Year 47 AR
“Are we there yet?” Talem groaned as they trudged up the seemingly endless staircase.
It had started to get cold several thousand steps ago, and for the last few hundred, a thin layer of white powder covered every available surface. Snow was not common in the Kingdom, except in the mountains. Even in the coldest nights of winter, when frost tipped the grass and crusted the leaves, it never fell from the sky. Here, it spun through the air in dervishes that moved along the contours of the mountainside, both the textured peaks that rose up above them to the right, and the jagged drop into the misty drop to their left. The trees had stopped hours earlier, now it was all grey and white. Low clouds swallowed up the ground, leaving only a blue expanse over a bulging landscape of rolling white wisps.
“Just about,” Basia answered.
“You’ve been saying that for two hours. It better get true real soon, old man. It’s like every mason in the entire world had a contest to see who could build the worst fucking stairs and they all won.”
Auri snorted. “You’re whining, Talem, they’re just stairs. This is nothing compared to what we do every day back at the compound.”
“I guess. But they won’t let me complain about it.”
“I’ll have to ask them how they do that.” Auri pulled up next to Basia, who was studying a portion of the sheer stone that the stairway had been carved into.
“How they do what?”
“Make you shut up.” She threw him a smirk before turning her attention back to Basia. “Is this it?”
“Is what it?”
“Shut up, Talem.”
“You shut up.”
“Both of you shut it,” Basia snapped. “This is it. Twelve thousand steps. Are you wearing your tabards?”
He glanced toward them, and when they nodded, he stepped through the stone wall. It molded itself around him, parting reluctantly, as if molten, then crawling together across his back to reform into the flat stone face. The stairway continued on, out of sight, far away from the entrance. Auri moved up to the step Basia had been standing on and took a breath, then leaned in and gingerly stepped forward. It did not feel like its syrupy consistency implied. Rather, it was like a fine powder or an impossibly heavy gas, the sensation she imagined from the cottony cushions of heavy morning fog that sometimes floated on the ponds of the royal gardens.
She moved through that strange substance in a slow advance, surrounded by absolute darkness and total silence. It lasted long enough that her lungs began to ache for breath. She wondered if perhaps she had gotten turned around, or entered on the wrong step, or there was something wrong with the seal on her tabard. Then the mass parted, and the Dordoron appeared before her.
She stood in an entry hall like any other, on a dais with stairs leading down to a carpeted path. It was made of stone and mortar, there were banners along the pillared walls in the colours of the king, as well as a myriad of other flags. There were no shadows, nor torches or lanterns or any apparent source of light. Just an even glow, like a late dawn. It was not the eerie illumination that caught her breath, however, but what unfolded less than twenty feet ahead. The sides of the room curved outward; floor, ceiling and walls fell away to an expanse like nothing she had ever seen.
The Dordoron was not that paltry entrance. Instead it was a sphere carved into the heart of the mountain, hundreds of yards across, so vast that despite the strange lighting its furthest recesses teetered on the edge of obscurity. The stunning expanse of the room, with five immense bronze discs that stuttered the rounding hollow at even points along the circumference, as well as the top and bottom, served to emphasize the scale of the surface itself. It was all one great floor.
From above, she looked upon an enormous library, a winding maze of racks, shelves and stands for everything from books to scrolls and even rock slabs. No matter where she looked, up or down or side to side, she was staring at the top of thousands of acres of archives standing on ground that defied gravity. What was more, the reflections on the bronze discs were not only imperfect, they showed different rooms altogether, repeating into the distance until they became too small to see.
“Woah,” Talem exclaimed.
“Welcome,” said a gentle woman’s voice. “To the Dordoron. We are The Constant. It is good to see you again, Basia. It has been twenty-three years and eleven minutes since the last time you were here. We appreciate your punctuality.”
Basia stuttered at that, eventually deciding to just keep his mouth shut as he looked around like the rest of them to figure out where the voice was coming from. Before them a feminine figure in robes of radiant purple rounded the corner of the room where it bent into the hall beyond. She was swept up in silks of every gradient from violet to magenta, a luxurious display of wealth that failed to distract from the strangeness of her appearance. Her silhouette remained perpendicular to the floor on every step, but the transition was so abrupt that she seemed to flip absurdly into an upright stride toward them.
