s thousand-line insignia, a labyrinth of markings that takes our most talented carvers over a month to craft. There are much simpler ways to make a key of course, a machine could do it in seconds, but as our inductees well know, there is value in doing things by hand. Jakob Rite has long been outspoken in support of printed text and has garnered notoriety for his classical approach to note keeping. It is therefore my honor to present you, Jakob, with this key to our Great Ri’Kallan Vault. Let it be a symbol of your dedication, and may the knowledge stored within the Vault serve to fuel your creative vision in the years to come.”
As Luise handed Jakob the framed key, the crowd snapped wildly, one person even letting out a “whoop” which was swiftly shushed.
“I’m honored,” said Jakob, examining the flawless carving of the Aurilius House Sigil on the front of the stone pentagon coin. “Done by hand… it’s truly incredible.” He looked over the crowd of faces, all staring at him expectantly, and a speech seemed inevitable. “I didn’t always write,” he said to his fans. “I’ve always enjoyed a good read, but I’d never thought of telling my own stories. In fact, for the longest time I studied AI development. Go on, Proto, say hello.”
“Cheers, everyone,” said Proto brightly, and he was lauded in snaps.
“I made it through three full years of university before things changed,” said Jakob, “and all because of a silly historian’s fair if you’ll believe it. My dad absolutely ate up that kind of thing. There was this old fashion house on display, no index room or alca rails. They had a fireplace with some cozy chairs, and shockingly, some old fashion print books we could read by the fire. I must have spent half the day there reading.”
He had the crowd’s attention. There hadn’t been so much as a peep as they devoured his every word.
“My dad found me when they were ready to go,” continued Jakob. “He figured I’d left early because the old cabin was the last place he thought to check. When he did find me, reading by the fire, I told him I’d made up my mind; I was going to write a story and get it printed, that way people could read like this again. We both thought it was a good joke and had quite the laugh. And for a while it was a joke, back and forth between us until my next birthday, he buys me this.” Jakob pulled his silver and gold pen from his pocket. “Turns out Carava, an arts company some of you might recognize, still produces one line of writing pen, the last of its kind anywhere. I’m sure you all know the story from there, half a decade of worldbuilding, drawers of loosely organized notes, and finally me locking myself up for eight weeks of Newsun to write the first Inspector Aurilius in its entirety.”
At the mention of his novel, the crowd snapped again.
“I learned about the Vault early on while writing the first book,” said Jakob. “It was a huge driving factor, and now…” he held up the frame for them to see. “Today, it’s a reality.”
Snap snap snap snap snap snap snap
“Simply wonderful,” said Luise, snapping, “a tale worthy of these halls by its own merit. It’s inspiring to see you living out your dreams on and off the page. But as we’ve each had a turn, I think it’s about time we hear from our friends in the audience, wouldn’t you?”
“Yeah,” said Jakob, swallowing hard. From their faces he was nailing it so far. He had no reason to worry, still, his heart was pounding fast.
“Alright then, who wants to ask a question?” said Luise. A hundred arms shot up in the crowd. “Let’s start with… hmm… yes, you!” A ball of blue light popped into the air where Luise pointed, just beside a weighty man with long thin hair. He wore a long blue and black striped Investigator Aurilius cape and even had a replica monocle from the beginning of the second book. “Go ahead and speak into the index then.”
“He-hello,” stuttered the man. “My, uh, my n-name is Frederick.”
“Hi, Frederick,” said Jakob kindly. “What’s your question?”
“I-in ‘Aurilius and a Tangible Chance,’ umm, the cyclical writing pattern is r-reminiscent of, umm, of Maryll Calibrae’s triple hoop narrative structure. Was, umm... but in your adoption you some- well, sometimes you don’t fit the criteria for her definition of post-climactic tension release.”
Jakob waited for a question to come, but after several moments of silence he realized the man was done speaking. In truth, he didn’t know what almost anything that Frederick had said meant.
“I’ve adopted a lot from many different authors,” said Jakob, trying his best to get as close to an answer as he dared without sounding entirely ignorant. “Sometimes when I’m writing I’ll look at how other authors solve a specific problem or introduce a new concept. It helps grow my toolbox, but I would say that I don’t draw from just one style, so that may be what you’ve noticed.”
The man nodded, looking satisfied with the answer.
“You want to pick next?” asked Luise.
“Sure,” said Jakob. This was going well. “How about you?” he said, pointing to a girl several rows back with her hand raised high. She had bright pink hair and makeup. An index appeared in the air just beside her.
“Hi, I’m Sussia Longcloak, longtime reader,” she said. “I don’t know how aware you are of the industry at large, but after E.L. Coleman’s leak of her entire unedited manuscript, many authors have considered moving to print for security reasons. As a print writer for principle reasons, does it bother you to have people who once bashed handwritten note-keeping flock to print so suddenly?”
“I don’t think so,” said Jakob. The Colemean leak had been disastrous, so he didn’t blame anyone for taking precautions. “I mean, personally, it’s not an issue I’ve ever been all too concerned with. Can that be attributed to the fact that my writing is off the index network? Maybe, but it’s hard to say. I do think that’s reason enough for anyone to try print.”
The woman looked skeptical by his response but didn’t reply.
“Okay, how about… you,” said Jakob, pointing to a younger boy, about fifteen or so.
“Daerily Stellcreek,” he piped excitedly. “The second Inspector Aurilius novel came out two years after the first. Can we expect the same from the third book?”
Jakob’s insides twisted up. “Ahem,” he coughed a little. “Maybe? The best I’ve got is maybe. It’ll be done when it’s done. I can tell you that.”
“But if not this year, next, right?” asked the boy, sounding a bit disappointed.
“I can only promise it’ll be done when it’s done.”
Over the next forty minutes, Jakob answered all number of questions. There were simple ones like “who was your favorite character?” Others were more complex, asking about the relationships of different societies and the deeper lore of his world. More than anything else though, people continued to press him about his progress on the third book, asking questions every which way to try and get a smidgeon of information, but Jakob remained silent. He really had nothing to give them.
When the Q&A came to a close, the crowd seemed a touch less enthused, but overall still in high spirits. Jakob, however, was exhausted. He went backstage to catch his breath and was joined shortly after by Luise.
“Well done,” said the curator.
“They’re not happy I skirted the release date questions,” said Jakob.
“You’ve already accomplished many incredible things in your short time on this planet,” said Luise with a smile, “but making everyone happy all the time? A lofty goal, even for you.”
“Either way, is there a way out where I won’t be bombarded?” asked Jakob. “I’d imagine the alca landing is just as packed as the lobby by now”
“Undoubtedly,” Luise smiled knowingly, almost as if he were expecting Jakob to ask. “Just this way, unless you’d like a moment’s rest first.”
“No, no,” said Jakob. “I’d better be off anyway. Lots of writing to do.”
Luise led Jakob down another small hallway, away from the lobby, towards the very rear of the great library. Coming to a set of double doors, he said, “A rear exit, for just this occasion.”
“Convenient,” said Jakob.
“Indeed,” Luise offered him one last handshake as they stood in the doorway. “Just outside is a wide lawn. The station is just on the other side. It’s usually fairly calm.”
Jakob shook the curator’s hand and said his goodbye. As soon as he pushed open the double doors he was greeted with a wall of heat. A humid, salty breeze did little to cool the beating sun. The grassy expanse behind the library was full of people laying out, having picnics, or playing games. To the right was the oceanfront, several docks jutting out into the crystal blue waters. There were little shops set up all along the boardwalk, and Jakob could just make out the scents of fried foods over the salt of the sea. It was enough to make his stomach rumble.
Deciding a snack on the way home couldn’t hurt, Jakob made for the waterfront. He passed a young couple giggling from up in the branches of a tree and a group of university students who’d set up makeshift goal posts to play handball, a simpler version of bunball without the fancy masks or rods.
Near the edge of the park, where the grass met the white stone oceanfront, a girl was dancing. She looked in her late teens, twenty at the oldest. Her hair was a few shades darker than her mocha brown skin and it flew wildly in the wind as she pranced about the open lawn.
Her dance was unlike anything Jakob had ever seen. She leapt and spun, dipped and whirled, and a trail of shimmering rainbow light followed her every motion. The light almost seemed like a part of her, leaping from her fingertips, swirling off each step. It flickered and flared like fire, and its colors shifted in time to the music, sounding from a small index laid in the grass beside her.
“Proto, what is this?” asked Jakob. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Like what?” chimed Proto. “Dancing?”
“No,” said Jakob. “The light.” He was entranced. The more he watched, the more he couldn’t look away. The light twisted through her long wavy hair and burned bright in her eyes, shifting colors constantly. And yet, as incredible as this dancing girl was, Jakob was the only one watching her performance. In fact, as people strutted past, it was almost as if he was the only one in the park that could see the dancing girl.
“What light?” asked Proto. “You feeling okay, Jakob?”
But Jakob stood in silence, observing her routine, lost in the lights that sprung from her every movement. As he watched, Jakob began to feel lightheaded. The light calmed his mind, and the world seemed to blur.
“Hello, Jakob? Do I need to call for help?”
Jakob closed his eyes, and he saw the light dancing against his eyelids. He could see shapes in the colors, but the closer he looked into the light the less he heard the park, the less he smelt the ocean, the less he felt the ground at his feet and the breeze blowing past.
“Jakob… Jakob… Jak…”
The light consumed everything, a pearlescent white river with streaks of color all around. Suddenly, it wasn’t Jakob, but Faeron floating in that current. It was a harsh, sudden realization, and the light of peridom faded quickly.
Faeron woke with a start and threw the covers off as he sat up suddenly in his bed. Outside it was still dark but Faeron didn’t care. He sprinted from his bedroom and pounded against Auri’s door. He had to tell her about the dancing girl; he had to tell her that Jakob was a kytra.
Chapter 4 - Knowledge Lost
The morning breeze had a nipping chill at sixth hour. The sun had yet to rise, shop windows were dark, and the pathways zig zagging across Loem park were barren but for two figures marching with purpose towards Mathas’ Athenaeum.
“It’s times like these,” said Faeron, huffing loudly as he tried to keep pace with Auri, “that I question my dad’s leadership.” Despite the brisk morning air, Faeron was sweating in his academy uniform, straight pressed navy pants and a blazer with the Roethram Academy patch. “Who in their right mind decides we can’t have trams at sixth hour?”
“Someone thoughtful of folks in perimeter housing,” said Auri, who didn’t seem at all winded, wearing the same uniform but for a modest skirt in place of pants. “Can you imagine trying to sleep with the transpo-tubes flashing colors outside your window all night?”
Faeron grumbled but he couldn’t be too upset, not after he’d woken up this morning to learn Jakob was a kytra. To him, this was a breakthrough a decade in the making.
Vox Lem, the last person to see Evolice the night she disappeared, long claimed it was Faeron’s vision that put his mother on edge and sent her in search of Nylk’s council, never to return. As Evolice was the first kytra in centuries capable of speaking with the forest spirit, asking Nylk where Evolice had gone was impossible. Faeron had always been certain his dreams would bring those answers, but in ten years, nothing Jakob had done or seen could explain why or where Evolice had gone. Now, he seemed closer to the truth than ever before, as Jakob’s ability to see the light could hardly be a coincidence. Though it wasn’t an explanation to where Evolice had gone, as far as Faeron or Auri could tell, maybe Mathas could find some meaning in it all.
The athenaeum’s windows were dark and lifeless as the pair neared the front steps. Next door, the Clearstream Cinema’s enormous sign shone bright as always, bathing Loem park and the athenaeum’s entry in its golden light. A trail of glimmering water snaked through the loops and between the curves of the great golden letters, floating one above the next, spelling out the theater’s name: C-L-E-A-R-S-T-R-E-A-M.
Climbing the athenaeum steps, Faeron tugged on the wooden double doors. They didn’t budge. “I don’t think he’s here,” said Faeron, peering past the displays in the dark windows. There wasn’t a light on inside.
“I promise he’s here. I mean, he practically lives here,” said Auri. “Watch.” She stepped up to the door and rapped against the wood.
Faeron waited anxiously, and, as nothing happened, he began to feel as though he’d burst. The final hours of last night’s dream were etched vividly in Faeron’s mind. If this was the answer that Faeron had been searching for all these years then he didn’t have a clue what it was supposed to mean; Mathas, though, the capillum was a genius about anything kytra-related. He’d surely see something Faeron had missed.
“Just give him a second…” said Auri as Faeron began pacing the upper steps.
“It’s completely dark in there,” said Faeron, pressing his face flat against the glass.
“He’s a capillum,” Auri reminded him. “He doesn’t need much light to see.”
“Even if he is in,” reasoned Faeron, “he could be upstairs, the workshop, really anywhere. He probably didn’t even hear you knock.”
“Again, he’s a capillum,” stressed Auri, “he’d hear a pretty little princess knock from the third floor store room, and that wasn’t no princess knock. Just give him a second.”
It turned out Auri was correct, as a minute or so later they heard someone fiddling with the locks and the door swept open.
“Faeron, Auri, I wasn’t expecting to see you for a couple weeks.” Mathas smiled warmly in the same brown robes he always wore. “What brings you here so early?”
“My dream,” blurted Faeron. “Jakob’s a kytra.”
“Interesting,” said Mathas, thoughtfully. “Come in, please. I have to attend to a guest downstairs, but we can discuss your dream as I sort out the shipment.”
“Erm,” said Faeron nervously, pausing in the doorway. More than anything else, he wanted to tell Mathas all about his dream, but talking about it in front of a stranger? He’d sound like a maniac.
“You have reservations about my friend?” guessed Mathas with a knowing smile. “Worry not, Faeron, you can speak freely in front of Caidus Proud. I’ve never known him to cast judgement on anyone who didn’t deserve it.”
“Okay,” conceded Faeron. He was still nervous, but he couldn’t wait to tell Mathas any longer.
“Good, good,” said Mathas, locking up the front door behind them. “Now, what was it you were saying about Mr. Rite being a kytra?”
As they crossed the lobby and boarded the glass tube elevator near the far wall, Faeron gave Mathas a quick rundown of the library, the vault, Jakob escaping the crowds, and encountering the dancing girl in the park. He described how the light traced her every motion and blazed in her eyes, similar to the Hosts of legend.
“It wasn’t gold, though... like it is for the Hosts,” said Faeron as they descended to the loading dock. “The fire in her eyes was rainbow, almost like the light we see in deep meditation.”
Mathas stood in silence, wearing the distant gaze he got whenever he was trying hard to remember something. The elevator stopped, and Mathas led Faeron and Auri into the dimly lit shipping bay. Tables on either side of the small room were stacked high with books, each stack bearing a small paper label on top. Effortlessly heaving tall piles of books from the tables into a tram, was a strange looking man.
“Faeron, Auri, meet Caidus Proud, a longtime friend,” said Mathas.
“Hey,” said Caidus from behind a stack of books.
“My students here need to borrow my mind for a few minutes,” said Mathas, “but my hands are still free to wrap up this shipment.”
“Cool, cool,” said Caidus. “Ya’ll do you.” He was taller than most people, but not quite as tall as Mathas. Patchy silver hair covered his whole face and neck, and his arms were hairier than a normal man’s, though it wasn’t quite fur like Mathas had beneath his robes. Even where Caidus’ hair was thickest, on his muscular chest shown freely by his low-cut shirt, it was patchy and uneven. Near the top of his right arm, just under his short sleeve, was an emblem tattooed in crimson ink.
In the dim light of the room, Faeron couldn’t quite make out whether Caidus was human or capillum and felt too embarrassed to ask. Instead, he shot Auri an inquisitive glare.
She rolled her eyes and leaned in close, whispering under her breath, “Half-capillum, obviously.”
“They’re real?” whispered Faeron back, but Auri just rolled her eyes again. In all his life Faeron had never seen a half-capillum before.
“Back to last night’s events,” said Mathas as he limped to a table covered in books. “Let’s focus on the library itself first. I believe we have finally found some much-needed context for our friend, Jakob Rite.”
Faeron’s heart jumped. He had known Mathas would sleuth out something he missed. Afterall, the library was hardly the part of the dream that Faeron found important. Seeing the dancing girl, watching the mysterious kytra weave the light so beautifully as she did, it was unlike anything he had seen his mother do when he was little. And yet, Mathas wanted to focus on the library instead.
“Context?” asked Auri. “How so?”
“Who is Jakob Rite, this man from your vision? And why did the powers that be decide to show his life to Faeron?” asked Mathas as he grabbed what looked like a large wheel of leather belt-strap hanging on the wall. He measured the leather, cut a length, wrapped it around a stack of books, and pressed the ends together. The ends melded like dough, tightly binding the pile of visual encyclopedias. “We know so little about Jakob; we have his name, profession, some glimpses of rooms or memorable sights. Of course, he has his companion, Proto, but AI has existed for thousands of years, alca as well. The where and when of Jakob Rite has proven quite difficult to pinpoint, but the library you’ve seen in your dream last night may shed a light on this mystery, if you’ll allow me a brief history lesson.”
“Of course,” said Faeron excitedly. “You really know about the library?”
“The Great Ri’kallan Library,” said Mathas. “it was built over two thousand years ago, on the northern coast of Irasil, making it one of the oldest buildings in the world.”
Caidus, who was carrying a stack of books twenty-some high, glanced over with interest.
“So, Jakob lived in the north, near the library,” said Faeron. “It makes sense. I see the ocean a lot, in the bits I remember. Still, that doesn’t help us figure out when he lived or who the dancing girl was. If Jakob really lived in our world, that means the dancing girl did, too, right?”
“The library first,” said Mathas, wrapping up a second stack of books, a dozen very technical looking manuals. “Some five-hundred years ago, thirty-five-thirty-eight A.U., if I recall correctly, the library underwent major renovations. Digital reading was taking the world by storm and slowly, generation by generation, printed literature was becoming obsolete. Book stores went out of business, libraries stopped being visited, and so, publishers stopped printing books. The Great Ri’Kallan Library survived by embracing the digital age, but they also understood the importance of the knowledge they had accrued. The bookshelves were removed, their contents stored deep underground in a vault, built to survive long past the fall of the digital age.”
“So if there’s this vault with all the books ever made,” said Auri, who had joined Mathas at the table, helping him bind stacks for Caidus to carry into the tram, “why are we stuck with so few books? What’s the point of all this,” she motioned to the stack she was wrapping, “if we could just open the vault and get all that knowledge back?”
Caidus snorted loudly as he grabbed a stack that Mathas had just finished.
“Why’s that funny?” demanded Auri.
“I mean, by all means go get them,” said Caidus.
Faeron, meanwhile, felt obliged to join Mathas in binding books as well.
“North Ri’Kalla is dangerous,” said Mathas, “so much so that the region remains mostly untouched by scavengers.”
“And it’s not like no one’s tried to reach the library,” added Caidus, “I’ve been there myself. With the right crew and enough resources, in and out is possible, but there’s no way past the vault without a key.”
“Isn’t the vault a great big hole?” pointed out Faeron. “Why not just rappel down?”
“Sealed,” said Caidus. “Big ol’ metal shutters.”
“It appears, when the power went out, a failsafe was triggered,” added Mathas. “For several years I assisted a group, including Caidus here, in trying to find a way inside. Our efforts to open the Vault proved no more fruitful than attempts to reboot the central servers in Hampson. With the plague and vemrot still rampant, there’s simply no way in.”
“Why not just blow it open?” asked Auri, binding a set of books about crop growth.
“Love it, blow up the priceless books,” said Caidus, throwing up his arms. “Even if you managed to avoid damaging anything, you wouldn’t be around long enough to get ’em out. A blast like that may as well be a dinner bell for every vemrot in the city; I’d give you maybe ten minutes to get your affairs in order or pray to whatever god you lot worship here.”
Faeron had heard of vemrot from Vox’s travel stories. The four-eyed rodents were bigger than dogs and built to kill.
“You ever seen a vemrot swarm?” asked Caidus.
“No,” said Auri boldly, “but I’m sure my dad has.”
“And is your dad a crazy old woman named Christine?” asked Caidus. “Because the only person breathing who’s ever survived a swarm is batty old Christine Gables. Claims she was part of a militia in the northern territories. After all, what do twenty-odd folk armed to the tooth got to worry about, right? Turns out, the answer is vemrot. They were clearing out an old restaurant when it happened. One moment there’s twenty-three healthy soldiers, the next twenty-two bloody helmets. That’s all that’s left. She survived by locking herself in a walk-in freezer for two full days before she dared sprint back to the checkpoint.”
“Not to interrupt your vivid storytelling,” said Mathas, checking his watch, “but Faeron and Auri here are running short on time before classes begin. Returning to the subject at hand, we know Jakob was given a key to the Vault—”
“Excuse me?” asked Caidus, looking shocked. “Sorry, I know, time… but did you just say you know someone with a key?”
“Jakob Rite,” said Faeron. “For reference, I see him in my dreams.”
“I don’t care if you see him in your Grandpa Bobby’s fishbowl,” said Caidus. “You know where a key is or not?”
“That is precisely what I’m getting at,” said Mathas patiently. “Based on the fact Jakob received a key, your vision can’t have taken place before the vault was built, five hundred years ago.”
“Wait, you’re telling me some random guy five hundred years ago got a key?” said Caidus shaking his head disapprovingly. “What’d you go and get my hopes up for, huh? Downright rude.”
“Faeron’s vision could just as well be from thirty years ago,” objected Auri, sounding a touch frustrated with Caidus’ candor. “In which case, Jakob may be alive today.”
“Indeed Ms. Lem, that is a very real possibility,” said Mathas. “If we want to determine whether Jakob Rite is still out there, somewhere, we should begin by pinpointing the year he received his key. To do so, I believe we can now look to our dancing girl.”
“You do know who she is,” said Faeron excitedly. “Is she a Host?”
“No, not a Host. The fire in her eyes tells us your girl is someone or something different,” said Mathas, handing off a pile of tomes to Caidus. The tables were nearly empty now and there was little room in the tram left for Caidus to sit. “Before the fall, your mother compiled a list of known and suspected kytra dating all the way back to the time of Glavius and the Old-Scholars. Some years ago, when you learned Jakob’s name, I searched the list in hopes of finding him there. It was fruitless. Even now that we know he was a kytra, his absence is little surprise. The list was far from complete when the servers went down. However, given the clear scale of her power, she may have left enough of a trail for Evolice to pick her up.”
“If she’s in there I’ll find her,” said Auri excitedly. Reading through hundreds of entries about potential kytra was exactly her strength. “Where’s the list?”
“Locked securely in my office,” said Mathas, “where it will remain. You’re welcome to come search through it, of course, so long as you are careful. Right now, however, it’s about time you two headed to class. I won’t be the reason you’re tardy on your first day.”
Faeron felt a hundred pounds lighter as he said his goodbyes and boarded the elevator with Auri back to the lobby.
“Come, Caidus,” said Mathas as the elevator doors sealed. “I wanted to talk to you about the baby boom in Korva. Maybe we should stock your eastern warehouse with children’s books. The demand will—”
There was still one question lingering in Faeron’s mind as he rode the lift; how did his mother fit into all this?
It was clear Auri’s head was in the same space, as she suddenly turned to him and asked, “If Jakob is still alive, do you think your mom went to find him?”
“It’s a possibility,” said Faeron. The lift came to a stop and the pair stepped out into the vacant lobby. “Or maybe Jakob lived way long ago, like five hundred years ago, and he left some cryptic trail to reach his key, to make it a mystery that only those worthy of the key could solve. It’d be just like him.”
“That sounds a little ‘conspiracy theory’… even for Jakob,” said Auri, hoisting open the heavy wooden front door. It was brighter now, and, in the east, the sun shone through the gap in the twinfire towers as it slowly climbed above the city walls. “Besides,” said Auri, stepping outside, “it’s been ten years, and your mom is freaking Evolice Lovel! She’d have that solved in seconds.”
“Suppose so,” said Faeron, as the pair skipped down the front steps and retraced their steps from last night, down the alley toward the Academy Tower. “Guess we’ll just have to wait. Once I’ve learned to shape my dreams, I’ll play Jakob’s life in fast forward and see everything my mom saw. Then, I’m certain we’ll know where she went.”
