Crestridge Tavern Square divides like two crossed and muddied
stone swords on its northern edge, running upward into two streets. The sun was
visibly cowering over the left street while airborne ferries worked the sky,
still visible in the dying light. Stone and oak row homes, inns and taverns flanked
the marble church centered at the southern end of the courtyard. Horses carried
the last of markets' harvest and working men and elves into the fog and
twilight while blackbirds glided from gargoyles to fountains to thatched roofs.
Through the dim warmth of a tavern window, Lias Kellan watched as a rare,
single child slumped into his mother's shoulder as their carriage moved them
uphill. A great feeling moved through
him as he watched the child disappear, and he imagined for a moment that the
child was his soul, leaving him to go uphill with a loving family. He fought
the feeling of loss and wrapped his hands around his glass and looked to Kaelyn
sitting across from him.
is wrong and miracles still happen then Kaelyn is a miracle. But miracles have
long left the world, Lias reflected, the Ark keeps them out, and what is left
is dumb chance and bad luck and Kaelyn must be all of these instead. She was
absolutely beautiful, like most half-elves are, and it was beyond him why a
woman like this would move toward him the way she had and look at him the way
she had and now somehow sits with him. By the time she had told him her name he
was ready to love her.
conversed he could not help continually glancing to his left, feeling the
stares of the three men seated nearby. They were his body guards, his Reclaimers,
his shackles. They would accompany him for the remaining four hours of his
civilized life in Unity, and from then on his life would not be his own.
Selected, an honor given to only the most naturally adept at magic. He would
become a Keeper and live upon one of the three floating kingdoms above Unity—to
uphold the power of the Ark, to keep out the End from consuming what is left of
the world. All those who are Selected may deny the call of the Keepers, yet
most do not, and Lias would not. To do so would be certain death—too many men
had he angered in Crestridge to live for long. Lias was dumb, and his luck was
dumb, and Kaelyn was sitting right here and she was too late for Lias.
had a wedding earlier," she nodded toward the church in the courtyard. "I
was out there for breakfast and I've stayed the whole day. Tonight the whole
square is throwing a party."
wasn't around. Not many people get married these days. And that church is
to a church when I was a child. My parents were religious, the old religions."
left the church?"
it's true," she smiled, "hardly anyone keeps faith anymore. The old
days are so far gone that even our mothers' mothers had lost touch." She
fingered her glass slowly. Lias watched the light pink of her nails as it
caught and softly moved the wetness at the glass' edge. It had been so long
since he had a woman that even the smallest of Kaelyn's movements was stunning
to him. "Sometimes I think about the old world, don't you? What I would
have been instead of a Grower."
then? That's really great."
it. Well everyone enjoys a good meal, I'm happy to-"
make anything? How good are you?"
I'd love to make you magic turnips some time!" They laughed into their
glasses. Growers, too, must be adept at magic. One of the backbones of the Ark
had always been food production, and only the most skilled at transmutation
were considered to learn the ways of Growing throughout the harvest caverns. Lias
thought, maybe, Kaelyn's link to magic might mean she could understand him
better. Maybe once she had been Selected too. Maybe she had the fortune to deny
your magic," he began, "have you ever been Selected?"
her voice dropped slightly, "No. I, had a friend once who was, a little
boy when I was a child. I couldn't believe that they'd come for someone so rare
as a child but I guess nothing matters to them."
see those men over there?" Lias didn't dare to gesture and only looked
into her eyes.
they, are you Selected?"
Lias was almost whispering. The Reclaimers had warned him to tell no one save
his family that he was Selected. In the two days before the Selected move on there
is always a chance that the Keepers' enemies in Unity might target them. It
rarely happens, Lias knew, as the Reclaimers are amongst the most elite of
protectors. Besides, he felt he could trust Kaelyn somehow, and if not that
then at least impress her.