She was young, but far too odd to be pretty. Huge eyes, like that of a child, almost popped out of her head, and were unsettlingly misaligned. They were just like the Vigilant’s; no whites and all iris, golden brown gemstones within which moved a throng of black specks. They sidled around, forming brief swarms every now and then to indicate she was looking at something in particular. She was pale, and her hair was tied into an unkempt bun that let loose wiry stragglers to dance in front of her when she moved. Even dressed as glamorously as she was, she looked as if someone had swept a beggar girl from the streets and dressed her up in the farcical likeness of a queen. It was almost cruel, Auri thought, that no one had seen fit to tell her. Then those dark motes came together on the woman’s eyes until it was clear her attention was completely on Auri, and she understood why.
“You are Auri,” she said, and Auri noted that there was no echo despite their surroundings as the woman’s gaze flitted to her companions. “And you must be Talem. We are very excited to meet you both.”
Talem opened his mouth to respond, but the woman silenced him with a straightened finger, and then gestured for them to wait. Turning away she splayed her arm straight out to her side, and then as if running it across some imaginary surface, she swiped it sideways in front of her. Then the entire chamber before them rotated away and was replaced with another, almost identical copy. She repeated the gesture, each silent swipe of her hand turning the world before them to a new spherical chamber, slightly different from the one before.
“This is Our repository, Our record of what once was. Here We keep the memories of the world, and make certain the past is unbroken. For you who have chosen to serve, We offer a piece of that past, to take with you into the present. A piece of the past to shape the future. At the Ruin of Dannitth, when the Host of Man was destroyed, We were left with many things. As it is with humankind, however, so is it with magic.”
Auri was having a hard time paying attention to her, feeling the wobble of seasickness at the constant shifting before them. As the procession continued, she could see that what was rotating in were the brass discs she had seen capping the edges of the circular chambers.
“Magic is a bridge to the High Truths, and once built the bridge may not be broken. Though each is their own walkway, oft we make pillars in the building. These artifacts remain hence their makers, and it is left to Us to find them new uses.”
“I don’t understand,” Auri started.
“They have lots of magical items and they want to give us some,” Talem offered.
“You are almost exactly correct, Fox,” the Constant continued as she kept up the pace, shifting the space before them. “But items such as these may not be given. They must be… paired. We have spent some time studying the two of you, and have prepared a selection of candidates for your perusal, and for theirs. Should you find one another, you may adjoin. Ah, here we are.”
The cycling motion stopped as her hand abruptly dropped to her side, and the view came to rest on an entirely empty room, its smooth grey surface interrupted only by the burnished flats on each of its side. It seemed to Auri as if the bronze was the true edge, and the rounded rock walls were merely decorative. The wizard gestured for them to follow, and began to walk forward, and Auri’s thoughts about what might happen if she dug far enough down into the rock were interrupted by the sudden shift of perspective as she went over the edge and into the chamber.
It turned out not to be entirely empty after all. Instead, a dozen or so apprentices in robes of mottled colours were lined up by two long wooden tables, each holding an assortment of items. She did not have to wait for the Constant to indicate which one was for her — the one on the right did not hold a single metallic item, and she assumed that they did not want her gift interfering with whatever power the artifacts possessed.
Coming up to the table, the first bauble before her was a simple sash of undyed linen cloth that was slightly frayed at the edges. She hesitated, and gave a look to the young man standing nearby, who smiled nervously at her.
“What do I do?”
“Oh,” he said, clearing his throat. “You just try them on. I can tell you what they are supposed to do, most of the time.”
“I see, please do,” she smiled at him and picked the garment up, holding it before her for a moment before tying it around her waist.
“This is a tattered sash. We do not know who owned it or how it was made, but used properly it keeps things clean. Well, sort of. It seems to absorb any dirt that should stain the wearer, so it actually becomes very filthy. Very, very filthy. Try the charcoal stick on the table once you’ve put it on.”
Auri wasn’t quite convinced she even wanted something like that to work. Filth had taken on a whole new meaning over the last year, as her body had begun to mature. The more she thought about it, the more certain she was that this was not an item for her at all. Shaking her head, she dropped the cloth back onto the table and gave the apprentice an apologetic smile. Then she turned to the next item, a leather bracer with an intricate, carved design.