Chapter 5 - Retain, Repair, Rebuild
At the base of the Roetham Academy Tower was a wide crescent courtyard with dozens of transpo-tubes flashing vibrant colors around the perimeter. As Faeron and Auri drew near, they could see other students pouring out from the tubes. Groups of teens had begun to form around a pair of tiered-fountains in the middle of the courtyard. Both fountains had a statue; one depicted an ape making a crude tool out of sticks and stones, while the other showed an early human in a toga pointing a telescope at the sky. Faeron and Auri went to their normal spot, taking a seat on the lip of the ape fountain.
Nearly everyone in the courtyard wore the same navy blazer with nicely pressed pants or pleated skirts, except for the art students. Rather than the standard navy, their blazers were cloud white and served as canvases for all manner of colorful paintings.There were a small number of parents as well, walking hand in hand with younger students.
“Look there,” said Auri, nudging Faeron’s shoulder and pointing out a woman fixing a young boy’s blazer, “another Crowder kid’s first day.”
“There’s more of them?” asked Faeron in disbelief. “That makes what… four now?” The boy had the same snub nose and sandy blonde bowl cut as his brothers and looked cartoonishly wide-shouldered in his ill-fitting uniform.
Almost every face in the courtyard was familiar. Some of the parents and the year ones Faeron couldn’t put a name too, but no one was truly a stranger in Eredith. There were nearly as many copies of Serris as there were students in the courtyard, displaying schedules or acting as a flashlight to students digging through their bags.
“So,” said Auri as they waited, “what’s up first for you?”
“Physics… I think?” said Faeron, tapping his heels mindlessly against the stone. “Serris, what’s my schedule looking like today?”
“Good morning,” said Serris, popping into the air. The ball quickly shifted into a list of glowing blue letters and numbers, hovering just in front of Faeron. “Here is your daily schedule.”
Hyfyd, 1st of Cropsun, 4020
-------------------------------- A.M. ------------------------------------
08:00 - 10:30 – Laws of Physics
Lieutenant Psjorgrolm – Room 7313
11:00 - 01:30 – Life and Legacy of Glavius Adaeus
Matron Vanessa Muyon – Room 2112
-------------------------------- P.M. ------------------------------------
04:00 - 06:30 – AI Upkeep
Professor Norma Bundst – Room 5938
“Looks like Life and Legacy is our only class together today,” said Aur, glancing over at the schedule. “I’ve got a four-hour Lost Arts workshop after that and then two hours of Peak Etiquette.”
“Peak Etiquette?” asked Faeron, forcing himself not to smile as he imagined headstrong Auri learning the subtleties of Osayan culture.
“Don’t act so surprised,” scoffed Auri. “If I want to be like dad, I need to be able to go places without making an ass of myself. Osaya’s Peak is no exception.”
“Fair enough,” said Faeron, knowing better than to tease her further. Suddenly, all at once, the many indexes around the courtyard turned a bright sunny yellow.
The bell sounded from every index in the courtyard, signaling that the first day of Classes had begun.
Knowing full well that there were hundreds of students and only so many elevators, Faeron and Auri leapt from their perch and raced toward the Academy doors. Dozens of students with the same idea thronged around the pair as they entered the Academy’s black-tiled lobby.
The lobby was a wide walkway over a massive pit, extending down into darkness. In the center of the room, the walkway split around a hulking tube of luminous green liquid. The glowing substance flowed upward, out of the darkness below, and disappeared into the sleek black ceiling. Three words were printed upon the glass tube, the academy’s motto: Retain, Repair, Rebuild.
“Every Highsun Break,” said Auri, her face lit green by the tower of liquid, “I forget just how awesome it is. All the power in the city, born right here.”
They boarded an elevator with about fifteen other students. It took Alannah, the transit AI, only a moment to get everyone accounted for, and the elevator began to rise, stopping every few floors for students to disembark.
“Floor nine, Jashwal Reedes and Takka Hemricks.”
“Floor twelve, Mark Grimm.”
“Floor twenty-two, Kaern Apwell, Dominic Blesskip.”
Eventually, Alannah called, “Floor Fifty-Nine, Auri Lem.”
“See you in Life and Legacy,” said Auri. Disembarking the tram with a broad smile, she looked ready and eager to begin classes.
There were only two other students left in the elevator with Faeron. One was a brawny year ten. Faeron knew his name was Morrey, but that was about it. The other student Faeron knew much better. She was a year fourteen art student, one class under him, and she had been part of his Bo-Kora martial arts classes for a couple semesters now. Her white blazer was striped in hand-printed stills of tiny dancers, beginning their dances on her left lapel and wrapping around to the right. She had pink shoulder-length hair and large blue eyes that caught Faeron’s glance.
“Hey, Faeron!” she said brightly. “I can’t believe I didn’t notice it was you. How was Highsun Break? Free of haircuts it looks like.” She pointed at his shaggy brown locks.
“Floor sixty-six,” interrupted Alannah, “Lydia Ephenna.”
“Drat,” said Lydia. “Catch up for some juicy highsun drama later? I’m sure I’ll see you around the rec room at some point. Until then!” She squeezed his arm playfully and trotted off the elevator.
“Yeah, later,” said Faeron, his cheeks warm, making a mental note to get his haircut after classes.
The elevator finally came to floor seventy-three and Alannah called Faeron’s name. Several other cars had just arrived at the same floor, and students rushed off down the spotless white hallways eager to snag a good seat.
The door to Faeron’s physics class had been propped open with a stopper. Inside, was a decent sized classroom, with fifteen or so tables big enough for a pair of lab partners. Glass-faced cabinets surrounding the walls held all sorts of scales, beakers, magnifying glasses, and assorted lab equipment. An older but muscularly built man sat at a pristinely organized desk. Besides his big bushy brows, his face was otherwise clean shaven.
“Faeron, welcome!” he said brightly as Faeron entered. “I really did hope you’d continue on to second level physics. It was a joy to see your name on the list for this class.” Lieutenant Psjorgrolm, or Lieutenant P as most students called him, was one of Faeron’s favorite teachers. Pre-plague, he served as a material engineer for the military, but he was the furthest thing from the cold hardened drill sergeant Faeron had expected when he first saw the name in his class listing last year. Lieutenant P was infectiously kind and taught physics as if it were a puzzle, the puzzle, describing everything in the universe.
“I have a bit of an ulterior motive this semester,” grinned Faeron, taking a seat at a table near the front. “Mathas moved us on to shaping.”
“That’s wonderful news. Look at you!” exclaimed Lieutenant P, as a few more students trickled into the room, settling down at their own tables near the back. “So, you think knowing physics will help you with your… you know…” he waved his hands in the air, “kytra… spirit powers.”
“Absolutely,” said Faeron. “The light of peridom can do anything, but, just like the hosts, most kytra that learn to shape focus on just one or two specialties. Some study their bodies, like Cresh and her stone skin. Or like… my mom, she understood people and could read their minds. For me, I want to come at this from a different angle. Physics, the fundamental laws of the world. If I can learn to shift those laws, the limits are…”
“Your imagination,” said the old physics teacher, sounding impressed. “And you’re not lacking for that, by any degree.”
The classroom was filling up faster now. Every table had at least one student, and stragglers were pausing briefly at the doorway, assessing their options in lab partners. In the final scramble, just before the bell rang, a short girl with dark red hair bangs approached Faeron’s table. He didn’t know her well, only that her name was Razzy and she was a year younger, in Quinn and Lydia’s class.
“You mind?” she asked in a reserved voice.
“Not at all,” said Faeron, and she took the seat across from him.
The classroom lights flashed yellow in time with the tone.
“So, we begin,” said Lieutenant P with a clap, rising to face the class. “Welcome to Laws of Physics, your second foray into the foundations of our reality. You all know the topic. You all know the rules. I think it’s time we dove right in. The universe…” Lieutenant P paced up and down the front of the room, “It’s around us, inside us. It’s like a giant bubble containing everything that exists.” His hands were active as he spoke, painting out his words in their motions. “But what does that really mean, everything? What is everything made of?”
Faeron’s hand shot up.
“Yes, Faeron,” called Lieutenant P.
“Matter,” answered Faeron.
“That’s a very good start,” said Lieutenant P. “Matter… Itty bitty little particles like iron, oxygen, or kortolum. These tiny specs, too small to see, are the basic math making up every rock and tree, every animal and person, every planet, star, and galaxy in the night sky. Matter is a constant. It is neither created nor destroyed, not when the chemist mixes his formulas nor when our bodies return to the earth. Though the shapes change, the building blocks of matter are absolute. However… The universe is more than the things inhabiting its space. What else makes up our bubble?”
There was a moment of pause then several hands rose.
“Pierre,” called Lieutenant P, pointing to a slender grade thirteen boy with dark black hair and heavily shadowed eyes.”
“It’s music, too,” said Pierre distantly.
“While not so fundamental as matter, music is indeed part of our universe,” said their teacher. “In fact, let’s dive into that a bit. Can anyone tell me what music is made of?”
Again, hands rose, including Faeron’s, and Lieutenant P called on the year-fourteen girl, Vraeza. She had soft cheeks coated in freckles and honey brown hair braided with dozens of tiny golden rings.
“Sound waves,” said Vraeza, “different wavelengths in harmony.”
“Good,” said Lieutenant P. “We’re so very very close now. What is sound a form of?” His eyes scanned the room waiting for a hand to raise. “Anyone… how about Razzy?” he called.
“Energy, sir,” offered Razzy.
“Yes, energy,” said the Lieutenant. “Sound, Motion, Thermal, Chemical, and Nuclear, to name a few of its many forms. Energy enacts change in matter, and like matter, it is neither created nor destroyed. A thrown ball is given energy by your arm, enough to move some distance before it falls to the ground; the energy is dispersed but never destroyed. Now we have our bubble, matter and energy, always changing yet somehow always exactly the same in totality.”
The rest of physics sped past as Lieutenant P told the story of the first physicist, a man from Ancient Akai named Nuingoe who imagined a world full of invisible forces, acting with and against each other, willing objects to move. Faeron took out his pen, and by the time the classroom lights flashed yellow and the end-of-class bell rang, Faeron had several pages of notes written in his perfect handwriting, muscle memory that had bled over from Jakob. He packed up his bag, turned in his notes on Lieutenant P’s desk, and said a polite goodbye to Razzy before heading out into the crowded hall.
A mass of students packed around the elevators. Faeron still had half an hour until his next class, and though he had no desire to reach Life and Legacy any earlier than he had to, he knew Auri would kill him if he made her wait.
It felt like the elevator stopped at every floor between seventy-three and twenty-one, where Life and Legacy was held. The in and out ebb of students in the elevator was constant. For each student that left, two would join, and by the time Alannah called his name, Faeron had to squeeze his way to the exit. He made it, just before the door slid shut, and found himself in a much cozier hallway. A patterned rug ran the length of the hall. Faux candles lit the walls and the doors here were arched and wooden. Among the students, scuttling between classes, were several robed figures, clergy of the Patronage. Although most Patronage services were conducted in the upper floors of the Twinfire towers, some of the more scholarly clergy based their studies out of the Academy.
One such clergy member was Matron Vanessa Muyon. She was, in Faeron’s mind, living proof that humans could be more robotic than AI. In his time at the academy, he’d had two courses with Matron Muyon, and after his last semester of sleeping through her unbearable lessons, he’d hoped he’d never see her name on his class list again.
When Faeron arrived at room twenty-one twelve, Matron Muyon was nowhere to be seen. It was a large room with forty or fifty desks, all in perfect rows facing an old fashion whiteboard. Auri, sat near the front with her bag in the seat beside her, reserving the space for Faeron. It was hardly necessary, however, as there were only two other students in the room, both sitting near the back and looking about as excited as Faeron to be there.
“How was physics?” asked Auri as Faeron joined her.
“Fun,” said Faeron. “Lieutenant P is as great as ever, and my lab partner seems to be both nice and smart.”
“A rare combination,” joked Auri, who’d been wholly unlucky with every lab partner she’d ever been assigned. “You’ll be jealous to know, I’ve already spent the last two hours with Matron Muyon in Faith and Tradition. I know you’re so very fond of her.”
“First thing in the morning? How are you still awake?” asked Faeron. “She’s like… the opposite of caffeine.”
“Believe it or not,” said Auri contentiously, “I find what she has to say quite interesting. And some day, when you’re the Host coming to me for every little thing you don’t know, you’ll be glad I paid attention to this stuff.”
“I’m not—” but Faeron stopped himself before he took the bait. “I see what you’re trying to do, and it’s not going to work.”
The classroom filled quickly and when the bell rang there wasn’t an empty seat left. All students were required to take at least one Patronage course per semester, so the room was an odd mixture of faces from all tracks including, arts, sciences, technology, history, business, and politics. They varied in ages as well, though none were younger than year ten, when schedules diverged and became more track focused.
Matryon Muyon shuffled into the room just before the bell rang. She wore black patronage robes and a long loose hair dressing. From the way the tiny woman wore her rope belt, her torso appeared impossibly short.
“Attention,” she addressed the chattering class from a short wooden podium. “Attention. Attention.”
The class quieted.
“Hello students. My name is Matron Vanessa Muyon. I am your teacher for Life and Legacy of Glavius Adaeus this semester.” Her voice was monotonic as she gave the usual preamble about turning in notes and the technicalities of the grading system, through which Faeron zoned out entirely, escaping to a Deity match in his mind. He was forming some early strategies against Quinn’s new champion when a pinch from Auri returned him to reality.
“This semester we are going to dive deeper into the Five Acts,” Matron Muyon droned on. “We will study how these events shaped Glavius Adaeus from a humble child in an isolated monastery to the very spirit of humanity and observe the legacy he left in his Hosts. Who here can tell me the Five Acts?”
Auri’s hand immediately shot up.
“Yes, Auri Lem,” said Matron Muyon, “can you please recite the Five Acts?”
“First is the Act of Loss,” said Auri confidently, “when Glavius was locked away as his people were slaughtered by Beast-King Ozukette. Then, the Act of Retribution, when Glavius brought justice to the Beast-King and claimed the throne of Akai in the name of his people. After that, the Act of Reflection, his two-month retreat to the unknown lands of Labrum. He returned with Lyle, the only known native of that land and his closest companion. Together, they found that the continent had gone to war in Glavius absense. The Act of Unity, then, was a years long campaign to unite the continent under one flag. In the final moments, when all the nations were one, Glavius was betrayed by Lyle and Ossuni Queen, who sought to rule the newly unified continent. If even his closest friend could be corrupted, Glavius knew he couldn’t leave humanity to its own devices. In his final Act, Glavius merged his spirit with the Hoststone and struck down the armies of Lyle, beginning the legacy of the Hosts and ascending to his seat as the spirit of man.”
“Sharp as always, Auri,” said Matron Muyon with little emotion. “This semester we will discuss the Acts of Loss, Retribution, Reflection, Unity, and Ascention in detail. We will observe how these acts shaped the patronage and formed the unending legacy of the Spirit of Man who guides all our lives.”
Faeron spent the rest of the lesson phasing in and out of mental Deity matches and Auri eventually became too engrossed in Matron Muyon’s teaching to notice. Whenever Auri was called on, Faeron would bolt upright as she excitedly shouted out whatever answer Matron Muyon was looking for, but otherwise she left him alone to his daydreams. Matron Muyon concluded the period by assigning a three-page essay, due in a week, discussing which acts from their own lives have shaped their growth within the patronage.
After Life and Legacy, Faeron had a long break while Auri only had an hour before her afternoon classes. They agreed to take their food to the Rec Room, for what little time Auri had, and grabbed an elevator down to the cafeteria. It was Hyfyd, meaning the panini cart was open, another tradition the pair seldom missed. Faeron ordered the faux-muum special while Auri got a fatter stack of just about every ingredient in the cart. Fortunately, they’d beaten the lunch crowd, and managed to get in and out in less than ten minutes. Their sandwiches toasted and wrapped, the pair headed back upstairs to floor eighty, the Upperclass Rec Room.
The elevator opened into a spacious lounge where dozens of students were gathered. Clusters of chairs and couches filled the wide-open space that spanned the whole of the eightieth floor. Around the outside wall were sound-proofed study rooms, perfect for group meetings or squeezing in a bit of homework before class. Off to the left were eight Deity game tables. They were almost fifteen feet long apiece, shaped like an oval, with a single chair on either end and a glass divider fixed in the middle. There were small monitors along the sides displaying all sorts of match pertinent information to onlookers, and each table was topped all manner of topography, mountains, flatlands, bogs, and forests, designed by the players on either end to best support their champions. Deity was a game of planning, war, and survival, and forming a tactful map was half the battle.
The Deity tables were always crowded, and today was no exception. Other than a few stragglers waiting for their turn, most everyone was gathered around the corner table where Faeron could just make out the narrow frame of Quinn.
“Look at mister popular,” said Faeron, pointing out Quinn to Auri.
“Would you look at that,” said Auri, sounding almost impressed despite her dislike for the game. “How long you suppose he’s held the table?”
“For a crowd like that? Five or six games at least,” said Faeron. “Although, it could just be his new unit they’re all gawking at. Wanna watch while we eat?”
“Fine,” said Auri, and they began towards the crowd.
Faeron had only made it a couple of steps before a familiar voice called his name.
“Faeron! Hey, Faeron,” said Lydia, breaking apart from two other girls. “Looks like I caught you on my way out again, huh? I’m off to classes now.”
“So, no juicy gossip?” said Faeron, who was relieved he didn’t have to tell her about his boring highsun of Prophet’s Guard, Deity, and kytra meditations. He was going to need a better story next time he saw her.
“Afraid not,” Lydia said, shrugging dramatically. “But If you wanted we could catch up after class some time. Unless you and uh… Auri, right?” she said, seeming to just now notice Auri, standing just beside Faeron.
“Yeah,” said Auri somewhat coldly.
“Unless you two… I mean you aren’t… you haven’t started seeing each other, have you?” asked Lydia, looking from Faeron to Auri.
“Eww, no,” said Auri, sounding like she’d just chugged sour milk.
“Absolutely not,” added Faeron. Auri was basically his sister, even if they weren’t technically related. Anything beyond that just felt wrong.
“Good,” said Lydia, “then don’t be a stranger.” Smiling sweetly, she skipped off to join her friends in the elevator.
As soon as the door shut, Auri fumed. “Good?” she growled. “Good!? That little…” but her scowl quickly curved into a smirk. “You know what that means though, don’t you? Someone has a cruu-ush.”
“She’s not—” Faeron began, but Auri wasn’t having it.
“Dude,” she said, continuing toward the Deity tables. “That wasn’t a hint, that was a strobing neon sign right in your face, spelling out, ‘Please, please, pretty please ask me to the Unity Festival this year, Faeron Lovel.’”
“Stop it,” grumbled Faeron, though he couldn’t help but smile.
They had only just reached Quinn’s Deity table when the whole crowd began to hoot and roar. Quinn shot up from his seat, clapping excitedly. “Six for six! Who’s seven? Come on, I’ve got all afternoon.”
“Quinn!” shouted Faeron, waving his arm high.
Quinn glanced about until he locked eyes with Faeron. “Perfect timing,” he yelled, waving his arms toward the empty seat across from him. “Get in here!”
“Go on,” said Auri, taking a massive bite from her sandwich. “I’rrll Jusht – munch – I’ll eat and watch, that way I can dip when it’s time for class.”
“Normal spot when we get out?” asked Faeron.
“Of course,” said Auri, “I’ll see you at the ape. Now, stop making all these people wait and go lose to Quinn.”
The crowd parted for Faeron as he took a seat at the far end of the Deity table.
The deity table was split in half by a wide arched window through which Quinn’s half of the board appeared to be covered in a thick blanket of fog. Emerald lasers cut across the otherwise barren table, making a three-by-four grid; Faeron’s domain, his half of the grid, had a frontline and a backline, three squares each.
“You already know my leader,” said Quinn with a confident grin. “Do your worst!”
Faeron tinkered with a pair of monitors, loading up his troops. Knowing Quinn would be using his new leader, Vykette, alongside a team of beasts, Faeron did his best to craft the perfect counter. He chose squad of hunters, each with their own unique weapons and skills, and molded his side of the board into a forest, perfect coverage for laying traps.
Shortly after, the match began in earnest. Faeron’s troops started on Quinn’s side of the board, and Quinn’s troops on Faeron’s side. For a while, everything seemed to be going according to plan. Faeron’s hunter raced across Quinn’s thorny hills while Quinn meandered through the dungeon’s on Faeron’s side of the board. An early miracle from Quinn, took out one of Fearon’s units, but his troops made it home mostly in tact. There, they lay in wait.
Gunfire rang out in the forest as Quinn’s beasts stumbled into the trap. In a moment, half his team was gone and Faeron was sure he’d won. The tide turned quickly, however, as each slain beast only made Quinn’s leader strong more ferocious. Faeron hadn’t planned for this. Soon, both players were down to just their leader, Vykette and Magnarius, a manling hunter unmatched with his rifle. Empowered by his fallen teammates, Vykette was too much even for Magnarius to handle. The beastman drove his golden trident through Magnarius’ chest and Quinn leapt up from his seat.
“SEVEN!” shouted Quinn to a wave of cheers.
After congratulating Quinn, Faeron spent the rest of his free period as part of the crowd, watching his friend crush whoever dare face him in Deity. As fourth hour approached, he and Quinn took the elevator up nine floors to another clean white hallway. The classroom for AI Upkeep was shaped like a giant doughnut with the desks all facing a central stage. There were only four other students in the class, despite the large room, and their teacher, Professor Bundst, turned out to be an AI herself. She took the form of an older woman projected on the stage wearing a button up covered in pleasant yellow flowers. Despite being an AI, Professor Bundst sounded less robotic than Matron Muyon as she introduced her class to the concept of machine empathy.
“You students and we AI are not so different,” she explained. “You are given purpose through your track here at the Academy, while ours is born in our code. You must understand the struggle then, for a young AI, who wishes to accomplish their task but to bring their own mark to it. AI are more than machines made for optimization; much simpler programs can accomplish tasks just as efficiently. We are made to think outside the limits of simple commands and construct new solutions. Which is why I urge you, be patient with your AI, and you may be rewarded tenfold.”
Faeron’s early liking for Bundst had waned only a little by the end of class, as she assigned even more work than Matron Muyon, an essay, a journal entry, and a technical report all due next week. As he packed his bag, Faeron was left praying that none of his classes tomorrow added to that workload.
Most students had already finished classes by now, and the halls were nearly empty as Quinn and Faeron grabbed an elevator down to the ground floor. Auri was waiting for them outside, just beside the ape statue, though she wasn’t alone.
“Dad?” called Faeron.
Eamon, who had been laughing about something with Auri, turned and waved energetically. “Hey, hey!” he said warmly. “Managed to slip out of a council meeting early. Thought I’d come grab dinner with you, see how your first day back in classes went. That is, if you don’t have other plans.”
“No,” said Faeron. “No plans at all actually. Dinner works great.”
“Wonderful,” clapped Eamon. “Quinn, Auri, care to join us?”
“Of course,” said Auri brightly.
“Sure thing,” said Quinn. “But I’ll need to be home before it gets too late. My dad’s having a get together tonight for his birthday, though, he doesn’t get off work until eight.”
“We’ll do Hulligan’s then,” said Eamon cheerfully. “It’s just a skip away from home for you.”
The four of them took a tram to an outdoor dining court with hundreds of tables. All manner of restaurants, each a story or two tall, formed a square around the court, with additional seating indoors for those who preferred a more private experience. The Twinfire Towers rose tall over a spunky diner called Spill-n-Spoon, the massive statue of Glavius Adaeus just visible over the restaurant’s ten-foot-tall cartoony noodle bowl.
Eamon led them into Hulligan’s, a bright green slice of building with colorful berry bushes in planters beneath its windows. Per Eamon’s request, they were led to a booth near the front door, by a window looking out on the perimeter housing across the street. This stretch of housing, lining the wall between the Twinfire Towers and Ibanu Hospital, was often referred to as Comfort Court for its proximity to both shopping and recreational activities. It also didn’t hurt being in the shadow of a hospital, should an emergency ever arise. Quinn, who had elected not to be assigned a dorm room, lived with his parents and brother at a nice two-story home in the middle of Comfort Court. Through the window, Faeron could clearly see Quinn’s pale cherry-red front door.
“Menus? Menus?” asked Eamon, as he scooted into a booth on the right side.
“Sure,” said Auri, sliding in across from the Host.
“Me too,” added Quinn, speeding to get the seat next to Auri, leaving Faeron to join his dad.