She did look
impressed, just slightly, and he felt he could sense a bit of uneasiness in
her. "How much longer do you have?"
this night and some of the morning. They have a ferry ready in the district
yard North of here."
know what they'll do to you?"
just be a Keeper. I've decided not to deny it."
what they do before you go. Have they told you what it is?"
The truth is
he was worried about the ritual, but as Kaelyn leaned in his focus turned to
acting brave. "No, that's all
rumor. I'm not going to believe in some ritual that nobody can confirm. A true sorcerer,
after all—" with the slightest lift of Lias' fingers, the very beads of
sweat around Kaelyn's glass lifted and reshaped into a running jet of water, slid
down the glass and bounced about the table as if a part of a moving fountain.
"—must not bend their mind to rumors, and keep their will firm."
you're just amazing my lord!" She grinned, dipped her finger into her
glass and flicked the contents at him. A bit of ale caught his eye and his
concentration died and the minor jet of water splashed into his shirt. He felt
utterly stupid. Then he felt a foot underneath the table, against his, and he
looked up and Kaelyn was, of course, beautiful.
then he sighed. "I'll tell you the truth, I'm a bit worried. Sometimes I
think about all that the Ark does for us and I'd be happy to contribute to
that. And sometimes I wish it all just went away, that we could go back to the
old ways, before the End."
Her foot was
still there. "You know everyone feels like that sometimes. I think what
you're doing is really great."
guess I am worried about what's going to happen up there. I'm not worried about
the rumors. I just, I don't want to lose my family, my life. And I won't see
you after this night either."
They sat for
a moment, the sounds of the tavern filling in between them. Her foot continued
to draw on top of his.
would you do," she said, "If you could go back to the old
what I would do. I'd be a sailor."
think I know either profession."
they're not professions! They're adventures! Sailors and pirates explore the seas
together, and the seas are deep wells of waters that go on forever out there. Like
Greenfall's Riverrun except when you're on the boat and you look around you
can't see anything but the great deep water and it goes and goes until it meets
lit up, and with it came a warmth. Imagine that, he thought, a half-elf being a
sailor. Her eyes were deep and bright and blue and as he looked into them he thought maybe the seas are just as beautiful.
A harsh, heavy
coughing came from the table of the three men. Young sorcerer Lias Kellan
looked over to see Essard, the Reclaimer Captain who introduced himself and his
men yesterday, pointing into the air. This
feeling in my heart is going to be there for the rest of my life. "It's
time for me to go with them. I still have to say goodbye to my family one last
time." He broke eye contact with Essard to look back at Kaelyn.
sorry for him. She placed her hands on top of his and tried one last time to
lift his spirits. "You're going to make a great Keeper, Lias. I'm sure
you're a great sorcerer." His hand, under hers, began to warm. The Reclaimers
had gotten up, moved to the bar to pay. His tab was theirs, as all expenses he would
bear would be forever that of the three kingdoms.
really do hope I'm a good Keeper. It's a shame we met like this."
it's just our luck."
were at their table. "We have to go."
course," he turned to Kaelyn and blushed, "I came for one last drink
and now I say goodbye to my family. What is your family name? Perhaps I can
have a family name. They call me Kaelyn, only that."
Kellan, we cannot be late."
releasing her hand. "I want a way to write to you."
one last time. "I cannot give you that." Slowly, deliberately, she turned
toward the window. Lias hadn't noticed until now that his hand was sweating,
almost burning. Desire, this is the last of my desire. Numbly he walked to the
entrance of the tavern. He decided not to look back.