“Ah, we call that one the swashbuckler’s grip. As far as we can tell, it sticks to just about anything.”
“I suppose that could be useful,” she nodded and put it on. It didn’t feel any different. She tried to grasp the table, but it just felt like leather to her.
“It seems you are incompatible. Don’t worry, that’s quite normal. Actually it’s quite rare for the gifted to match with any artifacts at all. That’s why we brought so many. I’m sure at least one of them will work for you.”
She found she was not really that disappointed. As far as arcane relics went, a sticky glove felt lackluster, and once she had put it back on the table she wandered a few steps along the display rather than simply moving on to the next thing in line. There were leather bracelets, a stone amulet, a bone dagger, but what finally drew her attention was a round piece of glass.
“That one we call the marksman’s monocle. It helps with aiming at very, very long ranges. We do not know exactly how it affects missiles, nor how it is able to magnify distant objects to the extent that it is. The glass is not curved like a regular spyglass would be.”
Auri was intrigued by the concept of a perceptive power, ever since she met Talem. He saw the weaknesses in things, or at least that was how he explained it, though it seemed to her that his power often gave him quite detailed information. It made her think that both people and things were more defined by their weaknesses than they cared to admit, but she never asked him what her own was. Picking up the glass, she was disappointed to see that the world looked no different when peering through it. She tossed it back on the table and turned around to find Talem right behind her with a wide grin on his face.
“Hey Auri, check this out,” he said and poked her gently in the ribs. When nothing appeared to happen, his face sunk into a pout. “Aw man, it was working just a second ago.” He proceeded to slap his own wrist a number of times, and she saw that he was wearing a new leather glove.
“What is it supposed to do?”
“It’s supposed to shock you,” he was still preoccupied with studying it as if there was some way to see what was wrong.
“You already matched with an item, and you tried to use it to shock me?”
“Yeah. I already know I match all of them, even the ones on your table, but this one is the most fun of the ones I’ve actually tried so far. Let me try one more time,” he narrowed his eyes at her and held his hand up as if it was a weapon.
Auri reached behind her to find the bracer from before. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” she warned as her hand closed on it. She already knew why the shocking glove hadn’t worked, but she wasn’t about to share her secret when it gave her an upper hand.
“Or what?” Talem taunted, and she lobbed the leather bracer at his face. He caught it effortlessly, raising a brow at her motives.
“That’s it?” he asked, and then gestured to throw the glove back at her. His face went sour when he realized that it was stuck to his hand. “Oh you little bitch,” his voice became a growl as he began a game of picking it off one hand only to find it stuck to the other. “How do I turn it off?”
“Beats me, I don’t even know how to turn it on.”
“Talem,” Basia interjected. “Stop fooling around and get back to selecting an item. I think the apprentices are having a collective stroke.”
That was how the next few hours passed, as Talem eventually gave up on getting rid of the bracer and just stuck it to the side of his head so he could continue testing the various items gathered before them. He matched with every single one, but Auri was dejected to find that there was not one trinket here that would have her. The apprentice who had welcomed her in the beginning stuck by her, but every other person in the room was gathering around Talem, who had taken it upon himself to wear every single item he could find and had veered into discussing how fashionable they were. She finished before he did, and sat down to watch the spectacle as her friend fired colourful sparks from a wind-up box into high into the air above them and deftly avoided giving any real answers to the questions posed by what had to be at least a dozen apprentices congregating around him.
“Don’t beat yourself up about it,” Basia said in a comforting tone of voice as he sat down next to her. “I didn’t match with anything either.”
“It’s not fair,” she whined. “He gets to match with everything and I don’t get a single one?”
“Yeah that’s astonishing actually,” the old veteran admitted. “Even the Constant seems to be impressed. Talem’s special, though. I think his gift is telling him how they work.”
Auri grunted at that, and then straightened up as the Constant turned away from the crowd gathered around Talem and approached the two of them.
“The salamander speaks the truth,” she spoke with a wise smile that looked strange stretched over her young features. “We believe your friend is enjoying the attention. Actually, Auri, We have a special gift in mind for you. It may not be magical in the sense that these artifacts are, but We believe it speaks more to your particular talents than anything on display here. Jubian, would you be so kind as to bring the parcel?”