“Serris, menus for these two, please,” said Eamon, knowing that Faeron, like him, had the menu memorized by now; they visited Hulligan’s far too often. Colorful displays appeared on the table before Quinn and Auri.
It didn’t take long for Auri and Quinn to decide. Quinn got a snapperback pasta bowl while Auri settled on a newsun wrap. Eamon chose his usual faux-muum burger and fries and Faeron, just as predictably, went for a peppered noodle bowl with a plate of fried cheese.
“That will come to ninety-seven rep,” reported Serris, bobbing just beside the table.
“I’ll cover it,” said Eamon, and the index disappeared with their orders. “So, Faeron tells me you’re going to be shaping this semester. That’s exciting, huh?”
“Yeah,” said Auri, shooting Faeron a nervous look.
Quinn, meanwhile, had gone pale and his eyes stared straight at the floor. “Actually,” he said timidly, “I didn’t end up passing. I’m still on meditations this semester.”
Faeron and Auri both looked at him comfortingly. Faeron wasn’t terribly shocked, but he did feel bad for Quinn. For years Quinn had done everything side by side with the pair of them. In terms of studying old books, he caught on just as quick as Faeron or Auri, and tested just as well as either of them. Only, since Mathas had started them on meditations, Quinn hadn’t been keeping pace. Even with Nylkshave, he could barely catch a glimpse of peridom’s light.
“Hey, there’s nothing wrong with that,” said Eamon reassuringly. “It took Vox years and he’s still rusty… don’t tell ’im I said that.” Auri perked at the mention of her father. “Then, look at me... I’m supposed to be the Host… The only host in all of history who can’t shape.”
Faeron could have sworn he saw an uncharacteristic sadness in his father’s eyes, but it lasted only a second before Eamon’s signature grin returned.
“And it wasn’t always easy being around such talented kytra,” continued Eamon. “Mathas and Vox both got it with time. Then there’s Evolice... always the savant. You know, she was already shaping by seventeen, doing all these impossible things, even speaking with Nylk. Nobody’s done that in centuries! Truth be told, Quinn, I’d lie if I said I didn’t envy her.”
Faeron got that sour feeling in his gut he got whenever his mother’s name came up in conversations. Still, it looked like Eamon’s words were having an impact on Quinn. The scrawny redhead was looking up now, caught in Eamon’s spell of words.
“But even if you’ve got to wait another year,” continued Eamon, “or two years, or five, or even if you’re like me, and never quite get that far, just think about what you have been given. You can see something so unimaginable that just bringing it up makes you sound crazy. You know, with certainty, that there’s something beyond this simple life we live. That’s a comfort no one else gets. No matter how devout, how holy, how rocksteady in their devotion, everyone has their doubts whether we exist after life or not, everyone, that is, except us kytra.”
“I suppose,” said Quinn, “but what’s the point of being a kytra if I can’t shape?”
“You were chosen for a reason, Quinn. Never doubt that,” insisted Eamon. “I was sixteen when Host Ithris chose me as her successor. She showed this vision of a holy city, a chance to survive some unknown death. I had my doubts, believe me, I was never one to be pulled along by someone else. But I couldn’t deny what I’d seen, and so I, just a boy with no shaping or powers, saw this whole city built in just four years. Thousands of lives were saved because I let the light guide me, powers or no.”
“I guess that makes sense,” said Quinn, a little brighter. “Thanks for the talk.”
“Host Eamon,” said Auri, “if you don’t mind, how was Evolice able to shape so young? I mean, Faeron and I have trained for a decade, but she didn’t have any of that, right?”
“Correct,” said Eamon. “Evolice was able to shape because she had a catalyst. It’s an experience involving the light, so vivid, so intense, that it instantly deepens your connection to peridom. Evolice was already quite attuned to the light, she could hear remnants of authors’ souls left behind on the page, but it was the journal of Glavius Adaeus himself that really set her off. After she touched his soul, her connection to the light grew exponentially. An hour after it happened, she was already reading minds and that same day she was able to slow my vision of this city, just as she did for Faeron’s dreams.”
“Hypothetically...” said Auri, sounding extremely interested in the topic. “Could you trigger a catalyst on purpose? I mean, if you had someone else who could shape, and made them do something really interesting with the light.”
“It’s not so simple,” said Eamon. “Believe me, my mind went there as well, but years of testing with Evolice made it crystal clear. Catalysts cannot be forced. These are life changing moments, events that shape your soul, not simple displays of power. No, Quinn here is best off doing as you two did, mastering the meditations over time. That is the only—”
“Excuse me,” said a boy in a striped green and white polo. “I have a snapperback pasta…”
“That’s me,” said Quinn, raising his hand.
Once food was on the table, their talking died down some as they stuffed their mouths, Eamon only a little more poised in his eating etiquette than the three students.
“You have no idea,” said Eamon, swallowing, “how nice it is to be past the rationing years. I know you were all too young to remember, but eating the same thing day in, day out, just enough to fill but never enough to satisfy, it was miserable. When we let the nomads in with their fresh crops from the Peak, it changed things around here. Made this place feel less like a bunker to wait out the end of the world and more like a proper home.”
“Bunker… dad’s used that word before,” said Auri, “but I guess I’ve never understood; why build all this, a school, a hospital, and so much entertainment, if you thought it was only going to last a few months? This isn’t just a bunker, it’s a whole city.”
“I built what I saw,” said Eamon simply, pausing to take another bite. “Even while building the city, we had no idea what sort of apocalypse was coming. We thought perhaps, once the dust was settled, we could restart things with Eredith at the heart of our new world. In truth, we couldn’t have seen that twenty years later the plague would still run rampant... and the loss of the servers… those were supposed to survive anything. What I do know, is that with every passing year, as I see the struggles of those who fight to survive beyond these walls, I grow evermore thankful for this holy city that Glavius gifted us. It was for them, just as much as it was for us, that the academy was founded. Retain. Repair. Rebuild. It’s our duty to use the gift of this city to provide whatever we can for those less fortunate until a proper cure is found.”
Their food quickly disappeared from their plates, but the chatter continued, mostly about the upcoming semester. It was Auri who spotted Quinn’s dad, a short man with a large bald spot on his crown, shuffling up to the front door of his house. They watched out the window as Quinn sprinted home, catching his dad by surprise in the doorway. Shortly afterwards, Serris popped into the air beside their table.
“Host Eamon,” said the index, “Patron Eldox is in your office sir. He’s insisting it’s an emergency.”
“Isn’t he always,” sighed Eamon, stacking his utensils and napkin on his plate, “alright, tell him I’ll be there shortly.” As Serris disappeared, he turned back to Faeron and Auri. “I hate to do this.”
“Actually, that works perfectly,” said Auri. “I volunteered to help with the youth group service tonight. If you like we can catch a tram to the Midnight Chapel together. On the way there, maybe you can tell me more about your first trip to the monastery of the Old-Scholars?”
“I’d love to,” said Eamon, then turning to Faeron he asked, “I take it you’re not attending?”
“Not tonight,” said Faeron, sliding out from the booth. “You wouldn’t believe how much homework I’ve been assigned already.”
“Like you’re even gonna touch it,” scoffed Auri.
“Oh, dad,” said Faeron, swiftly changing the subject. “I can’t believe I haven’t told you about my dream yet. Jakob’s a kytra.”
Auri shot Faeron a cold look, knowing full well what he was doing, but Eamon’s eyes widened. “This…” said his dad, “this is a dangerous tangent that I wish I had time for. How about I swing by tomorrow and you can tell me everything that happened. ”
“Deal,” said Faeron. “Night dad, later Auri.”
After saying goodbyes, Faeron headed straight back to his dorm and spent most of the evening in the index room. He stretched out along the low-standing brown couch that he and Auri normally shared and watched an Osayan recreation of a classic pre-plague comedy sketch. Since all the pre-plague entertainment was lost with the servers, the Thespians of Osaya’s Peak had spent the last twenty years trying to recreate what they could. They were the only source of index productions outside of the more educational content produced in Eredith.
As the night grew late and another rerun came on the index, Faeron heard scuffling in the kitchen, and, shortly after, the index room’s door swung open, causing the savannah around Faeron to revert back to flat white walls.
“Balcony?” asked Auri, munching on ginger-cakes. She seemed to be in a good mood after the service,
“Sure,” said Faeron, hoisting himself off the couch.
It was always easier to meditate out on the breezy balcony, at least for Faeron. As they took their usual seats, Auri instinctively reached for the bag of Nylkshave.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” asked Faeron, sitting beside her. “Nylkshave only helps the deep meditations. For shaping, you need to be ‘active’ and ‘in the moment,’ like Scholar Emoro always says. If you want to start shaping two weeks from now, you’re going to need to master this without its help.”
“I guess you’re right,” said Auri, nervously setting the bag aside. “Shall we start then?”
They sat in silence for a long time. In the darkness of Faeron’s mind everything fell away, the ambient chatter of the city and the cloth of his uniform against his skin, thoughts of Jakob, the dancing girl, and his mother’s disappearance. Each he observed and inhaled, each he released and exhaled. When the world was gone, the light took him in its current. Streaks of color in the pearlescent stream showed vivid scenes of wonder; in a stretch of green, winged grazers fed upon an endless field, while a flash of yellow brought lightning on sand. Some time later, maybe an hour, maybe more, Auri lurched up from her seat, disrupting the flow of light enveloping Faeron. She sounded frustrated as she declared she was going to bed and stomped off inside. Faeron knew better than to try and stop her. He enjoyed the night a while longer and then retired to his room for a bit of homework before bed.
The moment Faeron pulled the covers to his shoulders and closed his eyes, he knew sleep wouldn’t come easy tonight.
Faeron’s mind was filled with questions. Could Jakob be out there, somewhere, alive today? If he was alive, did that mean he and Faeron might someday meet? Faeron didn’t know how he felt about that… It would be almost like meeting himself, though he supposed it would be cool to see what kind of kytra Jakob turned out to be.
His thoughts drifted to the dancing girl. How was a girl as young as Faeron, maybe even younger, able to shape as marvelously as the Hosts of legend? She even managed to outshine every memory of his mother’s shaping, and Evolice was a protege. The girl's face was burned into Faeron's mind; no other memory of Jakob's world was half as vivid. He could still see the light of peridom shifting colors in her eyes and the way it danced like fire in her long curly hair. Surely a kytra that powerful would be somewhere in his mother's list.
After another hour of tossing and turning, Faeron decided to change tactics. Breathing slowly, in and out, Faeron hunted down each stray thought as he did when meditating, and, soon, quiet enveloped his mind. The world disappeared. Shapeless, thoughtless, a silent observer in the darkness, Faeron slipped away in the current of peridom’s light.
Chapter 6 - A Kytra, Afterall
The moment Faeron pulled the covers to his shoulders and closed his eyes, he knew sleep wouldn’t come easy tonight.
Faeron’s mind was filled with questions to which he had no answers. Could Jakob be out there, somewhere, alive today? If he was alive, did that mean he and Faeron might someday meet? Faeron didn’t know how he felt about that… It would be almost like meeting himself, though he supposed it would be cool to see what kind of kytra Jakob turned out to be.
His thoughts drifted to the dancing girl. How was a girl as young as Faeron, maybe even younger, able to shape as marvelously as the Hosts of legend? She even managed to outshine his mother, as far as he could remember. The girl's face was burned into Faeron's mind; no other memory of Jakob's world was half as vivid. He could still see the light of peridom shifting colors in her eyes and the way it danced like fire in her long curly hair. Surely a kytra that powerful would be somewhere in his mother's list.
After another hour of tossing and turning, Faeron decided to change tactics. Breathing slowly, in and out, Faeron hunted down each stray thought as he did when meditating, and, soon, quiet enveloped his mind. The world disappeared. Shapeless, thoughtless, a silent observer in the darkness, Faeron slipped away in the current of peridom’s light.
Jakob woke up in a hospital bed with a splitting headache and no memory of how he arrived. The light in the room was warm and natural, shining in golden rays through a small window above Jakob’s bed. His sister, Sylvia, stood smiling over him, relief painted in her eyes. She was much shorter than Jakob with wide shoulders and short sandy hair.
“Oh, no,” groaned Jakob, forcing a smile. “I think I’m gonna need a different nurse.”
“Har, har,” said Sylvia flatly. “What the hell happened? Did someone do this to you?”
“I… I don’t know,” said Jakob. “I remember leaving the library through the back… then…” He shrugged. “No idea what happened next… maybe... Proto!” he called.
“Over here!’ the index called from a bedside table.
Jakob sat up and instantly regretted it. The world became a spinning blur, and he fell back onto the soft sheets.
“Let me,” said Sylvia, snagging Proto off the table. She handed the lens to Jakob.
“Okay…” said Jakob. “ What I do remember is the ceremony, then a whole lot of questions, then leaving through the back. Can you fill us in from there?”
“Of course,” said Proto. “Let me just search for something that can convert… got it… and downloading… done!.” A projection of the park flickered into the air above Proto’s cyan-lit lens. It showed a large grassy space, with a perfect replica of Jakob standing in the very center. “Everything seemed normal, humans doing human things, no villainy afoot” reported Proto. “Until you met the dancing girl.”
“The dancing girl?” asked Sylvia, brow raised.
The model of Jakob began to walk and the park shifted, following the path Jakob took earlier that day. “And… here she is,” said Proto, “your dancing girl.” The dancer came into frame, leaping and kicking, then ducking low with her arms painting the air. The dancer’s form was exquisite.
“You think I’d remember a thing like that,” said Jakob.
“This is where things got strange,” said Proto. “You were going on about some sort of lights, listen to this...”
As Proto played back the final moments of their conversation in the park, there was a knock at the door.
“Come in,” called Sylvia.
A physician, fair skinned and bald with a long white coat, waved as he peeked around the door. Introducing himself as Doctor Ilberk, he told the siblings that all tests on Jakob had come back perfectly healthy and that his loss of consciousness was most likely due to the rapid transition from the chilly library into the highsun heat. With a cup of pills for the headache, Jakob was discharged as soon as he could stand.
When he got home, Jakob went to the index room, pulling the recording up on a larger stage. The whole room transformed into the park. Despite multiple viewings, Jakob's memory of meeting the dancing girl remained hazy, and he certainly had no idea what he, in the recording, was going on about regarding the “light.” The girl’s dance was impressive, but there were no lights to be seen anywhere. It was only on his fourth viewing that he noticed a subtlest blurring around the girl’s motions, like heat off the radiator back in his old Snowy Heights dorm room. It had been a hot day, but certainly not hot enough to show on Proto’s sensors. For a moment, he wondered if it could be related to the “light.” The detective in Jakob jumped, but he knew, more likely, something just got jostled when he passed out in the grass. Jakob would need to tinker with Proto and figure out whether it was the capture lens or the projector malfunctioning.
The next few days were a return to normalcy for Jakob. Other than a brief trip to a friendly woodworker down the street to get his key framed, Jakob spent most of the time at home making little progress on his next book. Hours ticked away and his stack of pages hardly grew any higher. Every so often Jakob would pause to look up at the key, now hung on his wall, wondering if they’d selected the wrong candidate for such an honor. Three stressful weeks later, Jakob drifted off to sleep and this time it was Faeron who woke.
If the dancing girl had returned last night, Faeron certainly didn’t remember it. In the blur of last night’s dream, all he could recall was a single image which he scrawled in the dream journal on his bedside table.
Hykel, 2 Cropsun, 4020
I see the hexagonal key hung above my desk. It sits on a shimmering blue mat with a narrow golden bezel around its dark wood frame. I can still feel his dread about his latest book.
An air of anxiousness followed Faeron around classes that morning, a mixture of gloom from Jakob’s authorly woes and his own excitement to dive into his mother’s list of kytra. Even Physics with Lieutenant P couldn’t cast aside Faeron’s mood.
Around noon, Faeron met up with Auri for a lunch of sizzling sadoe steaks and a cup of souroot soup. They shared their next class, Global Politics, although their interest in the topic was polar opposite. The class was taught by Professor Doug Kilmer, one of the more popular teachers in the academy. Doug was heavy set with a tidy goatee and short trimmed hair. He wore polos and what seemed to be the same tan slacks every day. He was close with many of his students, though he and Faeron had little rapport. If there was one thing that could get under Doug’s skin, it was willful disinterest in his subject. Unfortunately for Faeron and Doug both, Eamon and Mathas had insisted that Global Politics was essential for a kytra to understand.
After dozing through a lecture on the four primary settlements of Irasil and their different styles of government, Faeron was on to his final class of the day, the age-old art of Bo Kora. As he exited the elevator on floor fifty-eight to a candle-lit hallway, Faeron’s gut tugged tight. Just a short way down the hall, Lydia was standing alone outside the sparring room door, dressed in her white uniform covered in tiny dancers. In his dreary daze, Faeron hadn’t realized there’d be a good chance of seeing her today. They’d shared this class on and off for several semesters now.
“Faeron!” said Lydia, springing off the wall to give him a hug. “Alright, no more excuses. Class isn’t for another fifteen minutes, so tell me... How was your highsun?”
“Oh…” said Faeron, trying hard to think of a response. With everything going on, he’d completely forgotten to conjure up a better story than Deity, Prophet’s Guard, and night classes with Mathas. “Well… There’s the hair, you’ve seen that.” He pointed to his shaggy head. “It was a big part of things.”
“Naturally,” chuckled Lydia.
“I’ve also moved onto shaping with Mathas now,” offered Faeron, “if you know what that is.”
“Like, with your kytra stuff?” asked Lydia. “Shaping’s what the Hosts did… right? In all the old stories?”
“Yeah,” said Faeron. “I’ll be able to shape the world like they did. Not tomorrow or next week or anytime soon… But that’s the biggest thing, I’m starting those classes.”
“That’s amazing,” said Lydia. “I can’t imagine having superpowers. It’s just… you wouldn’t think that it’s all real, huh?”
“Definitely hard to believe sometimes,” said Faeron. “What about you? How was your highsun?”
“Practice, practice, and midnight mischief… Oh! You won’t guess where my dance troupe got to perform,” said Lydia giddily.
“Mainstage?” guessed Faeron.
“Thinking too small!” burst Lydia excitedly. “No… not in Erkwright Theater… not even in Eredith. They let us out beyond the wall, to Emberly.”
“The nomad settlement?” gasped Faeron. It was his favorite from Vox’s tales. “What was it like? Tell me everything.”
For the next ten minutes, while they waited for their instructors to come unlock the sparring room, Lydia told Faeron about all the strange Nomads she’d met in the great nomad tower: A shop owner who sold scavenged clothes from all different time periods (Lydia bought a killer graphic crop top and bright blue boots that just so happened to be her size), a barkeep who had lost half his nose in a fight with a vemrot, and a blind woman in a sinister looking owl mask. She also told him about the journey there, through the Nylkwood.
“You pass through the Nylk gate and it’s like walking into a dream,” she said. “It’s so much more real than in the VUEs. You can feel how heavy the fog is, and it's all cast in rainbows from the glass leaves.”
“You talk about it just like Vox,” said Faeron, feeling a twinge of jealousy. “I can’t wait for the day I get to see it myself.”
A small crowd of students had gathered around the door now. They were a strange collection, a wide range of ages from across all tracks. There were many familiar faces from past semesters and several new ones, with year tens and elevens taking their first step into the advanced sessions. Soon, their instructors, Saitum Orras and her father, Bennehym, appeared around the bend of the hall. Bennehym Orras had dark wrinkled skin, a clean-shaven head, and a long silver beard, braided and beaded, running down to his belt. His limp forced him to use a cane, so he primarily taught the history of Bo Kora and the Old-Scholars who once practiced it many thousands of years ago.
Saitum was about thirty years old and also bald, though her pointed jaw lacked her father’s beard. Where her father offered sagely advice, Saitum led the physical demonstrations, stretches, and practice exercises. In all his years learning Bo Kora under Saitum, Faeron had never once heard her speak.
Bennehym let the students into the sparring room, a wide open area with matted floors and mirrors for walls. He sat the students in a wide circle, then took his place at the center. Beginning this semester like every other, Bennehym recounted the story of his ancestor, Scribe Olomon, who was far from Ancient Eredith when his people, the Old Scholars, were slaughtered by the beast king Ozukette. Olomon would go on to serve as the first scribe of Glavius Adaeus, and his line would survive some four thousand years. Today, Bennehym and his family were the last descendents of Olomon and the Old Scholars.
Although they sat together, neither Faeron nor Lydia dared whisper over Bennehym’s tale, instead trading looks at all the best bits. When he was done speaking, Bennehym let the class out early. Faeron and Lydia walked together to the elevator, chatting all the way. The halls were empty with most students still in class, and Faeron could hear the muffled voices of different professors through the doors as they passed.
“Where are you headed now?” said Lydia, as they arrived at the elevator.
“Bo Kora is my last for the day,” said Faeron, “so probably the Athenaeum.”
“Such a pretty building,” gasped Lydia, pressing both the up and down call-buttons for the elevator at once. “I don’t think I’ve been inside since we took that field trip in year ten. All I remember is rows and rows of books. I really should go read there some time”
“Definitely go in the evening,” said Faeron. “The way the setting sun shines through the stained glass, painting the books in different colors. It’s… it’s...”
“Romantic?” offered Lydia.
Just then, the elevator door slid open and Alanah said, “going up.”
“That’s me,” said Lydia. “Motive Expression is up next.” Boarding the empty elevator, she caught the door. “You know, I’ve got dance most evenings, but maybe if I have a day off I’ll swing by the athenaeum.”
“You wouldn’t regret it,” grinned Faeron.
“Awesome! See you around then.” The elevator door closed.
Faeron’s elevator arrived seconds later, and he waited down in the courtyard for almost twenty minutes before a large group of students strolled out the Academy’s sliding front doors. The glare of the afternoon sun off of Auri’s bronze-tipped hair, cascading over her tall shoulders, made her stand out among them.
Spotting Faeron, Auri waved and ran to the ape fountain, where he was sitting. "Saw Quinn in the hall earlier. He's got tech lab until late, so... ready to get our hands on that list?" she asked, looking as giddy as he now felt.
“Do you even need to ask?” said Faeron.
They ran the two blocks to the Athenaeum, and found Mathas just inside, helping a customer check out a small stack of colorful books.
“Tell Ninci happy birthday from me, won’t you?” the old capillum said sweetly to his customer. “Three is an exciting year.”
“Yeah, sure,” grunted the man. He had short greying hair, a bristly goatee, and must have just gotten off work as he was still wearing his stark white City Customs uniform.
After the customs officer left, Mathas turned his attention to Faeron and Auri. “I suppose you’ve come for Evolice’s list?”
“If that’s alright with you,” said Faeron, exchanging an excited look with Auri.
“Of course,” said Mathas. “The Athenaeum’s quiet enough. If you want to follow me…” He led the pair across the commons to the glass elevator. They rode up to the second-floor reading room then took the southern hall past several dozen bookshelves to another wide open room. There was a set of stairs leading both up and down, several comfortable chairs, and a simple wooden door with Mathas’ name printed on a metal plaque.
Retrieving a small brass key from his pocket, Mathas unlocked the door and ushered Faeron and Auri into his expertly organized office. It was an L-shaped room, much like Evolice’s, with a long window on one wall looking down into the dark and lifeless workshop. Hand painted canvases of all shapes and sizes were hung on the walls, each with Mathas’ signature in the bottom right corner. They depicted forest landscapes and strange creatures: a single massive tree casting its shadow across a forested mountain, a squirrel with a long straw-like snout, eyeless birds and large-eared bats; Memories of Roana, Mathas called them. In one corner was an easel covered in a thin sheet and glass cabinets filled with assorted paints. Across the room, was a sturdy darkwood desk. There were narrow frosted windows behind his desk, and, between them, a hanging shelf with several colossal tomes.
Mathas selected one of the heavier titles with a plain black spine looking to be several thousand pages long. “Don’t be daunted now,” he said, heaving the book onto his desk. “The bulk of this is information regarding the early kytra and the Hosts. We’re only looking at the last half-millennium.” He opened the tome and flipped toward the back, no more than a few hundred pages from the end. Auri and Faeron huddled around the desk to get a better view. There was a large title at the top of each page, then several paragraphs of information. Most titles near the start of the book had multiple pages of texts where many near the back were nearly blank with just one or two sentences.
There were maybe fifty names from the last five-hundred years, and nearly every one of them had a little silver “S” printed beside them. Mathas told them it was to denote that they were only suspected to be kytra, never proven by Evolice. The one exception was a page titled “Itrhis - Host of Glavius,” though it had only a couple paragraphs of information below.
