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Year 47 AR
“Alright, you two. I think it’s time to go,” Basia said.
Basia paced along the table that Talem was currently perusing. It was full of trinkets, weapons, pieces of armor and strange-looking devices. Here was a wooden stiletto that somehow maintained a gleaming point, there an ivory comb inlaid with jewels, and even a mirror that bent to follow the contours of the table it had been discarded on. Pretending he didn’t hear, Talem reached for the final item: a straight, white short-spear in one solid piece, about five feet long and so thin it looked frail. His face settled into a calm smile as he hefted it once and stabbed it through the air, and nothing further happened.
Of all the artifacts he had tried out, the only two that were still in his possession were a simple silver bracelet and the glove that Auri had stuck to him earlier in the day. Other items were being carted to and from the table by apprentices. They had been replacing his discarded items with ones that they did not know the function of, and pestering Talem to try them out so they could get a better idea of what they did. There were black scorch marks, patches of crystalline residue from strange blasts, and one of the apprentices had blue hair from the tests he had been putting them through. Now he had that same look on his face as when he found the bracelet, and Auri knew he was going to keep it.
“You choose items that require a commitment,” the Constant said.
“These two aren’t as cheap as the other ones — they have character. Can’t fake them out or use them for cheap tricks maybe, but I also don’t have to pretend.”
The Constant shrugged dismissively, her eyes swarming for a moment among the apprentices who were stowing things away.
“We see. You will take the Ostelum and the Madathi. We assume the swashbuckler’s grip will also remain in your possession. That is acceptable to us. Have you no interest in trying again, Basia?”
“No,” Basia said. “One round of rejection is enough. I am too old to be learning new tricks.”
“You are not a dog,” the Constant smiled at him. “Perhaps you feel more ancient than you really are.”
“Maybe I do. Right now I just feel impatient.”
“There is no change in your mission,” the Constant said to a look of somber acceptance from Basia. “A week has passed, and you may be right to feel thus.”
“Then we should move.”
He looked first to Talem and then to Auri. Auri had just been watching her friend for the last few hours, amused at the childish glee he found in pranking the apprentices. She thought it was absurd, to be in a place such as the Dordoron, watched over by one of the most powerful individuals in the entire world, surrounded by artifacts that were usually kept under careful guard because of their capacity for chaos, and he was using them for jokes. Regardless, she had laughed along when he found a ventriloquist’s flute that could imitate any sound and throw it to any location, and then proceeded to use it to make it seem as if people were farting, all the while staring at it in mock confusion and insisting that it did not seem to be doing anything at all. Watching him twirl his new spear reminded her that despite his nonchalant demeanor the man was trained for killing, just like her.
“Why?” Auri asked, coming up beside Basia.
“You are here to become proper Kozan. The Constant has more to show you before we can be off, and our mission has become more pressing.”
“You still haven’t told us anything about it.” Every time she had pried, he had dismissed her; this time he stopped to look at her..
“You are right. I have not. We are recruiting.”
“You want me to do what you did,” she had to squeeze the words out because she was gritting her teeth, her metal fist clenching and unclenching in response to remembered heat.
“I want you to see why it was necessary.” He sounded cold to her, and she found herself sneering at the condescension.
“No, it is our purpose. I need you to understand-”
“I understand just fine, salamander,” Auri spat. “We need recruits, that doesn’t mean we have to burn them.”
“The situation is not as simple as you are trying to make it sound-”
“Some kid is having a shitty day,” Talem had cut in behind her. “And you want to show up and make it shittier. What’s not to understand?”
Basia shook his head, closing his eyes for a moment. “You have not thought it properly through. How many times do you think I have done this?”
“Not too many,” Auri shrugged. “At least I fucking hope not.”
“I have abided your anger until now,” Basia growled. “Because it was justified. Now it flies in the face of our mission, and so it is your turn to listen. Out there is a scared child who has just discovered a powerful magical ability. We do not know what it does, or what the circumstances that prompted the power to manifest were. All we know is that if the situation was not traumatic, then it was likely made so by the magic appearing, and that the child is caught in a manic compulsion to travel west.”
Auri gaped for a moment. She had forgotten about the intense compulsion to travel east. Or, not forgotten, but gotten to used to it that it hardly even registered anymore. At his mention, however, she could remember how for the first days of her new existence, she had hardly been able to think of anything else.