“Yes mistress,” came the voice of the apprentice who had stayed by her, and he scuttled off to the other end of the table, where some boxes were stacked.
“Tell Us,” said the Constant. “Have you heard of the Three Plinths of Mith?”
Everyone had heard of them. That was the problem — heard of was exactly right. She knew they were a feature of Antion, the first city, but that was nearly all she really knew. Before the war, people had made pilgrimages to see them, because it was believed that the Plinths were somehow a window into God itself. That it was from there humankind had first spread out to settle the world, although the event was so ancient no records, nor even means of keeping records, yet remained to confirm the claim.
“No more than anyone else.”
“The bridge to God, or so it is believed, it symbolises Earth, Water and Sky. The first Plinth is set upon the firmament, and was there to give man solid ground in the ever shifting desert of Antus when he first set foot upon this world. The second is an unending spring, once our only source of sustenance in that barren land. Finally, at its peak, the Eye of of the Sleeping God itself. A jagged circle facing all of us at all times. Even now, though we are thousands of miles away, it is facing each of us. You felt its gaze upon you when you first received your gift. Felt the Aliud drawing you to it, for in that brief moment you had God’s undivided attention. It stirred in its slumber, and noticed you.” The Constant paused for a moment to accept a large shape wrapped in cloth from the returning apprentice, and then sat down beside Auri and Basia, smiling eerily as she began to unwrap the parcel. It was the size of an anvil, but though the apprentice had struggled to carry it to them, the wizard handled it as though it were nothing but a bundle of cloth.
“Now it is smooth, a polished gem in the long sands of Antion, but it was not always thus. Once, in the beginning, each Plinth was as jagged as the Eye itself. Over countless millennia, it has been worn down, and from that wear Our order collected its dust. We know little of its properties, save that it is a metal, and that it is nearly unbreakable. For its strange colours, We named it Prismith.”
As she finished speaking, the final folds fell clear of what she had been holding. It was a lumpy, deformed mass of a material unlike anything Auri had ever known. It was as though someone had trapped a rainbow in ash-stained glass; black when she looked right at it, but as its edges curved and wound around each odd angle reflected a different, darkened colour. She took a deep breath, and realized she could smell it, could feel pulsating it just beyond her reach. It called to her, as if it had been waiting all this time, as if it actually had the capacity to wait.
“All Our efforts to shape it have failed, but never before have We seen your gift in this world. So We bequeath it to your use, Auri Ateri. All that We have in this repository. We would give you more, but the old world is lost to us. Do not lose it — its worth is… It is priceless. Irreplaceable.”
Auri reached out at the offered knot of metal, and as before, the metal reached back to her. As soon as her fingers made contact, it streamed up around her, pushed itself inside of her, displaced her old alloys of alum and steel and bonded with her. It hurt, and she found herself screaming as it boiled upon her skin, and burrowed into her eyes and ears, underneath her nails and through her very pores. Her voice was cut short as the flare of pain abruptly subsided, and she found herself sitting in a mercurial pool, looking down at a new arm — her old arm. Prismith was special indeed, because it had replicated perfectly that which she had lost. A burned, sloughing mess of wounded flesh, the metal had imitated the colours perfectly to look as if her loss had been but a moment ago.
Basia flinched at the sight, and she could see him open his mouth and shut it. She wondered if he wanted to apologize again, and something told her this was her last chance to choose how to answer. Centering herself, she forced the apparition away, let her arm melt until its likeness disappeared into a murky, liquid shape. That part of her was gone, and she did not want it back. Instead, she called upon her memories of her mother’s clocks, and closing her eyes she began to build. She lost track of time as she constructed it, piece by piece, a fractal lattice approximating naked muscle. It was a mechanical design, and as she moved her arm it would respond, naturally enough that had she covered it in skin, it would have looked human. She knew that the prismith would let her do that, but as she opened her eyes and looked at it, she decided to go with silver instead. This arm would serve where her old one had failed, and the Prismith’s raw desire to merge with her made it feel more familiar than her flesh ever did.
“Incredible,” murmured the Constant, her wide eyes appearing almost human for once, with the dots coalesced into a focused point directed at her flexing arm.
Basia said nothing. His eyes were locked on hers, and his nervous smile spoke only of relief. She smiled back, and shared it with him.