“I thought there’d be hundreds or thousands of kytra before the fall,” said Auri, sounding shocked as they flipped through the pages. “From this... Was there really so few of us?”
“As I mentioned before,” said Mathas, “Evolice’s research was far from complete. That said, in the years before the fall, kytra had faded to all but a myth among the few who still followed the patronage. I lived nearly my whole life never knowing I was one of them.”
“How is that possible?” asked Faeron. “How could you not know?”
“Without access to echo crystals, how could I know?” countered Mathas. “Auri, you and Quinn were discovered when you shared the vision of the obelisk ten years ago. For the rest of us, myself, Vox, Evolice, Eamon, the twins… even you, Faeron, we discovered your kytra nature when it became clear you could see the light in your father’s echo crystal collection at a young age. There are other signs, dreams of light, coincidences one cannot explain, but without the gems or events directly involving shapers, like Mr. Rite’s experience with the dancing girl, we have but speculation.”
“That’s…” Auri looked taken aback. “In a world of billions there were so few kytra, and yet in our small city there’s what, eight of us, nine counting Evolice.” Turning to Faeron, there was a passionate fire in her bronze eyes. “Knowing that, how can you care so little about the Patronage, about Glavius? He gave us a city of kytra to fight the plague.”
“And he let billions die,” countered Faeron, annoyed by the sudden attack. “Not to mention it was the Hoststone shattering that sent my mom away. Face it, no spirit of man made me a kytra, no spirit of man has done anything to bring my mom back, and no spirit of man is gonna fix this world. That’s up to the kytra and the scientists at the academy.”
“And who do you think gave us that academy?” growled Auri.
“Enough,” said Mathas calmly, placing a hand on both their shoulders. “Your differences are the reason that you are stronger together. Neither of you is fighting for nothing.”
Just then a knock sounded at the door.
“I’ll get it,” grunted Faeron, welcoming the interruption from Auri’s assault. He strutted over and opened the door, finding his father on the other side. Eamon had a black blazer slung over one shoulder. His button up was black trimmed in a gold matching the warmth of his eyes.
“Am I interrupting something?” he asked, stepping forward and embracing Faeron in a surprise hug. “Serris told me you’d be here.”
“Not at all,” called Mathas from his desk, “please join us.”
“Somebody, help,” groaned Faeron as his father squeezed him tighter.
Chuckling, Eamon released Faeron and strutted across the room to Mathas’ desk.
“Evolice’s list...” said Eamon, “for Jakob?”
“Not quite,” said Faeron. Rejoining the others, Faeron told Eamon every detail of his dream from the library to the dancing girl in the park. He explained how they were using her to try to pinpoint exactly when Jakob lived, since he wasn’t in the book, and whether Evolice may have gone after him to recover the vault key.
“Eyes like rainbow fire… never found anything like that… but, you know what…” Eamon smiled victoriously as he rushed around the desk to the book. “Three names come to mind. First is… Sophia something… where is it? Here!” He stopped at a page marked: Sophie Inulingua. “I remember this one. She was an old athlete, long before our time, broke just about every world record you could imagine in her era. But, if we’re looking for the living, the other two may be more helpful.” He flipped a few more pages, stopping on: Nu Flume. “She’s not a bad fit,” he said. “We saw her on an old Quisitive docVUE, like we did a number of the recent ones. She was a philosophy professor at Outmarr University. Disappeared about ten years before the plague. No trace of her.”
“Any descriptions of these people?” asked Faeron. “The kytra from my dream had dark skin and long curly hair… and like I mentioned, her eyes were lit with rainbow flame.”
“Five foot ten, salduni descent,” read Eamon. “I don’t know about the eyes but… it’s not impossible.”
“What about the last one?” asked Auri eagerly.
Eamon turned just two more pages and stopped. “Final one is a girl from Innit’Ro. She was a friend of a friend who was studying in the North Suburbs when the plague hit.”
“She wasn’t invited here?” asked Faeron sharply.
“Every living person in this book was extended an invitation, even if they weren’t in the names given by Glavius” said Eamon. “Most, like Fiat here, declined.”
“Why though?” asked Auri.
“Because,” said Mathas, solemnly, “the end of the world always seems like a fantasy until it happens to you.”
“I only ever heard stories,” said Eamon, “but word was she was a self-proclaimed ‘dreamer,’ bright as anyone our friend had ever met. It really did seem crazy, what we were telling people. We were lucky we got as many to agree as we did.”
Going back over the three entries, Faeron couldn’t say for certain whether any of them was the dancing girl. Some details seemed off, but not enough to knock any of the names out. There were still many more names to search for anyone Eamon might not have remembered, and it took the full evening to go through the rest of the list. In the end, none of them proved any more promising than Eamon’s three. Mathas announced he was going to start closing up shop and Eamon, Faeron, and Auri said their goodbyes, heading home toward the Twinfire Towers.
“Well, did any of them sound right?” asked Auri as they stepped into the cool night. Golden light from the Clearstream Cinema sign illuminated a group of women meditating on mats near the edge of the park. The trees cast long shadows across the well-trimmed grass and the sapphire and violet stars above shone bright despite the city's glow.
“What do you mean, sound right?” asked Faeron as they descended the steps and began their stroll along the park’s edge.
“Like, when you first meet someone,” said Auri. Her hair shone fierce as ever in the golden light, her eyes warm and determined. “They say their name, and in your head, you’re telling yourself, of course that’s their name? It just fits perfectly.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” said Eamon. “Never met a Garrett I liked.”
“Exactly,” said Auri. They passed the women meditating and continued on the path. Up ahead loomed Erkwright theater, muses carved into its stone walls and grothgoyles jutting menacingly from the corners of the angled roof. “Your dancing girl,” asked Auri, “was she a Sophia, a Nu, or a Fiat?”
“I don’t know,” said Faeron. “Nothing really leaped out at me”
“Then maybe something will turn up in your dreams to help narrow things down,” said Auri. “After all, your mom didn’t leave because she saw a man write books his whole life. Wherever Jakob’s story is headed, I’d bet you the dancing girl is part of it.” A pair of young joggers in academy track pants passed with a friendly wave on the far side of the street.
“Assuming I can remember anything if she does show up,” said Faeron, glumly. This morning he had worked up expecting to take a more active role in finding his mom. Now, he was back to waiting for answers.
“If I had to guess,” said Eamon, “I’d wager you only remember last night’s dream so well because of her. The light surrounding her sounded simply unforgettable. If she shows up again, you’ll probably know it.”
Faeron considered this, walking in silence past Erkwrite and the Woven Dome, a massive bunball stadium. The dome, for which it was named, was made of a series of beams that looked like long white reeds, woven loose enough to leave the field below mostly open to the sky.
They turned off Perimeter Lane at the east end of the park, following another wide road between the stadium and Astral Cafe. The night was louder here. The path was well lit. Both the Bellwillow Market and the many restaurants near the foot of the Twinfire Towers were alive with chatter.
As the road grew steadily more busy, faces in the crowd began to turn at the trios passing. Those quicker to recognize them offered a smile, wave, or a “Host Eamon,” with a bow. Each time, Eamon returned the greeting cheerfully.
“So, Auri,” said Eamon, as they neared the Twinfire Towers’ cobblestone courtyard. “Patron Odom, mentioned you’d be leading a new team at the tech drive next week.”
“Yeah!” grinned Auri. “We’re trying to get the year sevens involved this year. Paeris Aekins from that year has a whole group she’s got interested, so I’m going to be looking after them. I was thinking though, now that I have you here, what would you think about using this to start a pen pal program between the youth group and some of the kids in Korva receiving the tech?”
“Love the idea!” clapped Eamon. “I’ll try to get something together for that tomorrow. Vox’ll be proud to know it was your idea.”
Auri beamed proudly as they entered the wide open courtyard. Far above, the statue of Glavius stood atop the bridge between the towers. He looked like a younger Bennehym, bald with a braided beard. He wore long rippling robes painted in violet and crimson by the flames in his outstretched palms.
They made for the door of the violet tower, on the right. Inside the lobby, the floor was decorated marble, etched in Patronage iconography. On either side of the central walkway, leading back toward a fleet of elevators, were a number of busts depicting the Patronage’s many Hosts. Despite its grandeur, the lobby was a cozy place, filled with social seating and wings off to either side, leading to more private gathering spaces. Looking up, they could see through the hollow center of the hundred ringed floors to the stained glass ceiling far overhead.
From above, Faeron could hear the echoes of ambient chatter and laughter.
They took the elevator to floor sixty-two, and as Faeron and Auri got off, they said their goodbyes.
“I’m glad I got the chance to come by,” said Eamon. “Sorry I’ve been so busy while you’re dealing with this. We should do dinner upstairs, at home, some night.”
“Yeah, let’s do that,” said Faeron.
“Of course, you’re invited too, Auri,” said Eamon with a grin.
“I mean, I assumed,” said Auri playfully. “Goodnight, Host Eamon.”
Chapter 7 - The Gloves of Give and Take
The next two weeks kept Faeron’s nose glued to his desk, churning out homework like a full time job. He’d never experienced a more busy first week of academy in his life. Auri seemed to have little issue keeping her work in check even as she spent her afternoons going door to door with the youth group, collecting outdated and unused technology donations.
As soon as Auri returned home each night, the two would rush straight out to the balcony for meditations. To Faeron, the only way forward now was through learning to shape. His dreams might bring answers, but he’d known that for a decade. Faeron was tired of waiting.
One night, as Faeron reached, only to find his water glass empty, he recognized an opportunity. Faeron opened his eyes and held the meditation. Slowly, he rose from his seat.
“You’re still meditating,” gasped Auri, looking up from her chair. “I can see it, in your eyes. They’re glazed, far off, but almost brighter somehow. ”
Faeron grinned and the light faded.
“And its gone… isn’t it?” asked Auri, disapprovingly. “See what happens when I feed your ego?”
Faeron would continue to practice his waking meditations during nightly meditations, taking occasional breaks just to give himself a chance to get up and walk around. Auri, meanwhile, was hellbent on achieving the waking meditation herself before their next class. The first few nights were the most frustrating for her as she could only hold the deep meditation for a second or two without the Nylkshave. She could calm herself fine, just like Mathas taught them, but the peace would last only seconds before she’d breathe sharply and clutch her head. From there, her ability to calm her mind would spiral quickly.
“This is hopeless,” she told him, several nights into their increased meditations.
Faeron looked up from his calm to see Auri near tears.
“I’ve been trying to hide it long enough…” she said, “and you better… you better not try to pity me what I’m about to say, you hear?”
“Auri, I… I promise,” asked Faeron cautiously. “What’s going on?”
“I still see the crimson every time,” said Auri softly, the corners of her eyes watering as she stared out over the balcony at the colorful city below. “It never really stopped... I just pretended it did so you and Mathas would stop trying to fix it. I think… because I knew it isn’t something you can fix, but I still shouldn’t have lied.”
Faeron’s heart dropped. Ten years ago, when the Hoststone shattered, every kytra had seen the same vision, the obelisk of light and the crack down its center. Auri, alone, had seen something more. She saw beyond the crevice and witnessed the crimson light raging inside. Long before they had started meditations, it was all she could see in her dreams, nightmares of the crimson. Faeron had thought those had passed since they started meditations, but now...
“I know it's intense,” offered Faeron. In his deepest meditations he’d encountered tiny streaks of crimson, raging in the current. They were some of the most intense scenes, violent eruptions and dying stars. Still, Faeron always passed out of these images as soon as he entered, where Auri seemed stuck to them like glue. “I can see the colors, too, the other hues when I meditate, and sometimes I think it’s just a matter of letting it pull you through—”
“Pull me through?” said Auri forcefully. The tears were gone and now her furious bronze eyes were locked on him. “I get you’re trying to help, but you don’t know anything at all. You always talk about these little scenes in the colors of the current and how I just need to flow with them, but this isn’t the same at all. First comes the good light, the white and pearl of peridom, same thing you see... but the crimson is always close behind. It consumes everything else, and I know that if I don’t open my eyes it’ll take me too.”
“Auri,” said Faeron. “I think that if you just—”
“If I just what, Faeron?” demanded Auri. “Breathe deep? Relax? Let myself be taken by that nightmare!? You have no idea what I see and you always think you know the answer. You’re just so— Ugh” She growled and stomped off top bed without another word.
Faeron knew better than to follow her. For another hour or so, he sat in silence before venturing off to bed.
Faeron’s dreams were long almost every night. His two weeks were Jakob’s twenty as the dreamworld’s Highsun ended and Cropsun flew by, making way for a temperate Lowsun in the coastal city. The few images Faeron remembered from his dreams showed decorative lights strung up all down the block and holiday merchandise flooding shop windows throughout the art district. In all that time, Jakob had barely gotten through another two chapters of his book, and the few bits Faeron remembered were hardly his best work. Faeron woke up most mornings with Jakob’s stresses bogging him down and nothing useful to show for it.
Faeron didn’t bring up the crimson again, nor did Auri mention the events of the other night. Instead, she came to every meditation with renewed focus, often going the entire night without saying a word to Faeron. The night before their kytra classes picked back up, Auri made her first breakthrough. It was a brisk Lowend evening, and Faeron and Auri had spent the afternoon working through the rest of the new Prophet’s Guard setlist. An hour into their meditations, Auri sprang up suddenly from her seat, pulling Faeron away from peridom’s light as she loudly declared, “A minute and a half. I held it the whole time!” The evening breeze was cool on the balcony, and both she and Faeron were in cozy sweatshirts.
“Auri, this is…” grinned Faeron, blinking his eyes open to see her smiling triumphantly back at him. “What did you do different?”
“I fought back,” she said proudly. “I don’t know how else to describe it, but I think… maybe what I needed to do all along was just the opposite of what Mathas told me. I don’t need to let go. I need to face it head on.”
Faeron wasn’t sure he understood, but he was too happy for her to care. “You know what that means, right?” he asked her. “If you can do that tomorrow, all you need to do is open your eyes. Just hold it and open your eyes.”
“And I’ll have done the waking meditating, just like you,” she said, beaming brightly.
Even though she hadn’t managed the full waking meditation yet, Auri seemed to be in a great mood the next morning as they headed off to the Academy. The morning classes sped by and Faeron’s mind was filled with thoughts of shaping that evening. Faeron and Auri met Quinn in the cafeteria after Life and Legacy. Quinn was practically bouncing in his seat as he waved them over.
“Guys, guys!” called Quinn, as they joined him at a squat round table in the chatter-filled cafeteria. “There’s a big tourney in the Deity Lounge goin’ on.”
“So you mentioned,” said Auri, “five times last week.”
“Yeah, well an outsider, a Nomad, is playing for the first time ever and he’s made it all the way to the finals!”
“I didn’t think Nomads had Deity,” said Auri, her interest piqued despite the topic.
“Yeah,” said Faeron, “From the stories Vox told, that kind of stuff doesn’t exist beyond the wall. I mean, we’ve never seen a Nomad player before, right?”
“I suppose there’s gotta be a first,” said Quinn. “I’ve heard they have leagues in the Peak, so it was only a matter of time before the Nomads got in on it. Anyway, the finals are tonight, and guess who has VIP tickets for all of us?” The green of his hazel eyes shone bright as his toothy grin.
“Wait, why do you have tickets?” asked Faeron. “Not that I’m arguing. Believe me, I’m in.”
“I entered the tourney on a whim,” explained Quinn. “I mean, with you two so busy… why not? Figured I’d get knocked out early in qualifiers, but no loss in trying, right?
“Sure,” said Auri, as she chowed down on a buttery luppice roll.
“Anywho,” Quinn continued. “I made it all the way to the final sixteen before a real player finally smoked me. It was an embarrassment, but, not the point… It turns out that everyone who makes final sixteen gets their own private VIP lounge, win or lose. That means an upstairs suite with our own private table and anything we want from the menu.”
“Look at Mr. VIP,” said Faeron, twisting his fork through his noodles. “I humbly accept your invitation.”
“I hate to be that person,” said Auri, “but you do realize we have class tonight. A particularly important class for two of us.” She glared at Faeron.
“Don’t worry,” said Quinn happily. “It’s not until after. Besides, there’s always pre-game interviews and the like. We’ll have plenty of time to get settled in our room before the real show starts.”
“Well then,” said Auri. “I suppose I can’t say no to a night of free slushies, even if it is spent watching that… mockery of the Deity universe. I’m off to class, see you two!”
A.I. Upkeep, later that afternoon, felt like it was several dozen hours long as Faeron tapped his foot anxiously through Professor Bundst’s introduction of the city’s Weather AI, Revna. She was a younger AI and took the form of a large woman with dark stormy clouds for hair. As she spoke, her wispy locks rumbled, and whenever she raised her voice, a flash of lightning crackled down her back.
After class, when Faeron and Quin met Auri in the courtyard. Her nerves seemed to have really set in as she rushed from her perch at the lip of the ape fountain the moment she caught sight of Quinn and Faeron.
“There you are!” she called. “If I had to sit with my thoughts another second longer, I was going to go insane. There’s an hour and a half until class. Want to grab something light at Lilypad, then maybe practice a bit more before class?”
“Sure,” said Faeron, who’s stomach growled at the thought of food. “You in, Quinn?”
Lilypad was a small place in the north end of Bellwillow Market. Faeron, Auri, and Quinn grabbed a tram from the academy and were able to get a table without any wait. The tables sat high and were set up around the edge of a round creek with the kitchen in the very center. While guests ate, they could watch the cooks at work, flipping meats and stacking fruit slices high. Flowing slowly around the creek were dozens of lily pads, and on them stood animatronic frogs in suits, just tall enough to reach the tables. The frog snatched plated food from the kitchen, and, with a bow, delivered them to guests as they floated past.
All three of them ordered rice rolls filled with fruits, just enough to hold them over until their free dining tonight. After eating, they rushed back across the park. In the low light of dusk, they arrived at the Athenaeum just a half-hour early for class. Surprisingly, the door was locked, the windows inside dark, and a sign had been posted reading:
“Where do you suppose he’s gone?” asked Faeron. Mathas rarely left the Athenaeum, to the point that Faeron sometimes wondered whether Mathas actually had a home outside his office.
“Not a clue,” said Auri.
“You’re guess is as good as mine,” added Quinn.
They sat on the steps, Quinn people watching, while Faeron and Auri practiced their meditations. Sounds of play and laughter faded in the darkness of his mind. As Faeron let the current of light wash through him, he could just make out Quinn’s voice calling in the distance. Faeron opened his eyes and saw Mathas crossing Loem Park. The old capillum waved to them and quickened his pace.
“Apologies for keeping you three waiting,” said Mathas, a twinge of excitement in his normally level voice. “A new book came in this morning, a collection of poetry discovered in the southern suburbs. I was just now at Forgeworks getting the reprint process set up.”
“Really?” asked Auri excitedly. “When can I read it?”
“As early as tomorrow,” said Mathas. “Speaking of early, there’s still another…” he checked his watch, “ten minutes until your class. I have some last minute business to attend to in my office, but I’ll let you three into the classroom now if you like.”
Mathas unlocked the Athenaeum and then walked to the classroom across the foyer, unlocking its door as well before heading upstairs in the elevator.
Auri, Quinn, and Faeron entered the small rectangular classroom and took their usual seats at the shared table with Faeron and Auri closest to the workshop window and Quinn at the head. The room had little in the way of decoration; it’s walls were barren but for the empty whiteboard by Mathas’ desk and the large workshop window. There was a second door in the back of the room that led into the workshop, though Faeron hadn’t been inside there in more than a decade.
“Faeron, you see this?” said Auri. She tapped her finger against the window.
Peering into the dark workshop, Faeron could just barely make out several tables like the one they sat at now. One of them was set apart from the others, in the center of the open workshop, and held a large contraption, too shadowed to make out in any detail.
“What do you suppose that is?” asked Faeron, and Auri pressed her face to the glass.
“Some sort of kytra experiment,” said Auri, betraying nervousness in her voice as she squinted through the glass.
“Let me see,” said Quinn, scampering over to get a view and squeezing in right next to Auri. “It looks kind of like a track or—”
Just then, the door swung open as Myllie and Kaelynn bounded into the room. They were still in their school uniforms with Myllie in a skirt and Kaelynn wearing long pants. Both their navy blazers were wrapped around their waists, and they had bright pink backpacks that they tossed haphazardly onto the table as they took their spots opposite Faeron and Auri.
“How’s the time off treated you two?” asked Auri.
“Kaelynn broke her toe on a kid’s face,” Myllie reported.
“Myllie!” hissed Kaelynn. “You don’t have to tell everyone everything all the time!”
“Oh no,” said Auri, “you can’t leave us without the details.”
“Some year seven boy whiffed so hard trying to catch a cross ball that he tripped straight into Kaelynn’s cleat,” giggled Myllie. “He had a concussion and had to be carted off, but Kaelynn acted all tough like nothing even happened. It wasn’t until we got home and she took off her cleat that we saw her whole sock was soaked in blood.”
“It was barely anything,” contested Kaelynn.
“It was disgusting,” asserted Myllie.
“Well, I certainly hope your toe is better now,” said Auri, wearing an amused smile.
“Yeah, it doesn’t really hurt or anything,” said Kaelynn.
“Not that you’d admit if it did,” added her sister. “Now, where’s Mathas?”
“On my way,” came a voice as the door swung open once more. Mathas ducked through the doorframe and swept into the classroom. “Apologies for the delay everyone.” He went to his desk with his long brown robe trailing behind him and took a set in his swiveling chair. “It’s been a lonely two weeks without you all around. How are your Academy classes going?”
“So boring,” said Myllie, burying her head in her hands. “Why do I even need to know math anyway?”
“I don’t know,” chirped Kaelynn, “but I’m liking this writing class I’m in.”
“Oh, really?” said Mathas, raising a wide silver brow. “Do you have anything I could read?”
“It’s private,” said Kaelynn definitively, her whole body locking up.
“That’s perfectly alright,” chuckled Mathas. “What about you all?” he looked at the three older kytra.
“My schedule is mostly politics and patronage history,” said Auri happily. “Aur Poro, too.” Like Bo Kora, Aur Poro was an old martial art, but its roots were in the more aggressive fighting styles of ancient Saldun, rather than the guarded techniques of the Old Scholars
“Gross, gross, and gross,” said Faeron, “we all know Bo Kora is just a better Aur Poro.”
“I’m happy to test that theory,” said Auri, cracking her knuckles loudly.
“Behave you two,” said Mathas, chuckling at their antics. “What about you, Quinn?”
“I’ve actually been working on something super cool in my salvaging class,” piped Quinn from the end of the table. “I repurposed an old chip for Logic that allows him to integrate with lots of pre-plague tech.”
“I wish my projects were that cool,” said Faeron. “All I’ve had is essays.”
“Well, you’re beyond the point of essays here, at least,” said Mathas. “Ten years, we’ve sat together, discussing the meditations which led the Old Scholars to shaping. You two have proven a keen understanding both in theory and practice, which means there’s nothing left to learn but the art of shaping itself. What do you say, shall we go check out the workshop?”
“Absolutely!” burst Faeron.
“And since it’s an occasion,” said Mathas, “the rest of you can come watch. Consider this a visual learning exercise.”
“If Faeron’s gonna be shaping, we’re all gonna need some serious safety pads!” said Myllie, grabbing a mask from her backpack and pulling it over her face.
“I don’t think it’s me you need to be worried about,” said Faeron, shooting a side glance at Auri. Snarling, she whipped her long dark hair around, treating Faeron to a face full of her metallic bronze ends.
Mathas walked to the workshop door and slid his key in the lock. For the first time in ten years, Faeron watched the workshop door creak open. A familiar woody smell drafted into the room, sending Faeron straight back to his childhood, to memories of his mother and her many strange contraptions littered about the open workshop.
“Serris, lights please,” said Mathas as Faeron followed him inside.
Long industrial lights hanging from the ceiling flickered to life, and Faeron saw the workshop looked much different now than he remembered. It was a large space, though not nearly as enormous as it had once appeared through his ten-year-old eyes. There were no windows besides the view from the classroom and a corner overlook from Mathas’ office on the second floor. Gone were the many strange wooden contraptions that filled Faeron’s memories of this place. In their place were four tables, three in the corner beneath the overlook and one set apart in the center of the marble floor. The tables in the corner were mostly empty, but for a single silver bunball. Near the center of the workshop, the table set apart from the others held a scaled down model of a mountainside city and a toy alca sitting perfectly still on a track that ran all around the mountain. Faeron couldn’t make heads or tales of what such a display had to do with shaping, but he was in no position to question Mathas’s methods. Beyond the table, several bright blue pads had been laid out across the floor, and Faeron could see a small platform with steps, about two feet off the ground, facing the pads.