Captain Essard waited with his two men
outside of the Kellan home while Lias said his goodbyes. Lieutenant Caster
Thaib had something to say about it, but the Captain would hear none of it. All
three were briefed prior to dispatch from Asamar on the so-called danger of
Lias' enemies and the call for his death. For the sake of not shaking the new Disciple
they never let on to what they knew. It did not matter anyway, the captain
acknowledged, as once this night's ritual was complete Lias would no longer
care to perform such petty crimes.
talent it took for his crimes did gain the attention and wise Selection at the
Keepers’ hands. Enchanting the Growers’ food to produce abuse substances was a
guild alchemist’s greatest envy—a skilled sorcerer could turn entire fields
into valuable substances in the time it would take to chemically treat one
crop. Yet a skilled sorcerer would have aged into their 40s by the time they
could control their power so efficiently, and Lias was 22, an absurd age for
such mastery. Being a young man he knew nothing of the danger of the drug
guilds and was rapidly pulled in with the allure of fortune and reputation. But
once a new batch of their drugs had made it into the hands of a rare child, the
father belonging to a rival guild, Lias was quickly named responsible and
disavowed to smooth relations. Sooner or later that father would come to crack
his skull in. Artorias the Keeper had seen this in his ways of insight and
overnight had Selected the young sorcerer. Almost nobody gets a second chance,
Essard knew. Death is always sure.
out of the house, his parents at his heel. He turned and hugged and kissed them
all over again. Thaib's hands moved smoothly over the pommel of his mace,
thumbing the brass indentations. Moss caught his gaze and, just out of sight,
grabbed his crotch and grinned. The
confidence of the Reclaimers is the death of the Reclaimers, Essard grimaced.
Since the smashing of the Cleric's Revolt in the beginning of the Forsakening
none had ever dared to go against such an elite guard again, and as the legend
of their prowess grew so did their ego. One day another war will come, and the Reclaimers
may very well not be ready.
finished his goodbyes Moss stepped forward, lifting the black cloak from his
own shoulders to envelope the new Disciple. Slowly they began to walk away, the Disciple
As they rounded
a turn Essard called out, "Ensign at the rear, lieutenant, get to the
roofs, I want a spot check." Quickly they moved to their positions, Moss
behind Lias, Essard in front, Thaib moved against the closest building and
placed his hands against it. Slowly he seemed to fade away, as if turning into
a shadow inside the darkness, then just as quickly his form rose from the
blocks they continued on, crossing tight, crowded intersections and weaving in
between carriages. South Crestridge was known for its crime, and many of these
men and elves were heading back to their homes. No dwarves could be seen - most
likely they had already returned to their tunnels.
rounded another corner, Essard's thoughts turned to the coming ritual. Aside
from himself none of the men in his company had been through one. For Lias it
would be torture, yet he could not know of it until arrival on the airship
ferry. The ritual, known only as The Beholding, was perhaps the harshest
experience a Disciple would ever have, though Essard could not say for sure as
he was not privy to all the ways of the Keepers. Just as there would be two
last days of freedom for the Selected, so too would there be two days of The
Beholding. The tradition, the Keepers have told, is to respect the passage of
time it took for the three kingdoms to first lift away from the End, 500 years
ago. Those two days, coming so soon after The Unforgiving Patience, were the harshest
for all three kingdoms, as they withdrew their borders, crowded their castle
walls and awaited ascension into the sky. What exactly Lias would know for
himself, as he set out alone for The Beholding, Essard will never know. Yet
when the Disciples come back, they are forever changed. Great wisdom and humility
flow forth, and a Keeper they will forever be.
Thaib returned from the rooftops to Lias' flank as they neared the
end of the district streets. Just blocks before the air yard, Lias could feel
his right hand go numb, followed shortly by the rest of his body. He could
clearly see what looked like a majestic ferry, a hull of gold noticeable through
the darkness. His chest dropped down into his stomach as his eyes studied the
airship: its golden hull told him his destination would be the kingdom of
Asamar, one of the islands visible in the distance, miles out and above. Asamar
was known for its riches and the control it had of the Ark's trade. They may be
corrupt, the entirety of Unity may be corrupt, but at least in Asamar he hoped
his life might be comfortable, stolen away from the danger of Crestridge. Yet,
although it was his life he valued most, the promise of lost freedom stabbed at
him then. All the riches of Asamar would mean nothing if the life of a Keeper was
as draining as the rumors told.
numbness gave way to an urge. "Captain, I have one last bit of urgent
business, if I would be so allowed."
briskly to face the new Disciple. "What business? The airship has one
I assure you it won't take long. I have to piss." He turned his head to a
nearby alleyway. If I really, truly
wanted to, I could still deny them. I could run. I could never return home, but
I'd still have my freedom, and if I'm lucky I'd have my life.
studied him with a seriousness that bordered on agitation. "You can wait, Disciple."