“No, no more you!” Basia snapped at her, causing her to clamp her mouth shut. “People are in very real danger, and we are the only ones who can help. We do not yet know who we will be helping, so we will be cautious, and will not make sentimental assumptions about what we are going to encounter. That is what you must learn — it is not about you. Not now, and not then. We serve the Kingdom, it does not serve us.”
Auri stayed silent for a long moment as she processed what had just happened. Part of her wanted to stomp her feet, to scream at him until he caved in to the sheer volume of her insistence. Another part of her, a colder and more cunning voice, argued that he had a point. That even if she had one too, it was not a point that would be piercing their current conversation.
“So why has it suddenly become more pressing?” She hoped that she could plie him with a change of tone, and perhaps show that there was a more peaceful way to resolve the confrontation they were headed for. What they were recruiting was a person, not a disembodied gift.
“Because two weeks have passed,” answered the Constant. “Gifts appear randomly anywhere, at any time, all over the kingdom. There is no way to predict them, or even to detect them consistently when they do appear. So we search, we record the news that travels along the roads, and the reports that are filed through the officials all over the Kingdom. We give word to both the Kozan and the local authorities. They have two weeks to send word if there is no magic afoot. No such message has arrived.”
“A village called Trouperde and its surrounding hamlets have gone suspiciously silent, enough so that an alert was sent to the Kozan two weeks ago,” Basia sounded worried as he filled in the gaps in the Constant’s description. “In response to this a number of soldiers were sent out from a lesser lord who is the steward of those lands. As there has been no more news so far, we will be heading out on the assumption that something has gone wrong. If something has gone wrong, then it will still be going wrong as we speak.”
“Then why are we wasting time stopping by here, first?”
“Every Kozan must visit the Dordoron before they can enter the field. We are not an old order, so we do not have many rituals. Only the Vigilant’s test, the gifts of the Dordoron, and the Constant. We cannot deviate from these three.”
“The Vigilant is the steward of the future,” said the Constant in a level voice. “It is they who decide whether you may train to join the order. We guard the past, and show you what you have trained to do. The Gallant serves with you, out there. Them you will meet last. For this purpose, we have but one thing left to show you. Bring your friend and follow us.”
With that, the Constant turned away from them and began to walk toward the bronze portal they had come from. Auri turned to collect Talem, but he was already on his way toward them, being ushered by a chain of apprentices who had changed their demeanor abruptly from peppering him with questions to merely pointing at their master when he looked at them. Basia did not even bother to check on him, following in the Constant’s steps before them. Rather than wait for Talem to catch up, Auri put in a brisk pace so she could catch up with their guide before she reached the brass cap.
“Show us what?”
“What you are fighting for,” she answered without turning. Then she was over the edge, back in the foyer of the Dordoron.
Auri had to brace herself for the transition, the jarring transformation of her surroundings from the hollow spherical cave to the almost mundane dressings of the entry chamber. A single step flipped her forward so suddenly that she had to fight her own impulse to stumble forward and put her hands on her knees. Instead, like her host, she kept her composure.
“I thought we fought for the kingdom,” she said, but there was a question where her conviction should have been.
“Do you know what the Kingdom is?”
“The last bastion of mankind,” Talem cut in as he swung into the room over the edge of the portal just behind Basia.
The Constant followed up his comment with a sweeping gesture that rotated the display on the bronze portal in front of them back to the room that had been there when they first entered. She kept shifting it a few more times, until it landed on another room. This one was not like the others. Before them stretched a bridge of clear glass that extended into the center of the chamber, where it ended in a wide, circular platform with a white pedestal in the middle. While the chamber itself looked as empty as the one that had come before, here the walls were painted blue in place of the smooth grey rock that had surrounded them earlier. She headed down the transparent pathway, and when Basia immediately followed, both her and Talem fell in behind them.
“As far as we know, the very last,” she finally said once they were all across the threshold. “That means the Kingdom represents more than its own self.”
As they walked, Auri marvelled at how the blue around them seemed to shift, glittering in the eerie lighting of the Dordoron and forming an illusion of waves covering all of the walls. Below them, carved into the rock face, was a huge map. It did not look like any map Auri had ever seen before, and at the same time, there was something disturbingly familiar about it. It occupied only a tiny fraction of the spherical hall’s surface, and yet it still somehow seemed unfathomably vast.