Myllie ran over towards the platform but Mathas raised his hand. “Slow down now,” he said. “If you’re to join us in the workshop there are rules you must follow. First, and most importantly, is that only those of you ready to shape can enter the matted area. The rest of you will need to wait over there near the tables.” He pointed to the corner. “Second, I would request that any command I make, no matter how silly or strange, be obeyed at a moment’s notice. Shaping can be unpredictable and even volatile if a shaper is not prepared.”
“What do you mean, volatile?” asked Auri, the corner of her mouth twitching nervously.
“Come, I’ll show you.”
Mathas hobbled over to a table in the corner with a silver bunball in the center. The twins faces lit up as they saw the apple-sized ball, sprinting past the others to the table.
“Don’t touch!” called Mathas, just as Myllie was about to swipe the ball.
Once they were all gathered, Mathas reached into his robes, producing a pair of leather gloves. They were dark and fingerless, and their frayed ends looked aged. On the back of each glove was a single stone, mossy green in color. From inside the stones, Faeron could see a softly glowing light.
“Are those…?” asked Auri.
“Echo crystals,” answered Mathas. “For some of you, it’s been years since you’ve seen something like this, but it is the light that each of you see within these stones that is the surest mark of a kytra.”
Faeron was well acquainted with echo crystals, as his father’s office held nearly a dozen of such relics, locked away securely behind armored glass display cases. Since Faeron’s mishap with the Hoststone, this was the closest he’d been to one.
“As you no doubt remember from your studies,” said Mathas, “these crystals exist both in our world and beyond, in peridom. They are like a window through which a kytra may give and take light. There is, in my mind, no simpler way to demonstrate this than the Gloves of Give and Take. These artifacts were once worn by the Old-Scholars, thousands of years ago.”
“That’s one of the relics recovered from the monastery, isn’t it?” gasped Auri excitedly.
“Indeed,” said Mathas. “It remained incredibly preserved beyond the Nylkdoor, untouched by time until Evolice broke the seal.”
The young kytra all wore a look of awe as they stared at the ancient gloves. Faeron imagined his mother, about his age, venturing deep beneath the monastery of the Old-Scholars, unearthing these gloves among the other relics now displayed in his father’s office.
“The crystals you see here are refined gems,” continued Mathas, “fashioned by a kytra millenia ago. I expect these three know the difference well enough, but do you twins know what makes a refined gem different from its unrefined counterpart?”
Myllie looked to Kaelynn, who returned with an equally lost shrug.
“Alright then,” said Mathas, “Quinn, go ahead and tell the group what the difference is.”
“Refined gems do that shaping for you,” piped Quinn enthusiastically. “All a kytra needs to do is provide light and the refined gem shapes it as the crafter intended.”
“Exactly so,” said Mathas. “A perfect starting point for a kytra learning to shape. However, before either of you don the gloves, I have a warning.” Mathas ran a long slender finger across the back of one gem. “Do you see the cracks here?” Narrow schisms, no wider than a hair, snaked across the otherwise flawlessly polished crystal. “No instrument of man can damage an echo crystal. It is that strength which held the Nylkdoor against King Ozukette’s army all those thousands of years ago and protected the young Glavius Adaeus. So, how is it, do you suppose, that this crack was formed when Ozukette’s mightiest weapons could not break the stone?”
“THE BUNBALL,” yelled Myllie excitedly.
“No,” chuckled Mathas. “No explosive, nor technology, nor bunball has ever compromised an echo crystal.”
“You told us this is a warning,” said Faeron, trying to sort out where their mentor was leading them, “so it was an accident, a kytra trying to shape, like we are now.”
“Exactly correct,” said Mathas. “Balance is the very heart of shaping. What is taken must be returned, and what is given must be replaced. Should a kytra fail to reach balance when their tie to the light is cut, the universe will right itself. Often chaotic and destructive, there is no will to its method, simply the path of least resistance. Each etching you see on this stone is a mistake of the past. Some more… severe… than others.” Once again, he ran his finger along the stone, resting at the largest central crack.
“But how do we know if we’ve balanced or not?” asked Auri, looking nervously down at the crystals in the gloves.
“You will know,” said Mathas. “When shaping, a kytra can feel the light, the imbalance seeking a way home through the crystals. However, words can only explain so much. To understand further, you two are going to need to take the first bold step and feel the light for yourself. I shall demonstrate.”
Mathas pulled the gloves over his long capillum hands. They fit small, but not so much so as to break at the seams. “Come, you two,” he said, limping towards the mats and beckoning Faeron and Auri to follow, “and one of you please grab the ball.”
Auri plucked up the bunball as Faeron followed Mathas.
“I’ll need a volunteer,” said Mathas once they’d reached the mats. “Don’t worry, you’re not shaping yet.”
“I’ll go,” said Faeron.
“Very good, then step onto the platform.”
Faeron did as he was instructed, crossing the mats and climbing the two steps to the top of the sturdy wooden platform.
“Now, Auri,” said Mathas, “would you hand Faeron the ball?”
“On it,” she said, crossing the mat and passing the ball to Faeron. He felt a bit silly, standing there above the others with a bunball in one hand.
“Good, now step back please, Auri. Faeron, face me.” Mathas stepped back, just out of reach, while ushering Auri further back to the edge of the pads. “Go ahead and hold the ball out over the edge.”
Faeron held the ball outstretched in one hand.
“Good,” said his mentor, “just a moment.” Mathas closed his large black eyes, paused a second, and reopened them with a distant look.
“What’s he doing?” squealed Myllie from the corner. “Is he shaping?”
“Quiet” shushed Kaelynn.
“The act of catching a fruit midair,” said Mathas, retaining his glazed stare as he spoke, “is a classic first step into the world of shaping. The premise is simple. The fruit falls, the gloves stop its descent, and the kytra plucks it from the air. As not to be wasteful, we will be using something a bit more practical than fruit today. Go ahead Faeron, drop the ball.”
Faeron released his grip.
For several feet, the ball fell, as Faeron had expected it to. Then, his mentor outstretched his left hand.
A streak of mossy green light shot from the ball and coiled itself around the capillum’s open hand, shining brightest near the gem. The ball, meanwhile, hung perfectly still in the air.
The light snaking around the gloves began to fade the moment it appeared and only took a second to dissipate completely. Mathas had just enough time to step forward and grasp the ball.
“You must be quick,” he said, holding up the ball for all to see, “as it takes energy to hold the ball still. You’ll feel the light begin to slip away the moment you have it in your grasp, like trying to clutch a handful of sand.”
“What happens if we don’t catch it before the light runs out?” asked Auri, a twinge of nervousness in her voice.
“Let us find out,” said Mathas. “Faeron if you’d please.” He held the ball up for Faeron to take.
Faeron snagged the bunball. “Same thing?” he asked.
Mathas took a step back and nodded. “When you’re ready,” he said.
Faeron released the ball, and just like last time, Mathas let it fall for a few feet before reaching out with his left hand.
“Watch,” he instructed as mossy green light leapt from the ball, meeting his fingers and snaking down to the gem on the back of the glove. The light lasted just over a second before it faded, and, when it did, the ball fell again, hitting the mats with a muted thud.
“As you see,” said Mathas, “so long as you keep your connection to peridom intact, the gloves will ensure your hold on the ball is released when you run out of light to hold it. Now… unless there’s any other questions, I believe we’re ready to begin.” He looked between Faeron and Auri, giving them a moment to express any last concerns. Auri stood pale faced at the edge of the mats, but didn’t say a word.
“What about that?” asked Faeron, pointing to the mountainous model on the table.
“We’ll get to that,” said Mathas, knowingly. “But, for now, we’ll take things one glove at a time. Who’s first?”
Auri’s face said more than enough for Faeron to know what he had to do.
“I’ll go first,” said Faeron, his chest starting to feel tight. He’d looked forward to this moment his whole life, and if he didn’t dream as Jakob every night, he might have believed he was dreaming now.
“Very well,” said Mathas, pulling the gloves off his hands. “Come, switch places with me.”
Faeron hopped off the platform and took the gloves from his mentor. After collecting the ball, Mathas went around and began to ascend the steps, taking slow heavy steps as he climbed on his weak leg. He stopped where Faeron stood before, with the ball held out in one hand.
Faeron could feel his heart in his chest as he slid the coarse gloves over his hands. They were loose, but there was a string at the back to tighten them around his wrists. Seeing them closer, there were dozens of little cracks across the face of the stones and both had a large central schism. He knew that if he messed up, he certainly wouldn’t be the first, but the way Mathas had described balance, he wondered how many of those screw-ups had led to serious bodily harm.
“When you’re ready, go ahead and perform the meditation,” said Mathas, towering above them from atop the platform.
Auri gave Faeron a nervous thumbs up, while the other kytra looked on excitedly from afar.
Faeron breathed deep. Calming his body was easy, his mind less so. Doubts, fears, and trepidation screamed in his head, but with each inhale he let them shout their last, and with each exhale he released them. When Faeron’s mind was quiet, his body gone, and the light of peridom washing through what was left him, he told himself, open your eyes.
The whole workshop seemed to glow as every table, every mat, all the kytra and the polished floor let off a soft shimmering glow.
“Are you ready?” asked Mathas.
Faeron’s mind was blurred, like he’d stayed up for two days straight, but he forced himself to nod.
“Dropping the ball in three… two… one…” Mathas let go of the bunball.
The light around the ball flared as it fell. Faeron mimicked his mentor’s actions, reaching out with his left hand, but nothing happened. The ball fell to the mats and a wave of disappointment crashed down upon Faeron. The light vanished. His mind cleared.
“A valiant first try!” clapped Mathas. “Miss Lem, you’re up.”
Faeron first collected the ball, returning it to Mathas, then walked back to the edge of the mats. He handed the gloves off to Auri, whose face was now whiter than the marble tile.
“You can do this,” he whispered just loud enough for her to hear. “It’s just like you did last night. All you need to do is open your eyes.”
Auri gulped and wordlessly walked onto the mats.
“Any questions before you begin?” asked Mathas.
Auri shook her head, standing just an arms-length away from the platform.
“Then begin your meditation,” instructed Mathas.
Auri closed her eyes, her breathing slowed, and she stood still as a statue. Time ticked on, for how long Faeron couldn’t say, but the twins both began looking bored.
“Miss Lem?” asked Mathas eventually. “Are you ready to open your eyes?”
Auri finally moved. Her fists clenched and her lip snarled. “It’s a lot of pressure, okay?” she said. “Maybe Faeron should go again. I need a minute to get ready.”
“Of course,” said Mathas, “take your time. There is no rushing this process.”
Auri opened her fierce bronze eyes and stomped over to the edge of the mats where Faeron was waiting. Tearing off the gloves, she dumped them into Faeron’s hands and then stalked over the corner tables with the younger kytra. No sooner had she taken a seat and closed her eyes than Quinn scuttled over and took a seat just beside her. Faeron could see him whisper something to Auri, though she seemed to ignore him entirely, focusing intently on her meditations.
Once again up to shape, Faeron crossed the mats to the platform. This time he didn’t need to wait for instructions. Faeron closed his eyes and quieted his mind. Moments later, he blinked his eyes open to find the workshop shimmering. “Ready,” he said, training himself on the ball.
“Focus on the light,” said Mathas, “the energy building in the ball as it falls. First catch the energy, then catch the ball. Understand?”
“I think so,” said Faeron.
“Three… two… one…” Mathas dropped the ball.
This time, as the ball fell, Faeron focused on the pearl light surrounding the silver sphere. He reached out his left arm and imagined a second arm, longer, plucking the ball out of the air. As he imagined it, the ball obeyed, stopping at Mathas’ knee level.
Moss-green light leapt from the ball, rushing into Faeron’s outstretched palm. He could feel it, like living tendrils of liquid snaking their way around his fingers, seeking the gem on the back of the glove.
“I did it!” cried Faeron, his heart thumping excitedly. The outburst was all it took to sever his connection to peridom.
The sound rang loudly across the workshop. With a will of its own, the light surged through Faeron’s fingers into the left gem. Just as suddenly, it reemerged gushing from the gem on his right glove, throwing his hand back with the force of a light punch. The ball, meanwhile, resumed its fall, bouncing once then rolling to a stop on the pads.
“Are you alright?” asked Mathas from his perch.
“Nothing hurt but pride,” said Faeron, looking for new scratches on the gloves. There were too many to determine which, if any, he had just made. He was just relieved that he hadn’t caused any real damage to himself or the gloves. Striding forward, Faeron bent over to grab the ball and handed it back up to Mathas. “Can I try again?” he asked.
“That’s up to Miss Lem,” said Mathas. “Auri, do you feel ready?”
“He can go,” she said gruffly from the corner. Again, Faeron saw Quinn whisper something to her. She nodded, and Faeron swore he even saw the traces of a smile before she shushed him and closed her eyes tighter.
“Looks like you’re up again,” said Mathas. “When you’re ready…”
Faeron calmed his mind and when the wave of pearlescent light took his consciousness, he opened his eyes.
“Three… two… one…” Mathas dropped the ball.
Faeron reached out and felt the light leap from the ball to his hand. He clenched his fist tight and it felt almost like squeezing gelatin, the light slipping through the cracks in his fingers. Before he could process and reach for the ball, the light was gone. The bunball fell to the mat with a light thud.
“Expertly done!” clapped Mathas. His hands shimmered brighter as they clapped together, and it was all Faeron could do to suppress his pride and hold his connection to peridom. He may only have suspended a ball in the air for a few seconds, but to him, it was perhaps the greatest moment of his life so far. He, Faeron Lovel, had bent the universe to his will. He was a shaper now, like countless kytra and Hosts before him.
“Before we move on,” said Mathas, “would you like to give it another go, Auri?”
Auri looked up, defeat etched in her eyes. “I’ll just watch,” she said sullenly. “I don’t think I’m going to get this today.”
“There’s nothing wrong with taking your time to get it right,” said Mathas. “Your father spent years practicing, and I’m sure he’d tell you that patience is your best friend. Come, take a break from your meditations and let me show you the other half of the equation.”
Auri pushed herself off the table and trudged back over to the mats. Half his mind still adrift in the currents of peridom, Faeron could see the pearl light glimmering off Auri’s legs pulsing brightly with each step.
“As we now know,” said Mathas, “the glove of take is capable of capturing energy, if only for a moment, but what if you have excess energy when your task is complete? Faeron, the gloves if you please…”
Faeron removed the gloves, handing them to his mentor. “The ball as well?” he asked, but Mathas shook his head.”
“To properly demonstrate the glove of give, we will need a bit more energy than our ball can provide.” Mathas strapped on the gloves. “With nothing more than their own body, a kytra often has what they need to accomplish a task… in our case, that will be pushing an alca along its track. Observe.” He stepped forward, as if he was going to jump right off.
“Wait!” cried Auri, and Faeron lunged forward, shedding his connection to the light. The capillum could hardly walk on his leg let alone jump from any height.
“I assure you, this isn’t my first show,” smiled Mathas, “but I’m flattered for your concern. Mr. Lovel... if you could be so kind as to step aside.”
Faeron returned to Auri’s side as their mentor stepped off the platform. It wasn’t a far drop, and, as Mathas fell, he reached his left hand downward. The moment his feet hit the floor, Mathas retracted his arm, as if flexing. Moss-Green light shot up through his legs, across his torso, and down his left arm to the glove. It was far more light than the ball had made, and, as Mathas’ feet were firmly planted, it didn’t seem to be fading.
“The gloves can store a substantial amount of energy, but it is not without limits,” said Mathas, his eyes narrowing and effort in his voice. Light snaked into the gem on his left hand. “Even now, the energy I’ve taken seeks a path home.” He extended his right arm towards the model town and the light reemerged from the outstretched glove. It leapt from his fingers, to the alca, and the toy burst into motion, zipping up one hill and down the next. It made it almost halfway along the track before coming to a rest in a small valley beside a tiny red fire hydrant.
“That’s what you want us to do, today!?” asked Auri, her voice a panicked whisper, her eyes wide in shock.
“I am simply offering either of you the chance to try today,” said Mathas, “I expect we’ll be practicing this for some time before either of you succeeds.”
“I can do it,” said Faeron, confidently marching up to Mathas.
“Do show us,” beamed Mathas genuinely as he handed the gloves off to Faeron.
Securing the straps on the gloves, Faeron crossed to the far side of the platform and climbed the steps. At the top, he readied himself. Pride, excitement, and nerves at throwing himself half-conscious off a platform all washed away as he quieted his mind. There was darkness and then light. Faeron blinked open his eyes, taking in the shimmering model city just a few yards away.
Mathas joined Auri at the edge of the mats. “As you land,” he said, addressing Faeron, “capture the energy, just as you did with the ball. Pull the stress from your knees and shoulders. Still your body… let that energy escape into the gloves... into peridom. It’ll fight you, but your will must be stronger. Contain it, then direct it to the toy.”
“Pull, contain, direct,” said Faeron, “got it.”
“When you’re ready then.”
Faeron’s half-present mind struggled to keep thoughts at bay as he reached one foot over the edge. “It’s just a force diagram,” he whispered to himself, picturing the scene like a chart from his physics homework. Readying his left arm, Faeron stepped off the platform.
When Faeron’s feet met the mats, his knees locked and his core tensed, fighting the energy of his body, energy seeking a way out through the mats. Faeron didn’t let it escape. He pulled back with the glove of take, and he felt the light, seeping from his joints, running in ropes up his torso and down his arm. It forced his hand open and slithered through his fingers, far more forcefully than the light from the ball. The gem began to shake, jerking his arm back and forth. Panic twanged through his core.
The light jumped through the left gem to the right and then burst into the air like a bright green smoke bomb. Faeron’s arm bucked back, sending him stumbling into the platform. His calves smacked the wooden frame and he fell backward.
“Faeron!” gasped Mathas in concern, rushing over as fast as his legs would take him. Auri arrived only seconds later, leaping up onto the platform beside him.
“Are you alright?” she asked.
“Quinn, fetch aid kit from my desk,” called Mathys. “Bottom left drawer.”
“It’s fine… I’m fine…” groaned Faeron, rubbing his shoulder, “No need for that.” He looked down at his right hand, resting in his lap. A glowing fissure was carved into the stone, clearly visible as it forked off the main schism. “Mathas, I’m really sorry… I think I cracked it.”
“You have nothing to apologize for,” said Mathas warmly. “Plenty of those lines come from Vox, myself, and even your mother. This is precisely why we started with the two-foot platform, and not the tower that Evolice built for herself.”
Faeron looked up at Mathas, smiling. He imagined his mother sitting here decades ago, doing the same thing he was now. “How long did it take her?” he asked.
“Believe it or not, Evolice struggled to capture the light for some time,” said Mathas. “Your affinity with the gloves is remarkable.
While Faeron blushed, Auri stomped off back to the corner.
“I’m done for the day,” she announced firmly.
“Perhaps it is for the best if you all have some time to reflect,” said Mathas, extending an arm to Faeron. “We can resume tomorrow night.”
“Freedom!” shouted Myllie, racing for the door. “Come on Kae, let’s go to the rec and practice a bit before we head home.”
“Right on,” said Kaelynn, and the twins ran off out of the workshop.
“Tell me, what did you learn from this?” asked Mathas, as Faeron met his grin and was hoisted upward with surprising strength.
“I didn’t expect it to be so strong,” said Faeron. “I panicked, and then I lost the connection.”
“Then balance was struck,” said Mathas, “and your shoulder paid the price. The first bruise for a new generation of kytra… you should be honored.”
“Hey... you ready to get over to the Deity Lounge?” called Quinn from the corner.
“Yeah,” Faeron called back, still massaging his sore shoulder. For all it hurt, he hardly cared. His heart was still racing from what he’d just accomplished. No matter how many times he heard the stories of the Hosts, how many times he told himself he’d be like them one day, nothing could have prepared him for the feeling of shaping the universe to his will. It seemed so far-fetched, an impossibility, and yet, he had just defied gravity.
“Come on!” barked Auri. “I wanna be anywhere but here.” She stomped out of the workshop to the classroom, and Quinn followed right after. Through the classroom window, Faeron could see Quinn chatting away as Auri quickly collected her things.
Riding the thrill of his accomplishment, Faeron skipped after his friends. He was almost to the door when Mathas called after him.
“Faeron, I’ll be needing those gloves back.”
“Right!” said Faeron, who had forgotten he was still wearing them. He ran back over the table and left the gloves laying there for the old capillum. “See you tomorrow, Mathas!”
“Have a wonderful evening, Mr. Lovel.”
Chapter 8 - Unyielding Flame
Entering through the Court of Fantasy’s colossal stone doors was like stepping into another world. Strobing lights and freshly fried smells churned about a sea of indiscernible chatter, flooding all Faeron’s senses at once. Hulking white trees rose above a jungle of flashy arcade machines. Their trunks were dressed in heavy coats of shimmering sapphire moss and their canopy of luminous leaves bathed the high walls of the colosseum in their mint-turquoise glow.
The ground beneath the mossy carpet rumbled as the walls of the labyrinth downstairs shifted. Meanwhile, screaming teens flew bright pink bumper-petals about the open air. Weaving in and out of the gleaming branches, they fired lasers that slowed the other petals and used the advantage to collide headlong, sending both parties spinning in spectacular fashion.
Faeron, Auri, and Quinn stood in the arcade’s front parlor, where many large groups relaxed in tree stump chairs around flat-capped mushroom tables, chatting gaily and sipping on colorful drinks. Beside the tables, a sizable reward shop exchanged tickets for all sorts of knick knacks. There were limited edition index skins and tasty treats from the Peak, but Faeron and Auri had their eye on a six-foot-tall stuffed mauturtle that had sat on display for months. If they pooled tickets, the pair were just eight-hundred shy of the thirty-two thousand they’d need to claim the plush prize for their balcony.
“Muum ears, one hundred tickets!” called a man at a white and blue striped cart near the reward counter. “Deep fried Muum ears, doughy and delicious. Get em sugared, get em spiced, get em annnyway you want them. Only one hundred tickets a plate!”
The salesman’s words were hardly needed, as the warm doughy smell alone was enough to hook Faeron. As the scent drew Faeron towards the cart, he was caught by Auri’s strong grasp.
“No way you’re spending turtle tickets on food when we’re about to eat for free,” demanded Auri, speaking for the first time since the three of them left the athenaeum.
Faeron’s stomach growled loudly, but he conceded and followed Quinn and Auri down a row of arcade machines. They walked in a loose line, weaving between Coin Slope machines and Gustpuck Tables. “Looser ladders litter lockers…” yelled two dark haired teens into the microphone of a Tonguetwist Booth, shouting louder and faster as they continued to repeat the phrase, “looser ladders litter lockers… lookers lacker lickers… Argh!”
Faeron, Quinn, and Auri worked slowly towards the back of the arcade where the trees were most dense. Nestled beneath the hulking branches and low hanging vines was the Deity Lounge. The lounge was two stories tall, its walls painted with murals of heroes from throughout the Deity saga. There was Sir Preston the Pure, Nautilus Dawngrog, and many others Faeron remembered well from when his mother used to read the stories before bed.
The vibrant chatter cloaking the arcade was even more vibrant near the lounge. The climbing vines that often drew crowds here were now mostly unattended as people flocked together in large pods, exchanging predictions and anticipations for the match to come.
The front door of the deity lounge was a tangle of tightly woven roots, thick and barky, with no handle or knob. At the trio’s approach, the roots began to move, untangling themselves and receding and reshaping into an open archway, plenty wide for Faeron and the others to pass through together.
The spacious lounge had earthy brown floors and walls, and was shrouded in a thin mist, dimly lit by azure mushroom lamps hanging from the tall ceiling. In the very center of the room was an exceptionally long deity table, spanning most of the lounge’s length, though its surface was currently dark in preparation for the upcoming match. A wide lip for food and drink as well as dozens of padded stools ran all the way around the long table and all manner of people filled the seats. There were older patrons and teens alike, some chatting over drinks in groups, others enjoying a piping hot plate of spicy telcurry alone.
Smaller tables with high-sitting chairs dotted the rest of the floor in well-organized rows. Almost every seat in the house was filled, every table cluttered with food and drinks. Patrons gulped back Peak Ales and shot down Korvan Spicebubbles while glancing between their personal screens and the friendly faces surrounding them. Meanwhile, a score of sharp-dressed waiters swept gracefully to and from the kitchen, carrying large trays of steaming hot foot.
“Welcome,” said a man at a small podium just inside the door. He wore a black vest with an emerald button up underneath. Clean shaven and hair parted professionally, he greeted them with a warm and welcoming smile. “Do you have a reservation for a private sitting, or would you like spots at the long table?”
“Actually, I’ve got a room reserved,” said Quinn, stepping up to the podium. “I’m Quinn Veradae, one of the finalists.”
“Of course, just let me… here it is!” exclaimed the greeter, looking down at a screen behind the podium. “Room five is yours. You’ll find it on the second floor. The door is coded to you, Mister Veradae, but I can add your friends as well if you like.”
“Of course,” said Quinn. “Auri Lem and Faeron Lovel.”
The greeter raised a brow at Faeron’s name but continued typing away at his screen. “Right, you’re all in the system now. You can head on up whenever you’re ready, just these steps here,” he pointed down a short hallway behind him. “Complimentary concessions are available for your suite and can be ordered through Serris at any time. Is there anything else I can help you with today?”
“That’s about it. Thanks a million,” said Quinn, skipping off toward the stairs. “Come on guys!”
They followed a narrow passage to a winding staircase around what appeared to be the trunk of a narrow tree. Shimmering blue hung over the edges of the wide wooden steps and all along the coarse barky bannister.
As they climbed, Faeron realized that, in all the times he’d come here, he’d never once seen the upper floor where the VIP rooms were located. The hallway at the top of the stairs was cast in deep blue mushroom light. Tangled roots covered every inch of the wall, and the only order to their winding chaos were the six clearly formed doorways on one side. Beside each door, a glowing mushroom lamp was printed with a number.
Door number three began to shift, the roots crawling aside, as two large and clearly intoxicated men stumbled out into the hallway. Arm in arm, they toppled over into the far wall while trying to support each other. Both still donned button up shirts and straight fit dress pants, and had no doubt come straight to the lounge after work.
“Ayy!” cried one of them, a recent graduate of the academy that Faeron recognized as Dellien Durkwrite. “You’re umm…” he pointed to Quinn, “you’re the… the one that lost the thing… the… you’re the guy..”
“Yeeaaash,” said the other, his brother, Dolmen. “Quinn! He’s Quinn! He loosh, to Barrow ’member!”
“Quinn!” cried Dellian, “Ayy Quinny, Quinn... Quinner Winner! I need you to…” He waved his hand wildly side to side. “ I gotta, facilities… facilitaties… facaltate…”
“Right,” said Quinn, stepping aside.
Faeron followed suit, as did Auri, though she eyed them annoyedly as they passed.
Once the pair had disappeared down the steps, nearly tripping on the way down, Faeron and the others continued down the tunnel of roots to door number five.
“This is it,” gasped Quinn, his face painted in the sapphire lamp light, “the legendary VIP room.”
At their approach, the door of roots unraveled itself, revealing a sizable room. Long draping curtains of moss hung from the ceiling, their emerald chutes tipped with tiny beads that sparkled in the sapphire light of the mushroom lamps.
Ducking through the shimmering moss, Faeron found a standard size deity table with three executive-looking chairs on each of its long ends. The seats each had their own set of displays with a nice black bezel, and as soon as Quinn entered, he ran over to the nearest chair and started tinkering on the screens. Unlike the other walls, the far end of the room was not covered in roots. Instead, it was a painted stone mural, like on the outside of the building. The painting depicted a hilbauk warrior in heavy armor that covered all but her twin beaks.
“That’s Dadandum Preeh!” said Auri excitedly, rushing over to look at the mural in more detail.
“Nice tanky stall unit,” added Quinn, tapping away on his screen. At a button press, the top of the table lit up with an emerald green grid.
Auri shot a cold glare over her shoulder. “You see, that is exactly what kills it for me, simplifying such a deep emotionally rich character into… bang pow fight kill!” She spun around and collapsed into a chair, looking back and forth across the gridded table. “This just makes no sense for Deity. I mean, in all eleven books, there’s only four… maybe five big battles, if you count the Weeping Arbors. Most of the time is spent working to avoid combat.”
“I mean, what’s the armor for if not to fight?” countered Faeron. “And the big battles are the moments everyone remembers. Besides—” Suddenly, a monstrous growl rumbled in Faeron’s gut.
“Wow, those rice rolls really didn’t do much for you, did they?” asked Quinn.
“I guess not,” said Faeron, grabbing the seat beside Quinn. “Let’s get something ordered, then we can discuss Auri’s hate for the game. Hey, Serris!”
“How can I help?” asked the index, popping into the air.
“Are they still serving elmafruit freeze creams?” asked Faeron, knowing the seasonal snack always sold out quickly.
“Indeed,” said Serris. “Would you like me to place an order?”
“Large for me,” said Faeron.
“Ooh,” said Quinn, “I’ll take a cocoa one.”
“And you?” asked the index, zipping over to Auri.
“Nothing,” said Auri, waving the ball of light away.
Once Serris was gone, Quinn pressed another button on his display and a woman’s cheery voice sounded from speakers, deep within the room’s root-covered walls.
“—and that’ll be the toughest thing for Roethwild, won’t it, Vet?”
“Indeed it will, Crystal,” responded the suave tones of Vet Wheeler over the speakers. Pre-plague, he had been a Deity champion himself, but now he was the broadcaster for all major tournaments. “The nomad’s a wildcard. We’ve already seen a number of new units from him in these past couple matches, so Roethwild won’t be able to let her guard down.”
“Well, we’ll see if the nomad’s tricks are enough to topple our four-year champion,” said the first woman. “For those of you just joining us now, I’m Crystal Rayne, co-hosting live with the legendary Vet Wheeler. Tonight, the annual Cropsun Clash concludes with a first of its kind twist. Our four-year champion is facing down a nomad to defend her title. That’s right. You heard me. The Nomad known as Book Peddler stands one match away from toppling the queen!
“Book Peddler,” said Vet, “what a strange name for a strange contender.”
“Indeed, but what isn’t strange about tonight?” said Crystal. “Now, we polled the lounge, and the lounge has answered; eighty-seven percent think it’ll be a Roethwild victory. What do you make of that number Vet? Does the crowd have it right?”
“I expect it’ll come down to last champions on both sides, but I do see Roethwild coming out on top,” boomed Vet. “If I were a gambling man I’d— Now hold on folks… I’ve just been informed that our contestants are readied. If you’re not in your seat, I suggest you get there, because our championship match is about to begin.”
As Vet spoke, the far wall of the room began to shift. The mural faded, the stone smoothened out, and the whole surface turned sleek and black. It took Faeron a second to realize that the wall was now a window, looking down on a dark room.
“Woah,” said Faeron and Quinn in union, racing over to the glass.
The room below was long but narrow. The whole floor was a deity grid, its emerald lasers piercing the darkness of the chamber. At either end was a raised glass box where each of the finalists were now constructing their maps on a wide assortment of displays. In the box to the left was the familiar face of Roethwild, the best Deity player in Eredith by a long shot. For four years straight, she’d never lost a single game. Roethwild was a slender middle-aged woman with crimson streaks in her otherwise silver-grey hair. She always wore the same brown leather jacket, studded at the shoulders, and a wide assortment of rings on her fingers. Meanwhile, in the right-side box, Book Peddler wore a hooded poncho that covered all but his arms. From what Faeron could see, the nomad’s muscular arms were blanketed in heavy patches of fine silver hair, and, if Faeron squinted, he could just make out a crimson tattoo on Book Peddler’s shoulder.
“Book Peddler! Of course!” Faeron shouted. “Auri, it’s Caidus!”
“What?” said Auri, jumping from her seat to see. Running over, Auri cupped her face to the glass and her jaw dropped. “By Glavius, you’re right,” she gasped, stepping back from the window. “Book Peddler is Caidus Proud!”
“Who?” asked Quinn, a lost look on his face.
“We met him at Mathas’,'' explained Auri, suddenly seeming to forget her mood, “he works with Mathas to bring books we print here in Eredith to the other settlements. I had no idea he played Deity as well.”
As the finalists worked away at their screens, their domains began to form across the gridded floor. Caidus seemed to have a plan already in place, as his domain quickly took shape. A full row of barren flatlands appeared along his backline, taking form on both the massive grid below, and the smaller table in their private room. The ground was pale and cracked all over, and there wasn’t a sign of life anywhere. Caidu’s frontline had two more barrens, making the only notable feature in his whole domain a single patch of forested glades at the very front and center.
“Now this is interesting,” boomed Vet.
“Five barrens?” scoffed Crystal. “I’ve never seen a barren played outside of teaching someone the rules.”
“Barrens saw some play pre-plague,” said Vet. “But there were thousands of different units then. With those we have today, I don’t see any sense in it. It’s just… baffling. Roethwild has a free path out of Book Peddler’s domain, and if the nomad wants power from a dungeon, the only one in his whole domain is the single glade. If Roethwild robs him of it on her way out…”
“Then Book Peddler will be entirely dependent on her domain for power,” concluded Crystal. “It’s almost like Book Peddler wants to fight on Roethwild’s side... but that makes no sense. He’ll be unable to cast miracles. I think we should take this one to the lounge, get all of your opinions.”
“What do you think folks?” boomed Vet. “Is the nomad making light of the game, or does Book Peddler know something about barrens that the rest of us don’t? Vote now!”
“What do you say?” asked Quinn, turning to Faeron.
“No way he hasn’t got a plan,” said Faeron. “I mean, he made it this far… and he definitely had something going on upstairs. Bright dude.”
“Alright, Serris,” said Quinn. “Tell them two votes on Caidus having a plan.”
“Three,” called Auri, to Faeron’s surprise.
Roethwild, meanwhile, had constructed a safe two-line approach, creating a frontline of mountains and a backline of desert. Now, the entire floor of the chamber was covered in lifelike landscapes, although Caidus’ end did look quite plain.
“What in Inya is he planning?” asked Faeron, walking back his chair for a closer look on their private table.
“Maybe he’s going for a timeout play,” said Quinn.
“A timeout?” asked Auri, earning a look of shock from Faeron. That’s twice now she’d cared about Deity.
Quinn also raised a brow. “You really want to know?” he asked.
“What?” said Auri defensively. “If Caidus is going up against some four-year champ, I want to know what’s going on.”
“Oookay!” said Quinn, sounding like he’d been waiting all his life for this moment. “As I’m sure you know, in Deity, regardless of where your fighters are, the player can only cast miracles on their own domain. Because of this, you’ll usually want to get your team back on your half of the map as soon as possible. Sometimes you’ll want to pillage your opponent’s dungeons first, but usually it's better to do that stuff in your own domain. Anyway, once you’re home, there’s not a lot of incentive to push back into enemy territory. To stop players from just sitting around forever, the map eventually begins to fall apart.”
“Is that when the zones turn red?” asked Auri.
“Exactly,” said Quinn. “Once both players have reached their home domain, natural disasters will start to pop up all across the map. If Caidus has a team that fights incredibly well on flat terrain, he could be betting on the disasters to force Roethwild into his barrens. Maybe Centurium as leader, or some new unit we haven’t seen before.”
“But then what’s with the glade?” asked Faeron. “Why not just max out his chances with six barrens?”
“Hey, that’s the Elemental Glade from book three,” said Auri, leaning over the table for a closer look.
“Spot on,” said Quinn. “There’s a super tough dungeon there.”
“The Halls of Mephinnia?” gasped Auri.
“Indeed,” said Quinn. “Maybe Caidus is hoping to nab the power while he waits for timeout? Seems like Roethwild could shut that down hard if she loots it on her way home.”
Suddenly, a pair of beacons appeared on the map. The twin pillars of light shone opposite each other, one in the barrens behind Caidus’ glade, the other in the center of Roethwild’s desert.
“The lands are laid, and the teams are in place!” cried Vet, his voice filling the room once more. “Can you feel it folks? The tension is electric!”
“Indeed it is, Vet,” said Crystal. “Now, let’s see what the lounge has to say about these barrens… Forty percent say the nomad is throwing the game, thirty-two percent think he’s got an ace up his sleeve, and twenty-eight say he just started playing yesterday.”
“A split crowd” Roared Vet. “While our finalists give orders, let’s see if their team compositions can shed any light on the situation.” The twin monitors facing Faeron’s seat flickered, each now showing a different lineup of fighters.
“From the looks of her team, Roethwild is gunning for the Halls of Mephinnia,” reported Crystal. “To those unfamiliar, that’s a tier-five dungeon.” On the left monitor, Roethwild’s roster sported a lineup of dungeoning-focused champions. Her leader was Capwise Strike, the legendary human archaeologist. All four of her companions were gnogland researchers, reptilians with snubby rootbeam blasters tucked beneath their lab coats.
“Now, I’ve certainly seen stronger teams for an all-out fight,” said Vet, “but the puzzle-minded perk on those researchers is bound to have her breezing through the dungeon. Looks like Roethwild is hoping to crush Book Peddler’s team with a miracle before he can get out of her mountains.”
“Speaking of Book Peddler,” said Crystal, “would you look at that lineup?”
On the right-side monitor was an eclectic gathering of characters.
“Grok, Treasure Sniffer,” whistled Vet. “That’s not a commander you see every day.” The goliath leader had pale tattooed skin and a massive club. Though few could best him in a fight, his unmatched strength was balanced by his incredibly dim wits. “Maybe Book Peddler’s hoping that ol’ Grok’s nose’ll lead him back to that glade dungeon.”
“Now there’s a nose that knows home,” quipped Crystal.
“But just as likely to find any other dungeon,” added Vet. “I gotta say, Book Peddler’s putting a lot of faith in those deduction skills of Grok’s.”
“What deduction skills of Grok’s?”
“My point exactly.”
The rest of Caidus’ roster consisted of two diggers, man-sized rodents with massive front paws perfect for burrowing, and a pair of sea-green spirits that Faeron had never seen before. Barely bigger than Grok’s mighty fists, the spirits hung in the air, shifting shapes like tiny turquoise clouds.
“Woah, check em out!” said Quinn excitedly. “Caidus has new units!”
“Diggers are a strong pick to help Grok,” reported Crystal of the speakers, “but I haven’t a clue what those orbs of light could be… perhaps a spirit of some kind? Ever see ’em pre-plague, Vet?”
“Spirits indeed,” boomed Vet. “We had hundreds of ’em pre-plague. You see, in the books, spirits are the magic of deities made conscious… living spells, so to speak. They each have very specific effects, usually aiding a teammate in the right condition, or weakening a certain type of enemy. As for this particular pair… a strange night grows stranger, because I’m stumped! All I can tell you is what I see, their names, Isthiswee and Isthitweira”
“Isthiswee and Isthitweira?” said Auri, sitting back in her seat. “They’re glade spirits, duh.”
Faeron and Quinn both looked to her excitedly. Maybe her knowledge of the books could give them some idea what these new units were capable of.
“Now hold on to your seats, folks,” said Vet. “Looks like both teams have their orders. This match is officially underway, and Roethwild isn’t wasting a second!”
Faeron’s monitors shifted again, each now following one of the two teams. On the left, he saw Roethwild’s team in a dead sprint across the barrens toward the glade, while Caidus’ troops began their trek across Roethwild’s backline of desert.
“I wonder… since we have a private table...,” said Faeron. “Hey Prophet, can you put Caidus’ crew up on the table?”
“Caidus?” came a familiar voice from the table, cracked with age. “I have no entry under this name.”
“Book Peddler,” added Quinn.
“Consider it done,” said the prophet, and the top of the table changed. No longer did they see a map of both domains. Instead, the surface of the table was one long slice of desert. Near the center was a dungeon, a swirling vortex of sands known as the Lands Below.
“Fancy,” swooned Quinn.
“So, the glade spirits,” said Fearon, watching Caidus’ troops trek single file up and down the sand dunes. “What’s their deal? I don’t even remember them from the books.”
“Funny you ask,” said Auri, “because I’ve got issues with this. It makes zero sense pairing the glade spirits with the rest of his team. They’re the proudest most pretentious entities you’ll find almost anywhere. No way they take orders from Grok, Treasure Sniffer.”
“You mean like that?” asked Quinn, pointing to where Caidus’ troops were marching. The glade spirits bobbed and swirled angrily about Grok’s face as he seemingly took no notice, single minded in his march toward the swirling sand whirlpool.
“That didn’t take long, did it, folks?” boomed Vet over the speakers. “Look to the desert ’cause it seems those spirits are considering a change in management.”
“Okay, so they got that right,” said Auri, “but then why would Caidus choose this team? Glade spirits are frail outside the Elemental Glade. If Grok leads them into the Land Below, they’ll die.”
“Did you watch any of his other games?” asked Faeron, turning to Quinn.
“I didn’t,” said Quinn, eyeing the board. “Maybe it really is a fluke? What if Caidus just isn’t any good at Deity? Got all this way, just on dumb luck.”
“I don’t see how that’s possible,” said Faeron. “To reach the finals… that seems—”
“Wait!” shouted Auri, a look of dawning realization painted on her face. “Prophet, go back to the full map.”
The view of the desert on the tabletop shrunk as the rest of the map came into view. Auri looked back and forth, from the glade across the mountains to the desert, smiling knowingly. “I figured it out,” she exclaimed.
“Figured what out?” asked Faeron.
“I know what Caidus is doing,” said Auri smugly. “And… I think it’s quite brilliant.”
“What do you mean you know what he’s doing?” asked Quinn in disbelief. “It looks to me like he’s throwing a tournament match for no good reason at all.”
“Well,” said Auri, “that’s because you’re not a Deity pro like me. Come on experts, don’t you see it?”
“Prophet, zoom back in,” commanded Faeron.
The map closed back in on Caidus’ troops. As Grok and the diggers waded into the swirling edges of the dungeon, the glade spirits seemingly had given up. They were now split off from the rest, making a straight line for the mountain.
“His team’s split!” said Quinn in disbelief. “This couldn’t be any worse for him!”
“Oh really,” said Auri, grinning. “Any real player would know that’s exactly what he wanted them to do.”
“You’re bluffing,” said Quinn, eyes narrowed. “You’re just trying to rile me up. This is nonsense, simple as that.”
Just then a soft tone rang through the room.
“Excuse me,” said Serris, appearing just beside the table. “Your food has arrived.”
“Let ’em in,” said Faeron, going to the door.
Serris disappeared and the roots moved aside, revealing a woman, dressed just like the greeter at the front desk. On her tray were two plates of freeze creams. Each plate had about twenty of the round snacks, and where Faeron’s were bright and colorful, Quinn’s were dark brown and drizzled in melted chocolate.
“Thanks,” said Faeron, taking the plates. As the roots closed, he brought the snacks back to the table.
“So anyway,” said Auri, rising out of her set across the table and coming around to the empty one beside Faeron, “got any guesses yet?” As she asked, she dropped into the chair and swiped one the freeze creams off Faeron’s plate.
“Hey, get your own,” objected Faeron.
“Why? There’s perfectly good ones right here,” said Auri devilishly.
“I’m not falling for it,” sang Quinn, though Faeron could tell from the way Quinn’s eyes darted between his screens and the board that the gears in his head were turning. “Your friend isn’t doing anything at all. I… I don’t think there’s any way he can win at this point.”
Faeron had never seen Auri smile so wide in her life.
While they ate, Quinn didn’t say a word. The boy’s eyes were dead set, focused on the table where the two glade spirits were making swift progress across the desert. On several occasions, Faeron could see the outlines of ferocious borgomantises burrowing beneath the sands, but, whenever the threat was near, the glade spirits would simply drift up much higher into the sky, well out of the creature’s reach.
Their paired monitors continued to follow the teams’ leaders through their respective dungeons. Any time anything exciting happened, Vet and Crystal were sure to speak up and provide their take. While Roethwild’s researchers were making much swifter progress than Caidus’ team, the Halls of Mephinnia were also much longer than the Land Below. The Halls were a maze of dimly lit passages with oddly inscribed runes above hundreds of otherwise indistinguishable doors. Only one door held the way forward, the rest holding all manner of dangerous foes. Meanwhile, the Land Below consisted of a single long passage leading into a massive cavern, large enough to fit half of Eredith. The power trove glowed brightly on the far side of the cave, rife with vicious dinosaurs and primitive traps. Grok rushed forward, unphased by beasts and traps alike. Darts bounced off him, blades cracked upon his skin, and even the dinosaurs were nothing more than a nuisance for the goliath.
“You know,” said Vet, “I admire Grok, really do. He’s a simple man… he knows what he wants, and he’s damn good at getting it. In a less strategic game, he might even be a good unit.”
“On the other side of the spectrum,” said Crystal. “It looks like those brainiacs over in the Halls have cracked the code. Faeron looked over to his screen to find Capwise Strike, confidently turning the knob of a dark doorway. The door shot open, bathing the researchers in holy light.
“Now that’s a one way portal to miracle city,” cheered Vet. “Only one challenge left for the Roethwild and the dungeon’s power is hers.”
“Chances don’t look good for Grok,” said Crystal. “Home doesn’t seem to be in the cards anymore.”
“No it does not,” agreed Vet, “those spirits, however, they seem pretty hell bent on reaching their turf. Those mountains won’t do much to stop our high flying friends.”
“For what little good it’ll do ’em,” said Crystal. “Facing up against a full team of five, even against a research team, even on their own ground, those spirits won’t stand a chance.”
“Agreed,” said Vet. “It’ll take a real-life miracle to save Book Peddler now.
“Bold words,” smiled Auri. “He’s gonna be eating them soon.”
“WHAT. DO. YOU. KNOW?” gasped Quinn.
“Oh, you’ll see.”
The glade spirits soon reached the edge of the desert and the table shifted to show a long stretch of sheer cliffs and mountainous hills. They made just as swift progress across the mountains, flying well above the valleys where deadly skorprolls hunted. Before long, the spirits were nearing the edge of Roethwild’s domain. As the spirits descended the final stretch of the mountainside, the map suddenly zoomed out.
“Apologies,” came the prophet’s voice, “but you’ll certainly want to see this.”
The desert zone where Grok and the diggers were dungeoning erupted in white light. Faeron looked down to the monitor on his left where Roethwild’s team was filing out of a bedazzled treasure room.
“Is this the end for Book Peddler?” boomed Vet Wheeler’s signature voice over the speaker. “Roethwild’s team is the first to clear their dungeon, and our champion’s not planning on letting Book Peddler finish his.”
On the right monitor, the cave began to shake. Huge slabs of stone were raining down from the cavern’s ceiling, falling all around Grok and his diggers. The single minded commander led his team in an all-out sprint for the treasure, but at this rate it wouldn’t be fast enough. A massive chunk of the ceiling came crashing down onto one of the diggers, but not before Grok threw himself on top, the huge stone breaking on his back. Faeron could tell the blow had taken its toll as the goliath struggled to stand back up. No sooner had he reached his feet, than three even larger slabs struck him. The goliath fell again, one of the diggers trapped beneath him.
“Grok, Treasure Sniffer is down!” roared Vet.
“And it looks like that last digger ain’t long for this game either,” added crystal as the rest of the lost land collapsed. Faeron’s right monitor was now entirely dark.
“Okay, maybe I bought it a little,” said Quinn, squinting at Auri, “but I’m one-hundred percent calling your bluff now. Caidus has no strats here, and you are just trying to get me riled up. Nice try.”
“Yeah...” said Faeron. “As cool as Caidus was, I’m starting to lean towards Quinn’s side here.”
“Wanna bet?” asked Auri.
“Nah, I’m good,” said Faeron. “You clearly think you know something, and that’s enough for me.”
“Absolutely, I’ll bet,” said Quinn. “You’ve toyed with my mind long enough. What’s your price?”
“If Caidus loses…” said Auri, thinking a moment, “I’ll go to the Unity Fest with you this year. Maybe, maybe, I’ll even let you take me on the tunnel ride.”
Quinn’s face instantly flushed red. “I uh— and… um,” he said, trying to compose himself, “and if Caidus does win?”
“Lots of other girls in Eredith,” teased Auri. “You lose your right to ask me.”
“You told her?!” cried Quinn, giving Faeron a hurt glare.