On one side of the landmass, an arm extended outward, forming a gulf between itself and the continent proper. That small formation was the entire Kingdom, Auri realized. It was barely a fifth of the total mass of a continent that was than a mole on the surface of the world itself. The Atasians divided Broce and Dema along their lengths, capped by the wetlands and plains of Astia on the northern edge. The map was meticulously detailed, she could even make out the capitals if she looked closely. As she followed the Kingdom south, she came to the black scar. It marked the end of the Principalities, of civilized lands, and the beginning of the Pales and the Front.
Her attention continued westward from the southern border, into the Pales, a depressingly thin slice of land reclaimed by the Kozan since the end of the cataclysm almost fifty years ago. There were no cities marked beyond that border. There were no cities to mark. Instead, there were a number of softly glowing red dots placed on every part of the world that did not fall within the Kingdom itself. Within the island kingdom of Muriad to the far west, there were even a few such spots placed in the sea. As she raised her head to ask about them, she noticed they had arrived at the central platform, and the Constant spoke up.
“This is the world as we know it. It is carefully constructed from the sum of our archives, reflecting all that we know for certain of its shape and lay. We suspect other lands exist, such as Shah to the south-east, and perhaps other continents beyond the sea, as great as Mar itself or greater. Once, before the Adversary, mankind’s destiny stretched out from this little island we occupy, and promised a future filled with discovery and wonder. When the Adversary appeared, that destiny was stolen from us. Now we huddle here,” she pointed to the area Auri had correctly identified as the Kingdom, “crushed into a corner by an enemy that denies us victory even after its defeat. We are all that remains. After a toll of a hundred million deaths, still we tithe thousands of lives every year keeping but the single Glaivian at our border away.”
She turned her attention to the white pedestal before them, and indicated a worn piece of stone that rested upon it. It was vaguely triangular, with two smooth edges and one fractured one, and in rusty red lines upon it were drawn simplistic shapes. The form of a human was standing inside of a circle, itself inside of a triangle. One corner of the triangle ended in a line that trailed off the broken edge of the tablet. Another swept out, and curved around, as large as the circle around the man but curving inward to terminate in a spiral. The corner was connected to a straight line that angled abruptly into a line running parallel to the triangle and spiral both. Its simple strokes, carved into the smooth surface and filled with red residue, held a gravity all their own. They were primal, basic, and she could not shake the feeling that something about them was fundamentally wrong.
“It was made over fifty millennia ago. Its meaning is lost to the ages, though we believe it is part of a larger plaque that describes the Aliud itself. Now it serves as a symbol,” she turned from the tablet to face them. “Our enemy wishes to wash clean fifty thousand years of history, culture and human experience. Everything that ever was, and that ever will be. We may be trapped in our little Kingdom, but make no mistake. Our fight is for the future of the world.”
“Forty seven years ago, mankind gathered the greatest army it had ever known. Over a million soldiers. Thousands of gifted warriors, hundreds of wizards, every order that had managed to escape the onslaught of the Adversary so far. There we met the Adversary and his Glaivians in a final battle, at the ruins of Dannatth, on the border of Shunda and Gallatth. His creatures were beyond count, and the Glaivians walked among them. When the Adversary fell, they were unbound. Most of them wandered off, scattering across the realm with some strange symmetry. Only five were slain, eighty-three remain, and each one is a red dot on the map below. Thus, it shows the true state of the war. We are losing.”
“I thought we were on the offensive?” Auri’s voice was quiet, caught up in the overwhelming scale of what the Constant was showing her. The last fifty years of battle at the Front, the fighting stalemate that killed thousands of soldiers and at least one Kozan every year, was arrayed against a single hive. A single Glaivian beast, and the monsters it produced. At the compound, the tone tended to be far more optimistic. When the war was spoken of at all, it was in terms of victories won, and of crises averted. No one ever voiced the opinion that the effort itself may be a lost cause. “We are planning to lay siege to the Glaivian hive at the Front next year.”
“No,” the Constant replied just as quietly. “We have no momentum, there is no offensive. Many will die in the coming siege, the cost will outstrip the gain by far, but the King believes it a necessary sacrifice. As it stands, something needs to change in our favor if this war is to be won, and the King must turn time to our side until that change comes.”
“But there are so many of them. What if another attacks while we recover? If we are at a stalemate, why risk defeat over a pyrrhic victory?”
“Because he does not fear the Glaivian most of all. He fears the waning of hope itself. The spoils are not of progress, but proof.”
The Constant’s eyes clouded into a blackened swarm, and then every single one of those unsettling motes gathered into a tight pinprick focused directly on Auri.
“That progress can be made at all.”