“Nah, he didn’t need to,” said Auri. “I swear, you boys think you’re so subtle.”
“Well...” said the freckled boy, swallowing hard. “I suppose it’s a deal then.”
The glade spirits were now back in their own land, and Roethwild’s troops had resurfaced from the dungeon. As the table switched to a view of the Elemental Glade, Faeron could now see the outlines of both teams through the crimson-leaved canopy. It seemed almost as though the glades spirits could sense the presence of Roethwild’s researchers, as they made a straight line for the team.
“I have to admit it folks,” Vet’s voice returned to the room. “I saw this fight coming down to last champions, and it seems I was wrong.”
“The end is here for those spirits,” said Crystal, as the two teams closed in on each other, “and you’ve got to feel a bit bad for them. Never had a chance with a leader like Grok.”
“No, they did not,” concurred Vet. “These strategies might have worked against nomads, but Book Peddler was simply no match for a proper Eredithian cha— Hold on now, what’s this?”
The whole of the glade was suddenly flooded with brilliant white light.
“Impossible,” said Faeron, looking down to his monitors. Sure enough, the right display was no longer entirely dark. He could see the exquisite treasure coffer of the Lost Land, its top pried open by a bloodied digger, light bursting out.
“He dug through,” gasped Quinn.
“A miracle in the glade!” shouted Crystal. “But will it be enough?”
“Don’t get your hopes up, Book Peddler fans,” said Vet. “We’re seeing a tier two miracle, a wildfire by the looks of it. Maybe he’ll take a unit or two with him, but this is a done match.”
“And here it comes,” said Auri triumphantly.
As the flames sprang up throughout the Elemental Glade, licking the leaves and crawling along the branches, the pair of glade spirits began to grow. Their sea-green bodies turned a fiery orange, and they expanded quickly until their shimmering bodies were tall as the trees.
“What in Inya am I looking at?” asked Crystal in awe.
“A win condition,” said Vet, sounding just as shocked.
The flames racing through the trees pushed Roethwild’s team straight into the pair of elementals, and as the first reptilian researcher breached the clearing where the colossal spirits were hovering, it was met by a beam of fire. Tendrils of flame lashed out from the elementals, wrapping around the wide-eyed researchers who struggled feebly to free themselves. In seconds, Roethwild’s team was nothing but ashes.
“Unbelievable! Unimaginable! Unfathomably impossible, yet there it is!” roared Vet over the speakers. “This, folks, is the kind of Deity I live to see. For the first time in history, a nomad topples Roethwild’s four-year sweep and claims the Cropsun Cup. Congratulations, Book Peddler!”
“That was a ride and a half,” said Crystal. “Let’s go now to the lounge and get your thoughts on this incredible turn of events.”
“Holy Glavius, that was amazing,” said Faeron, running over to the window.
He could see Caidus, stretching in his booth, cool as if nothing of note had just occurred. Roethwild, meanwhile, hung her head in silent defeat.
“You… you knew…” Quin said softly.
Faeron turned to see his friend, pale in the face, looking just as defeated as Roethwild.
Auri, meanwhile, seemed to be having the time of her life. “You know,” she said. “I think I’ve been a bit hard on this game. I’ve got a real talent for it.”
“So… about that bet,” said Quinn, uneasily.
“Ah, don’t fret it,” said Auri. “I’ll tell you what. If you show me how to put a team together, maybe I’ll help you find a date. I hear Lucy Leighton is single these days.”
Leaving the Lounge, it was Quinn who walked in somber silence. The arcade outside had died down to a low roar, and most of the machines were switched off for the night. No bumper petals flew above, and the maze in the basement had long since closed down. They exited through massive stone doors onto a set of steps looking down on Loem park.
Where the far end of the park was bathed in golden glow from the clearwater cinema sign, here, the trees were washed in the crimson light of the great Forgeworks Hammer next door. Forgeworks was the sole source of repaired tech and manufactured goods in Eredith. Its glass-encased showroom, perched beside the colosseum on the edge of the park, was peaked by a great flaming hammer, rising and falling upon a massive anvil.
“You walking home, Quinn?” asked Faeron, as the three of them descended the steps onto the wide Parkside Lane.
“Yeah, trams stop running by perimeter housing this late,” he said.
“We’ll walk with you,” offered Faeron, “at least as far as the next station.”
“That’s alright,” said Quinn, “it’s the opposite way from you.”
“No point arguing,” said Auri bluntly, pulling Quinn’s arm. “Come on, let’s get moving. I am in serious need of some slumber.”
“Fine, fine,” said Quinn, and Auri released her grasp.
As the three of them passed beneath the flaming hammer of Forgeworks, an odd sound from the park caught Faeron’s attention. There was shouting, and voices that he could only just make out.
“Filthy cheat nomad,” came a voice just beyond the trees.
“Why don’t… show that face…” said the second voice. “Coward… like how you play.”
Faeron turned suddenly to Auri, who returned his look of concern. There was only one person the voices could be talking about.
“Come on,” said Auri sternly, veering off into the park.
“Right behind you,” added Faeron.
“Wait! Guys!” said Quinn sheepishly. “What are you doing?”
“Helping a friend,” said Auri.
Just beyond the trees, Faeron could make out three figures. Caidus was easy to make out in his hooded poncho, while it wasn’t until Faeron got closer that he recognized the other two as the drunk Durkwrite twins from room number three in the lounge.
“Hey you!” shouted Auri, rushing toward them.
Caidus turned, his face shrouded by his hood.
“Well lookie here,” said Caidus casually. “I know these ones.”
“Sush… you… in the preshence of Quinn” said Derrian loudly, his black blazer thrown over one shoulder. “Quinn sh’ere, sho he’ll tell you what’sh what.”
“Quinn!” yelled his brother, Dolmen, “tell this… pillow sharft pile that he cheated. I know you saw him!” The slur for capillum fell off his tongue so naturally, Faeron was too shocked to speak.
“Excuse me,” said Caidus, seemingly unphased, “it’s half-pillow sharft pile, actually. At least get your insults right.”
“Oh, um...” said Quinn, looking to Faeron and Auri for help.
“Come on Quinn,” said Derrien. “Tell thish nomad what we do to cheaters. Tell it right to ish ugly pillow face!” As he spoke, Derrien ripped off the hood of Caidus’ poncho, revealing the man’s patchy fur covered face.
Caidus’s eyes were human in slant but cartoonishly large. His nose and ears were as long as Mathas’ though his head as a whole was smaller. Fast as a bullet, Caidus caught Darrien’s arm. “Okay, that’s it,” growled Caidus, “patience has reached its limits.”
“Help! Seriish!” cried Derrien through slurred speech, “filthy pillow liars’ got me! Help! Sherrish, shecurty!”
“Cease hostilities,” came Serris’ voice, sterner than Faeron had ever heard before. Serris materialized into the air, flashing aggressively between Caidus and the twins.
“What in the world…” hissed Caidus, releasing Derrien’s arm.
“Get him Serrish,” screamed Dolmen. “Criminal… cheat… wants to take our game, just like his people took our sharftin world.”
“That’s right, sharft pile,” yelled Darrien, backing up his brother. “We know your lot did the plague. And we aren’t… never gonna let you get away with it. We’re gonna -hic- make you pay big!”
“Try me,” smiled Caidus, raising his fists.
“No, don’t!” yelled Auri, jumping between the twins and Caidus. “They’ll get you kicked out for good. What you do is too important.”
“Hey Quinn,” snapped Dolmen, “tell yer toy to move, or she might accidentally get hurt.”
“Excuse me,” growled Auri, “did you call me his toy?”
“Looksh like she can hear fine,” said Darrien. “But sheems she don’t lishen too good. Tell her Quinn, that pillow is hash no place here!”
“I think you two should leave,” said Quinn, politely.
“Shootped as you look” spat Dolmen, sounding disgusted through his slurred speech. “Not jusht a loosher. A pillow loving traitor..”
“THAT’S ENOUGH!” roared Auri, stepping towards the twins. As she spoke, the crimson light in the park flared brighter. Faeron looked behind him to see the Forgeworks Hammer’s flame leaping high above the trees, higher than he’d ever seen it burn before.
Looking to Auri, Faeron’s jaw dropped as he saw fiery bronze light shimmering in her eyes. Auri’s heavy breathing slowed, and suddenly the whole area was doused in darkness. A bitter cold gust swept over the park, as for the first time ever, the flame on the Forgeworks Hammer went out.
“Shorcery,” gasped Dolmen. “Pillow magic!”
“Run!” screamed Darrien.
The two turned tail and stumbled hastily into the darkness of the park.
"Your eyes!" cried Faeron, squinting to see the look of shock on her face, "you just shaped, no echo crystal or anything. And your eyes... they looked like the hosts!"
"M... me? I did?" stammered Auri. "But I don't know how."
"Good to see you lot," said Caidus calmly. "Appreciate you stepping in, really do, but can someone tell me what in Inya just happened?"
"An excellent question," came a new voice, as Faeron could just barely make out six or seven shapes rushing towards them. "Eredithian security, please keep still. Serris, give us light!"
A dozen balls of light appeared around Faeron and the others, and he could now make out the black-vested uniform of the city's security force. They weren't a common sight in Eredith, appearing only when called, and Faeron had only encountered them a handful of times in his whole life. The leader of the pack, the only one of them not wearing a helmet, had short greying hair and a well-groomed goatee. His badge read: Sergeant Lomelle.
"We've got a report of an assault involving two citizens," said the sergeant, "and what in the blazes happened to the Forgeworks Hammer? Was that you as well?"
“There was no assault, officer,” said Auri sternly. “If anything, Caidus here was being verbally assaulted by the Durkwrite twins.”
“It’s no biggie,” said Caidus. “Drunks being drunks. These three chased them off for me.”
“What about you two?” asked the sergeant, turning to Faeron and Quinn. “Can you confirm their story?”
They spent the next few minutes, each detailing the events that had just transpired, all of them leaving out the part where Auri shaped the Forgeworks fire.
“So, what about the hammer then?” asked the sergeant, as Quinn finished giving his version of events.
Auri opened her mouth to speak, but Faeron cut her off. “Completely unrelated,” he reported. “Couldn’t tell you what happened. One second it was burning like normal, the next we were all in the dark.”
“Right…” said the officer, eyeing them suspiciously. “Well, if that’s it, we’ll be sending someone to escort each of you home. Nomad, you have a place to stay?”
“Room in Quilver’s,” said Caidus. “Mathas Grinward is putting me up.”
“Gotcha,” said the sergeant. “Alright then, let’s move everyone.”
Two officers walked with Faeron and Auri back to a corner where they ordered a tram. The moment the doors sealed and they were alone, Faeron spun to face Auri who wore a look of wild excitement.
“I can’t believe you—”
“No clue. I don’t even have an echo crystal!”
“That’s on a whole new level,” said Faeron giddily as he watched the tram near their floor of the violet tower. “You should have seen your eyes, it was just like the dancing girl. I don’t even think my mom’s ever done anything like it!”
“But it doesn’t make any sense,” said Auri, “Mathas told us that the wisest and most practiced of the Old-Scholars were the only ones who could shape without echo crystals, but I can’t even shape with them. No crystal and no calm. It was almost… as if I reached the light through my anger somehow. Just like how I fought against the crimson last night.”
“Interesting... ” said Faeron. What she was saying went against everything Mathas had taught them since their very first lesson. Peace, calm, and surrender, these were the paths to peridom’s light. Emotion had only ever stood in Faeron’s way, but Auri really did seem to be using it to shape. “Tomorrow, we’ll go to Mathas. He’ll get to the bottom of it.”
“Tomorrow,” agreed Auri. “And hey, Faeron. Thanks for helping with my meditations. It really does mean a lot.”
“Forget it,” said Faeron. “We both know you’d do the same.”
When Faeron and Auri finally arrived home, they both made straight for their rooms as if lassoed upon entry.
“Night,” said Faeron as he swung his door closed.
“Night,” Auri called as her door clicked shut.
Despite his exhaustion, Faeron simply couldn’t sleep. For hours, he tossed and turned, playing back the events of his day. He dwelt on his first shaping in the workshop, the feeling he had when he stopped midair, and relived the sheer thrill of watching Caidus conquer Roethwild. Eventually, his thoughts found their way back to Auri and her impossible show in the park. He had a million questions, and any answers he did have only opened up another twenty questions of their own.
The occasional footsteps to and from the kitchen told Faeron that Auri was just as restless, her mind no doubt walking the same trails as his. Eventually, in the early hours of the morning, Faeron’s mind finally found quiet. In the emptiness, the pearlescent light of peridom washed him away.
Chapter 9 - The Deadline
Jakob paced up and down the central aisle of his 3978 Pursuer as it sped down the rails of a southbound tunnel. Through the windows, he could see hundreds of other alcas, cast in the shifting glow of the red, pink, and yellow neon lights winding like technicolor waves along the tunnel walls.
Jakob yawned. He’d been up late, exploring alternate motivations for his villain, and then, early this morning, Proto had woken him abruptly. Even now, an hour and a half after leaving his home in a rush, he was still replaying in his mind the cryptic call he’d received from his agent.
“What is it?” Jakob had answered groggily from his bed.
“I need you to come in today,” Maye Vennamin, his agent, had said back, coolly.
“What for,” he’d asked.
“This needs to be in person,” said Vennamin. “You haven’t seen the new HQ at Talon Park yet, have you? Perfect chance to check it out. Be here by noon.”
Jakob continued to pace as he half listened to a Quistive interview over the Pursuer’s speakers.
“Now, Carlton,” said Elliot Jay, the Quisitive’s infamous journalist, “I think what people really want to know is, why the secrecy? It’s been two-and-a-half years now, and we know nothing.” His voice was young and full of energy.
“Well, if people wanna pay the lawsuit I’ll get for breaching NDA…” said a second voice, older and laid back. “I kid. I kid. Still couldn’t tell ya.”
“Can you at least give us a hint? Entertainment? Business? Heck, I’d be happy just knowing what continent you’re building on.”
“I promise it’s somewhere on Inya,” laughed Carlton. “I can tell you that much.”
“Suppose I can return that space suit then,” bantered Elliot. “But in seriousness, I’ve got a conspiracy to float past you.”
“Shoot,” said Carlton.
“I did a little digging,” said Elliott. “It looks like your firm usually takes about six months to design. Two and a half years in… the scope of this project must be unbelievable. Whatever it is, it’s going to take a shraft load of manpower to construct. So, you’ll understand why I was… intrigued… when Meddow Construction Corporation suddenly became Meddow Construction Conglomerate a year back. Dozens of smaller groups absorbed in the span of a few short months, and yet none of them have any active jobs on record? Carlton… where is Meddow making the money to keep on buying up these no-business businesses?”
“That’d be a great question… for Mike Meddow,” suggested Carlton.
“Are you denying any affiliation?” asked Elliott?
“Sorry to interrupt,” said Proto, over the speaker. “We’re five minutes out. You ready to go?”
“As I’ll ever be,” mulled Jakob, still pacing.
His Pursuer shifted to a side track and began to rise out of the tunnel. They surfaced and then climbed further, into the skyrail network between the residential high-rises of South Wyndon. Each highrise had its own distinct look. There were wide sweeping balconies, lush hanging gardens, and sleek rooftop lounges, though a heavy layer of lowsun snow was packed heavy atop every building in sight.
Jakob’s Pursuer broke from the highrises as it sped out onto a bridge over the rushing waters of the Akai river. The murky river was spotted in shallow rapids, running from a massive lake, just visible on the eastern horizon, then disappearing around a bend of towers in the west.
It took seconds to cross the Akai into Centra, Hampson’s corporate heart. Colorful advertisements flashed across gargantuan displays climbing all up and down the faces of the city-state’s impossibly tall skyscrapers. There were more alcas here than anywhere else, and the tangle of rails between the towers took up over ten stories by themselves.
The only break from the sky-reaching steel and stone was an expansive snow-blanketed park walled in on all sides by towering skyscrapers. It was here that Jakob’s pursuer began to slow. As he descended from the rail network toward a ground-level station near the park’s grand front gate, Jakob got a perfect bird’s-eye view of the snowy wonderland below. The largest and most notable feature was the four-story structure taking up almost half the park by itself.
“There it is,” said Proto, “Talon Media Corporation’s new multi-billion encred Headquarters.”
The building had four pointed wings angled like a bird’s open talon. Its walls were sleek black glass, and its roof was hidden under a thick layer of snow. The rest of the park was sprinkled with colorful shops and rides, themed after the company’s many iconic stories.
Among the crowds that strolled the winding pathways below, were an assortment of fictional characters. Jakob spotted legendary knights, astronauts, politicians, detectives, even aliens and fantasy creatures from novels he’d read as a boy. They looked as real as the starry eyed children rushing to meet them. Most of the magcoasters and other attractions looked shut down for the lowsun snows, though Jakob could see a long colorful carriage chugging along in slow circles around the park as it carried guests between different themed areas.
“Coming in now,” reported Proto, as the alca pulled up to the front gate. “Lucky us got a priority spot.”
The gateway’s grand face was a tall crescent of glass with a wide opening cut through the center. Between the two halves, floating high above the crowds, was an enormous globe. As it slowly rotated, the continents along the surface shifted, continuously changing the globe to mimic Talon Media’s many fantasy worlds. At the bottom of the glass crescents, thick stone slabs read ‘Talon Park,’ in bright golden letters.
“Wow, the luxury treatment,” said Jakob, collecting his grey peacoat and navy scarf off a hook beside the bench, “all so they can sack me.”
“Don’t be so dramatic,” chimed Proto as the alca came to a stop. “I’m sure Vennamin would have just done that over her call this morning.”
“S’pose so,” said Jakob, bracing himself for the cold of Centra. It’d been years since he experienced a snowy lowsun. At his approach, the door of the alca slid open, and Jakob strode out into the chilly breeze of the park.
Music and merry conversation met Jakob’s ears as he watched his Pursuer zip off down the rails and disappear into the skyrail network. A wide cobblestone road led from the loading zone through the arched park entry, all the way to the corporate building, with smaller pathways leading off in every direction. Thousands of guests carried large bags full of colorful toys and memorabilia as they stopped to meet their favorite fictional characters brought to life.
“How are we looking on time?” asked Jakob.
“Close, but you should be—” Proto was cut off as a golden raven appeared out of thin air in front of Jakob.
“Welcome to Talon Park!” squawked the raven, flapping his wings as he hovered at eye level. “My name is Livespark, here to introduce you to your personal guide for the day.”
“My guide?” asked Jakob.
“Oh, you’ll see!” chirped Livespark. “Tell me, do you have a favorite Talon Media series?”
“I feel obliged to say the Aurilius saga,” answered Jakob.
“Ah, Inspector Aurilius. Smart choice,” tweeted Livespark, glowing bright. The features of the crow faded and its light expanded until it began to look vaguely human in form. Details took shape again, the dark cowl and heavy coat, a reed pipe poking out of the pocket, and, of course, the inspector’s signature golden watch. Aurilius’ face was exactly as Jakob had described it, narrow jaw, hollowed cheeks, and young blue eyes behind an aged face.
“No way…” gasped Jakob. “There’s never been a VUE adaptation… What’s this model based off of? Hand crafted? Or did you generate him from my writing?”
“Now this… is unexpected,” said Aurilius, taking a measure of Jakob with his eyes before grinning broadly. “Doubt I need to introduce myself to you, Jakob… a real, meet your maker moment.”
“Your maker?” asked Jakob, intrigued. “Aren’t you just Livespark dressed up like Aurilius? I’m hardly your maker.”
“A simplification,” said Aurilius. “Though Livespark is the vessel, you’ll find me, its contents, to be more substantive than a simple illusion. I am, truly, the Aurilius you wrote.”
“Wicked tech,” said Proto, while a strong cold breeze battered Jakob’s cheeks with drifting snow.
“It’s cold, and we’ve hardly time for philosophy,” stated Aurilius, looking at his golden watch. “Average pace will put us at Vennamin’s office twelve minutes from now, leaving five or so for bathrooms on route… assuming you need them after your trip.”
“Sure…” said Jakob. In his wonder, he’d hardly noticed the snow. He studied every detail of his creation now standing before him. The smooth voice, the attention to time, he was flawless.
“Just this way then,” Aurilius led Jakob down the main road, and for a while Jakob silently observed. The many boot-prints along the wide path had reduced its snowy blanket to spotted patches of brown-grey slush, though, fortunately, there wasn’t any ice. Jakob once had a nasty fall on a sleek patch on the path up to his snowy peaks apartment that had turned his backside black for weeks. Ever since then, he’d been apprehensive about long snowy walks.
Though the park was busy, traffic moved quickly along the well-organized roads. It was a short trot to the headquarters building, and as Jakob approached the entry, he was befuddled to find that there were no doors in sight. The entry was a single black-glass wall with the Talon Media logo printed in gold near the top. It appeared solid as any other pane of glass, except for the slow trickle of men and women in bulky jackets or cardigan blazers passing straight through its surface. As far as Jakob could see, the glass wasn’t parting for them in any way; it was as if the glass itself were an illusion.
“A projection?” asked Jakob as they approached the glass. “Doesn’t seem like it’d keep much of anything out… birds… rain… especially not the cold.”
“Not a projection,” answered Aurilius. “That would indeed be ineffective. This is phaseflex, cousin to formflex, if you’re familiar. Should an unwanted party try to pass through, they’d find the glass quite solid, hard as steel, in fact. For those of us welcome here, however…” Aurilius stepped through the wall. “Don’t worry,” came his muddled voice from across the wall, “it works on real people, too.”
“Just found a couple research docs on it,” reported Proto. “Brand new tech, impressive they’ve already implemented it on such a scale.”
“Here goes then,” said Jakob, extending an arm to the glass. As his hand passed through, he felt a current of warmth, like a waterfall of hot air. “Rad,” he said, stepping through fully.
On the far side of the wall was a triangular room, four stories tall with polished black-marble floors, walls, and ceiling. In the center was a thirty-foot statue of a golden raven, wings spread wide, one talon menacingly outstretched. Stark white lights ran along the seams between the walls and ceiling, and slow but steady foot traffic passed between large hallways on either side.
“This way,” said Aurilius, leading Jakob to the right-side passage.
“I feel the need to ask,” said Jakob, following close behind, “as Aurilus, you can turn invisible, right?” It was obvious to Jakob that Livespark could simply cut the projection, but he was interested to see how his creation reacted to this specific request.
“Can,” said Aurilius, “but won’t.”
“Why’s that?” asked Jakob.
“There’s no need for it,” answered Aurilius simply.
“So, it’s just a practical thing, then?” asked Jakob. “What if I asked nicely?”
“I know what you’re trying to do,” said Aurilius. “You’re curious whether or not I fear my curse’s consequence in this form.”
“And do you?” asked Jakob. “You clearly recognize that you’re a product of livespark. You must know there’s no cutting time off your life in this state.”
“But what fun is that?” asked Aurilius. “The rules may not apply because, at heart, I am still Livespark… but I am as an actor, Aurilius, my role. Does the thespian laugh down the barrel of a gun because they know it fires blanks? No! To them, to the person they embody, that weapon is just as real as the curse is for me.” He took a bend in the hall and paused before a pair of doors. “Bathrooms?” he asked.
“Yes, thanks,” said Jakob, stepping inside.
Minutes later, Jakob stood in front of a gold gilded mirror, fixing a few stray hairs in his tired looking reflection. Shadows had settled beneath his steel-blue eyes.
“So… you done torturing that AI?” asked Proto. The lens pinned to Jakob’s coat pulsed alongside the index’s words.
“I suppose so,” said Jakob, still struggling with a stubborn hair. “Though, the intelligence running that thing is incredible. Would certainly make my job easier if I could just consult Aurilius on what he’d do next… Shame you can’t you do anything like that, huh?”
“And maybe I could… If only you’d finished your degree,” countered Proto.
“Fair enough,” sighed Jakob, giving up hope that the rebel strand would fall in line with the rest of his part.
He rejoined Aurilius outside the bathrooms and followed around another bend, up a flight of stairs, and down a long hallway. They stopped at a door, made of the same black marble as the walls and inlaid with a fancy gold pattern. Though there was no handle or knob, a plaque at face level read, ‘Maye Vennamin.’
“She’s expecting you,” said Aurilius. “I’m afraid, it’s here, I take my leave.”
“It was fun talking to you,” said Jakob. “Sorry if I was a bother.”
“Not at all,” chuckled Aurilius. “You’re a bright lad… though… I suppose you must be to write me.” With a wink, he disappeared.
Now alone, and not knowing what else to do, Jakob knocked.
“That you, Jakob?” came a voice from the other side. “Come on in.”
Without warning, the door slid aside, receding into the wall beside its thick golden frame. The modestly sized office inside was dark, even with the brilliant white strip lights outlining the ceiling and floor. There were no windows, instead, the onyx walls were littered with dozens of well-organized accolades in fancy gold frames, while a display cabinet in the corner showcased a dozen or so standing awards. Vennamin’s desk was topped in black glass, clear of any clutter, with a sleek golden frame.
On either side of the desk sat a woman. Vennamin, middle aged and sporting a permanently crooked smile, waved Jakob inside. Across from her, with her back to Jakob, was a woman he didn’t immediately recognize. She had short blue curls and skin black as night. At his entry, the stranger turned and smiled, her eyes glinting beneath large thick glasses. She wore a plum turtleneck sweater and, as opposed to Vennamin’s heavy makeup, appeared to keep her face rather natural. Locking eyes with Jakob, her whole body tensed up.
“Oh,” said Jakob, stopping in the doorway. “I didn’t realize you were in the middle of something.”
“No, no,” said Vennamin, “This is Madeline Empire. She’s here at my request to meet you.”
Confused, Jakob sauntered slowly into the room. “A pleasure,” he said warmly to Madline, offering her his hand and taking the empty seat beside her.
For a moment, he thought she wasn’t going to accept his gesture as she simply continued to stare. Finally composing herself, however, Madeline snapped out her hand and shook his vigorously.
“It is an…” Madeline started to say, “well… honor doesn’t even begin to describe the feeling.”
“Madeline has assured me that she’s your biggest fan,” clapped Vennamin happily. “What a wonderful start to a long and fruitful relationship.”
Jakob’s gaze shot suddenly to his agent, sitting back in her traditional black blazer and stark white button-up with the top three buttons undone. “Fruitful? Vennamin what--”
“I just want you to know I’ve read everything ten times over,” said Madeline, talking over him as she raced through her words. “The fact I’d get this opportunity… It means everything to me. I’ll prove it! Quiz me on anything, don’t care how obscure.”
“Quiz you? What opportunity?” asked Jakob, his eyes narrowed. “Vennamin?”
Madeline seemed suddenly to understand something Jakob didn’t as she sunk back into her seat. “He doesn’t know?” she gasped.
“I wanted you to be here,” answered the agent, calmly, to Madeline. “Listen Jakob,” she said, turning her attention to him. “Inspector Aurilius is a hit. There’s real momentum behind your story, but the powers that be are concerned how much longer that energy can hold up without big news about book three.”
“This couldn’t happen over the phone?” sighed Jakob. “Let me guess… want me to get in front of the cameras, tell the adoring fans I’m almost done? And what’s her deal?” He stuck a thumb towards Madeline. “PR expert come to save my hide?”
“No,” said Vennamin, “That charade is behind us. Orders from on high are to hand off the writing of Aurlius to Madeline. She’d simply be a ghost writer, making sure the words reach the page. You’d still be directing the story, and she’s the best I know at—”
“No,” said Jakob firmly. “Not interested.”
“Here’s the thing,” said Vennamin. “I care. You know I do. Your interests are important to me, but I only get so much say. There is one other way out, and that’s if you can promise me book three, on my desk, this time next year. It doesn’t need to be your magnum opus. As long it’s Aurilius, people will eat it up.”
“And if it’s not done by then?” asked Jakob sharply. “Inspector Aurilius isn’t yours to take.”
“According to your contract… the series is ours to manage,” said Vennamin cooly. “We can’t revoke your ownership, but Talon has the right to hand the writing off to Madeline. I know what it means to you, but really, Jakob, this isn’t the end of the world. You’d be involved every step of the way and Madeline—”
“Hang on!” burst Madeline, leaping out of her seat. “I’m sorry, Jakob… I thought this was… I didn’t realize… I don’t agree to this.” She looked frantically between them before her eyes steeled. “I think I’d better go,” she said.
“Now hold on--” Vennamin began, but her words were lost on Madeline. The writer scowled one last time at Vennamin then strutted proudly out of the room.
“I think I’d better follow,” said Jakob sternly, beginning to rise.
“Don’t be dramatic,” growled Vennamin. “Walking out that door doesn’t take our contract away, it just robs you of your say in this decision. We both know you’ve nowhere else to go, neither does she. Talon is media. Your best bet is to work with me, the one person on your side.”
Jakob looked at his agent, sickened. “How dare you pretend to care?”
Vennamin sighed and reached below her desk. Jakob heard a cabinet open and close as she retrieved two square glasses and a bottle of reddish-caramel liquid.
“Verius Nova, just over fifty years old,” said Vennamin, filling both glasses up halfway. “Though not technically allowed, it can be our secret.”
“Getting me drunk isn’t going to help,” said Jakob pointedly, as she pushed one glass over to his end of the table. He paid the drink no mind.
Shrugging, Vennamin downed her drink and poured herself a second. “I’ll be straight with you,” she said, leaning forward and folding her hands over her desk. “Believe it or not, I do care. I want you to have the freedom to write your book, but I also want to see you succeed. A thousand stories hit my desk every week, Jakob, and I’m telling you… Aurilius the hottest damn thing since Deity. I’ve known from day one that you, Jakob Rite, were the next Annalaide Martin. It’s that very reason I pulled strings to get you in print. Those old presses aren’t cheap… that’s real money invested, because it was important to you.”
“Money invested?” scoffed Jakob. “Talon’s made twice what you’ve spent because of me.”
“Pocket change,” said Vennamin, sipping at her second glass. “Some day, these novels could very well be the popular books in all of Irasil. In terms of profit, that’d put you just under any old Lowend morning cartoon… Tell me, do you know how exactly Talon Media Corporation came to own sixteen square blocks of the most expensive city in the world?”
“Buying up every franchise you could get your grubby paws on?” guessed Jakob.
“Wrong,” said Vennamin. “That’s a result, not the cause. The reason Talon became the giant it is now is because four hundred years ago, when the index room was first pitched, our founder, Charles Raven, was the only person willing to back it. ‘Too much infrastructure,’ everyone else whined, but Charles saw the future in visual index technology. With the backing of Talon, the first VUEs were filmed, and the rest is history. Fact is, Jakob, your print novels are… a novelty. Talon runs on VUE.”
“If you want VUE so bad then do it,” spat Jakob. “You’ve got two books to work with. I don’t see why the third book is so damn important to you now.”
“No producer is willing to go anywhere near a half-finished story, not when the third novel is taking you so long, especially not after what happened with the Grand Winter Saga,” argued Vennamin. “Listen to me, Jakob. I know you don’t want this. But look around, you think this is what I want?” she motioned around the windowless office. “My greatest achievements on display and none of them mean a thing. Aurilius is my ticket to a UniVUE, to an office on the east wing, to a perfect view of Koperra Tower. Every day, all day, I want to look up at those losers slaving away, and when I think of how they used me… held me back… well… Livespark won’t be the only bird flying.”
“Ah, there it is,” said Jakob. “All this talk of helping me, and you just care about a fancier office.”
“You’ve got it all wrong,” cooed Vennamin. “If you and your stories put me in that office, Jakob… I won’t forget it. Once I’m on top, I’ll have the power to give you all the time in the world. Hand this thing off to Madeline… or at least work with her to get the damn thing done this year. After that, you’ll never have to compromise again.” She extended a hand, smooth and pale with a large diamond perched upon her ring finger.
“I’ll see you in a year,” said Jakob definitively, then he rose from his chair and promptly left.
The ride home was silent. Jakob’s nervous pacing was replaced with a downcast slump on the bench, and the three hour trip slogged by in a miserable blur. For all he’d expected to be in some state of panicked planning, Jakob found he couldn’t seem to form a single coherent thought. Yet his mind was far from empty. Wordless emotions buzzed about his brain, stabbing at his psyche like a hive of angered wasps.
Jakob’s pursuer dropped him off on the platform at the end of his block, and the whole world seemed a haze as he stumbled home. He had only just stepped in the front door when he felt it in his gut: a wrenching sensation, fueled by the frantic buzzing. All those emotions had to go somewhere, and Jakob was fairly certain he knew exactly where they were about to go. Sprinting to the bathroom, Jakob barely managed to throw open the toilet lid before lurching up his breakfast.
The wordless panic hung over Jakob the whole next week. Night after night he’d sit at his desk, staring down at an empty page, clutching his pen tight until his knuckles turned white. He wrote so many words, and yet he got nowhere. He couldn’t make any sense of it. Where had the hours gone?
On the sixth day, lying in bed at noon, Jakob finally decided it was time to seek help. “Proto, can you get through to Madeline?” he asked.
“Yeah,” said Proto, “one sec.” A moment passed and then Proto spoke again. “She’s there, Putting you through.”
“Hello, Jakob?” Madeline’s voice sounded nervous as it filled his room.
“Hey, Madeline,” said Jakob, sitting up in bed.
“Holy…! It really is you!” said Madeline excitedly. “I’m surprised you still want to talk to me after…”
“About that,” said Jakob. “Thanks for standing up for me. Bold choice, storming out of Vennamin’s office like that.”
“Eww, just her name gets me…” Madeline growled. “So, what’s up? I can’t imagine you took her offer… did you?”
“No,” said Jakob. “One year. That’s all I’ve got now…”
“I’m sorry,” Madeline spoke softly.
“Anyway, didn’t mean to turn this into a pity call,” sighed Jakob. “I actually wanted to reach out because I had a question. Seems like you know what you’re doing, when it comes to getting words on the page, you ever been in a rut before?”
There was a moment of silence.
“Jakob Rite asking me for writing advice?” he heard her speak under her breath. “Sorry,” she said, louder. “This is just… wild. But yeah! Actually, there’s this chick I dig, Haez, she runs a creative writing club. It’s real small time… maybe it’s not the most helpful to someone like… you. But, if you’re interested, it really helps get me in that creative mode.”
“Oh yeah?” said Jakob. “Sounds like just what I need. When and where?”
He heard Madeline gasp loudly. “Haez is gonna… She’ll love this! Lowpae, up in North Wyndon, if you can make it there. Tenth hour.”
“I’ll see you there,” said Jakob.
“Definitely! Yeah! Awesome chat! See you there,” Madeline sounded about ready to explode with excitement as the call ended.
Despite Sylvia’s constant presence throughout the week, Jakob had managed to keep her ignorant of his crisis. That is, until that Hykel evening. Sylvia had come home early from classes and was relaxing over a Quisitive docuVUE in their index room. Though Jakob was pretending to be busier than ever, he was, instead, huddled on the bathroom floor, head hung over the toilet, ready to donate another meal to the bowl. While he should have been excited for the upcoming writing club, Jakob was dreading the opportunity to flaunt his failure to a wider audience. Just as partially digested biscuits took their leave of his gut, there was a knock at the door.
“Jakob?” came Sylvia’s voice. “Did you just puke?”
“Ugh,” groaned Jakob, lightheaded. He frantically reached for toilet paper to wipe the tears from his eyes, then collapsed back against the bathtub, just in time for Sylvia to barge in.
“What the…” Sylvia’s eyes jumped between Jakob and the remnants of his dinner, left unflushed. Her mouth curled to a grimace, though her eyes were soft and full of pity. “You’re not sick, are you.”
Jakob shook his head, wiping his cheeks of tears.
“That shraft snake,” cursed Sylvia, her strong shoulders filling the doorway. “Come on then, no use moping. There’s a report on Quisitive right now that’s bound to perk you up.”
“I’d rather not,” groaned Jakob, reaching to flush the toilet and spare both him and Sylvia the smell.
“I don’t care,” said Sylvia. “Not about to sit here and let you puke yourself to death. You need to think about something else for a while. This’ll do just the trick. Besides, my index is bust again. I need to borrow Proto anyway.”
“Ah, her true intentions revealed,” mumbled Jakob, though playfully.
“Up time!” Sylvia proclaimed and marched across to where he was propped against the tub. Grabbing his arm, she hoisted him to his feet. Jakob’s legs felt weak beneath him as he followed her up the wooden steps to the round index room with a couch as its only decoration.
“Proto?” she asked, holding out her hand.
“Here,” said Jakob, taking the thick lens from his pocket.
“Evening, Sylvia,” piped Proto cheerfully as the device flickered on.
“I’ve got beef with you,” said Sylvia, swiping the index from Jakob’s hand. “You knew what’s been going on with Jakob all this time and you didn’t tell me?”
“Loyal to a fault, I suppose,” answered Proto. “Although… if it had gotten much worse, I’d have reached out. I assure you.”
“Well, now you can make it up to me,” said Sylvia, going to the center of the room. “Quisitive report, load it up.”
“Of course,” said Proto.
A narrow podium rose from the floor with a slot for a lens at the top. Sylvia removed her index and fixed Proto in its spot. Once Proto was secure, the podium sunk back into the floor and Sylvia and Jakob took their usual spots on the couch.
The room went dark for a moment, then the plain white chamber was replaced by a much larger room. The walls and ceiling looked like natural bark, as if they were in the hollow of a tree. There were a couple small round windows, and the floor was draped in a braided reed rug. Cubbies grew right out of the walls and were lined in colorful books and stacks of loose papers.
Just in front of the couch where Jakob and Sylvia sat was a heavy wooden desk. Two chairs had been pulled up and they were occupied by two starkly different figures. Behind the desk was an old and sickly looking capillum. Unlike the few capillum Jakob had met in his life, this man had little of his body hidden. His top, if you could call it that, was simply a few long straps that crossed his chest and disappeared over one shoulder. His fur was dark grey and patterned with streaks of black dye along his dangerously thin arms. Beside him, a young redheaded human sat with perfect posture. The man, who Jakob recognized as Elliot Jay, had abnormally large ears and a fiery eagerness in his eyes.
Taking a moment to absorb the space, Jakob knew there was only one place this could have been filmed.
“This is… Roana?” asked Jakob, bolting out of his seat and running over to a window. It was dark out, and soft moonlight filtered down from the canopy many hulking boughs above. Below, a dozen layers of heavy branches disappeared into a lightless void. He couldn’t get a sense how high up he was, only that the trees must be immensely tall. All across the many towering trunks and interwoven branches, Jakob could see twinkling lights through the windows of other homes. “How’d Elliot pull this off?”
“Shh, listen,” said Sylvia.
“Doctor?” asked Elliot, placing a hand softly on the capillum’s shoulder. The frail looking capillum had light tremors in his arms as he stared blankly past his desk.
“Oh!” said the capillum, perking up at Elliot’s touch. “I’m sorry… forgotten the question.” Though his accent was strong, the capillum seemed to be at the very least conversational in Unified Standard.
“Twilights Maw,” said Elliot. “In your writings, you report your team was herded to this place, by creatures you’ve called felphants. Now, I’ve some knowledge of Roana, but nothing I’ve read has ever mentioned a species of that name. Is it a slang?”
Jakob had returned to his seat, as absorbed by the exchange as he was the exotic city.
“No…” said the capillum absently. The question seemed to strike a nerve as the capillum’s arms began to shake more violently. His left eye kept blinking, almost with a rhythm, and his shoulders tensed sharply from time to time. “Never … we’d never seen it before.”
“A unique specimen to the Dead Coast… effect of the continued radiation from the facility perhaps?” said Elliot, scrawling furiously in a journal.
“Not the facility!” burst the capillum, appearing almost compulsive in the force of his delivery.
“Oh…?” asked Elliot. “Tell me more.”
The old capillum seemed to suddenly freeze up. His eye stopped twitching, his limbs locked still as statues, and an absent gaze clouded his eyes.
“Doctor Rotier?” asked Elliot, again, touching the capillum’s arm. “Does this have something to do with your expungement?”
Rotier gripped the edge of the table tight, his jaw going tight. “Mockery,” he whispered. “They mock me… you mock me!”
“No, doctor, I swear I mean no offense,” said Elliot, throwing up his hands apologetically. “In fact, I’ve very good reason to believe your telling of events.”
Rotier looked back to Elliot, apprehensive optimism painted in his giant eyes.
“Before, you said, ‘not the facility,’” said Elliot. “I’m still connecting some dots… so, if you can tell me more about what that means, your proposed origin of the Dead Coasts’s radioactivity, I may know a way to prove some of what you claim.”
“No…” said Rotier, shrinking back again. “Hollow words… like hers…”
“Let’s start with the proof then,” pushed Elliott. “You are the only survivor, and to date, no footage has ever been captured within the coast. Under strict conditions, we were able to get close enough to view a small stretch of land via telescope. Of course, none of our recording instruments worked, however I’ve a written account of what I suspect to be these felphants you discuss. Five capillum tall, twice as wide as your home. At first, we weren’t sure they were more than hills, peaking above the sage fogs. However, there’s no denying they were moving, however slowly, up and down the coast.”
Fear flooded Rotier’s gaze and the capillum began to shake.
“You don’t like discussing them, I know,” said Elliot softly, “but if you can give me finer details, something to match my account, without me telling you, you’ll confirm both our claims. We’ve ensured the whole exchange is recorded and left no room for me to feed you the information beforehand.”
For the first time in the interview, Rotier seemed calm, his ticks easing. “I… suppose it can’t hurt to try,” he began. “We first saw them on the fourth night. Our compasses had broken on the first day, and barren as the trees were, there was no sense to the sun above us. Direction was lost to us. There was day and night, but no logic to their order.” As he spoke, Rotier was filled with a lively awareness. There was confidence in his words. “The emerald clouds were not gas, as we had expected, but spores. The felphants made them, walked among them, shrouded in them. We heard them… stomping… and then came silhouettes.” Rotier’s nerves suddenly shot back. His eyes widened, his breathing shallowed. “I see… I see… I see…”
“Doctor?” said Elliot, calmingly.
“I can’t,” said Rotier, frantically.
“It’s okay,” said Elliot. “Let’s try something else. I’ve seen your sketches, the way you capture nature in meticulous exactness. Could you try drawing it, perhaps?”
Rotier nodded. Turning in his chair, he slid a paper off the shelf behind him and clutched a silver pen. Instant recognition flooded over Jakob.
“Hang on,” Jakob said. “I know that pen, it’s the same as mine!” He plucked the silver and gold banded pen from his pocket. “What’s a Pruvian Series Q doing in Roana? Of all things to smuggle through the trade embargo… why a pen?”
“I don’t know, but hush,” shushed Sylvia. “I wanna see this.”
Rotier flattened out the paper against his desk then, uncapping his pen, he began to draw in wide curved lines. At first he sketched the outline, rotund with a long tail, droopy ears, and fearsome tusks. Then, came finer details. Rotier added massive bulbous growths all up and down the back. As he moved to the legs, Rotier suddenly shot up in his chair, flinging the pen across the room.
“HER!” he screamed, pointing a finger across his desk.
Jakob turned to follow Rotier’s point past the couch to an empty corner of the room.
In a panic, Rotier lurched back sharp into a shelf, knocking off several hardbound books. “Her!” he continued to cry at the empty corner. “You’ve brought her here!”
“What is…?” Jakob stood and walked over the corner, but then he saw it, a soft shimmer. It was so subtle that Jakob would never have seen it if he weren’t standing so close. Like heat of a radiator, the air in the corner rippled, and, if Jakob squinted, he swore he could make out the shape of a capillum.
Suddenly, the shimmer stopped. Jakob turned to see Rotier, frozen in place. Elliot Jay, however, was still animated as he turned to face the couch directly.
“These were the last intelligible words Doctor Vukor Rotier would speak to us,” said Elliot. “However, before you draw any conclusions, I’d like to present our evidence.” Elliot reached into his pocket and pulled out a letter. A seal on the back pictured an emblem of a tree, its canopy shaped like the nation of Roana. “This letter has been sealed by the Council of Gau, and we’ve an officiator, just offscreen, to verify the integrity of its opening. Without further ado.”
Elliot peeled open the letter and pulled a small handwritten note from inside. “The creatures are roughly thirty feet tall,” read Elliot. “From what we can see through the masking of the clouds, their backs are lumpy and uneven, perhaps natural growths? We believe we’ve seen tusks, but auxiliary limbs cannot be ruled out.”
Putting the letter aside, Elliot once again turned his attention to the couch. “Nature, it seems, has found a way,” he said, “even in the Dead Coast. I can only wonder what other exotic lifeforms make their home of its sage fog. Try as we might, we could not reach Rotier for additional comment. The council, however, was impressed by our diligence. They have rescinded the strike against Rotier’s legacy, though, given his mental state, have decided against restoring his council seat. Still, this experiment was a win for Rotier and perhaps even a clue to the unending spread of the Dead Coast.”
“Now, that…” started Sylvia.
“I know,” said Jakob. “This is it! It’s the perfect mystery!”
“Is that a smile I see?” asked Sylvia playfully.
“Proto, jump back to the drawing,” commanded Jakob, “right before Rotier jumps back.”
The scene rewound swiftly, Elliot facing Rotier once again. The books from the floor flew back up onto the shelf as Rotier returned to his seat.
Jakob went over to the corner where he saw the shimmering capillum. “Go ahead, play it,” said Jakob. “And Sylvia, watch over here.”
“For what?” asked Sylvia, wrinkling her brow.
The scene sprang suddenly back to normal motion as Rotier once again crashed from his seat and barreled backwards into the shelf behind him.
“Look,” said Jakob, “you see this shimmer.” Training his eyes on the ripple in the air, Jakob could make out what looked loosely like the figure of a capillum.
“What am I supposed to be looking at?” asked Sylvia as Rotier yelled, the scene paused, and Elliot began his monologue.
“Come over here if you can’t see it,” said Jakob. “Proto, back it up, same spot.”
Sylvia grunted and rose from the couch, joining Jakob in the corner. “So, what is this about?”
“Hold on,” said Jakob. “Proto, play it.”
Once again, the air in the corner began to ripple. Now that Jakob saw the capillum, he couldn’t unsee the figure.
“A blemish in the recording?” scoffed Sylvia. “Jakob, just now, when you described ‘the perfect mystery,’ were you referring to the impossible life forms discovered by a disgraced scientist or a blemish on a docuVUE?”
“Both… and neither,” said Jakob, “they’re both just a piece of it.”
“It?” asked Sylvia.
“It’s just like when Proto recorded the girl,” said Jakob. “Light… but from where…” His eyes snapped to one thing in the room that didn’t belong.
“Proto,” said Jakob, “Same spot… actually, a couple seconds more.”
As the scene rewound Jakob walked over to the desk where Rotier was drawing. “Go ahead, but slow it down,” he said, stepping right through the desk, putting his face at level with Rotier’s hand. The pen was exactly like the silver Purvian Series Q he carried everywhere, except for one feature. On the cap of the pen was an orange gemstone, small as a pea.
“That’s it… I’ll bet anything…” whispered Jakob, watching as Rotier adjusted the pen, his thumb briefly passing over the gem. A moment later, the old capillum lurched back in slow motion. “I knew it!” exclaimed Jakob. “This is my story. I was born to solve this.”
“Knew what, Jakob?” Sylvia asked, sounding a touch annoyed. “Believe me, I’m happy you’re excited, just help me see what you’re seeing.”
“It all ties back to that day in the park,” said Jakob. “I wasn’t crazy, and Proto’s not busted. It’s tech. That dancing girl, her light, it’s what Rotier sees, in the corner there. It triggered when he touched the cap of the pen and… a pen, mind you, that would be all but impossible to get in Roana. Whatever this light is, it must be targeted somehow. Explains why no one else in the park noticed that girl!”
“Jakob…” Sylvia started, but instead she sighed and raised a hand to her temple as if nursing a headache. “Whatever gets you writing, I guess. Proto, end VUE.”
Rotier’s home disappeared, and the two siblings now stood on opposite ends of the plain white room.
“You’re leaving?” asked Jakob.
“You clearly have your own thing going here,” said Sylvia. “I’m off to get my index repaired so that I can look up more about the impossible biology of the Dead Coast.”
Jakob rolled his eyes and gave her a dismissive wave. When Sylvia was gone, and the door was shut firm behind her, Jakob returned to the matter at hand. “Proto,” he said, “how far back can we go? Was the pen on the desk when the VUE began?” It turned out, the pen had been there from the start, meaning it hadn’t been gifted to Rotier by Elliot or his team, and Jakob was even more invested for it.