"I cannot wait. You've been hurrying me
along since the tavern! I was supposed to have two last days of freedom and you
and your men have turned it into practicing for slavery! I was drinking tonight, and a lot less than I
should have to deal with this shit, but now I have to piss. How about one last
minute of privacy, Captain, as I do have a fucking hour."
guy," Moss and Thaib snickered to Lias' back.
right Lias, you're right. This is your freedom and we're already here. If you
want to piss in one last alley you may do as you please."
Lias turned to
the alley and walked toward it, moving far enough into its shadow to dare the Reclaimers
to come in after him. He loosened himself, leaned his forehead into the stone
wall and released. He breathed out, sighing, and thought about his father, his
mother. He did not have any siblings. He always wanted a sister or a brother,
though he knew that even his birth was rare since the last Density Ward. And as
a Keeper he knew there was a chance that he'd be responsible in casting the
next Density Ward. He finished and put himself away and looked into the sky. Do any of us really have freedom, in such a
small place to live? Perhaps freedom was only a currency. Perhaps if one wanted
anything else in life they had to exchange it: love, power, happiness, even
life. We all only have so much of it, the
rich more, the poor less. I should feel lucky for what I can exchange it for.
from the wall, and in the darkness in front of him he caught a shape. It was
slender, feminine. Slowly, deliberately, it moved through the shadow. The
shadow turned into a woman, and she was so close he could feel her breath. "Lias,"
she whispered, then something in a strange language, "aerot din".
hand began to burn again, alarmingly so, and he could feel his strength sunder
beneath him, and it was all he could do to hold himself up. The eyes of the
woman flashed, giving off a slight blue light. "Kaelyn," he whispered
hoarsely, "You followed me?"
want to see the sea?" She asked. Before Lias could reply, before he could
make sense of her presence, he felt a deep, burning sensation move through his
stomach, then up into his chest, into his heart, and his breath gave out. He
started panting, and a part of his brain exploded into panic as he looked down:
Kaelyn held what looked like a slender, silver hilt in her hands, the entire blade
of which had made its way upward through his stomach. She turned it in her
hands, pressing higher, and he could feel it scratch against the inside of his
ribcage and suddenly erupt between his left collarbone. The blade seemed to hum
red, as if it was being heated by a furnace, and Lias felt a great heat well up
inside of him. He tried to talk, tried his best to curse her, to plead with
her, to ask why, why, I would have been a good person, I do not deserve this! Yet
only blood moved from his mouth, and like a cupped candle, life itself became impossible.
Kaelyn did not expect her mark to disintegrate for so long but she
had to be sure the Keepers’ magic could not resurrect him. By the time his top
half was glowing and charring she heard the call: "Assassin!" the Reclaimer
screamed while facing into the alley, drawing his weapon. She quickly reached
down onto Lias' hand, gripped it firmly and focused, releasing the transmutation
spell. It took just long enough for the Reclaimer to reach her, and charging he
swung with the full force of his longsword. Kaelyn kicked back on her legs, the
longsword passing through the stitching of her dark hood and grazing her
forehead. Her short sword was still inside of Lias and she had no time to
retrieve it. The Reclaimer moved fluidly from his charge and was soon again
able to swing, but with Kaelyn ready she triggered a poison dart from her
bracer's bow. The dart seemed to slow in the air as it neared the man, his skin
glowing in response to the danger, and whatever magical protection he wore gave
enough time to change his strike to deflect the dart.
By now the other
two were quickly gaining into the alley. Kaelyn's other hand reached into her
rear pouch for an alchemy vial. Quickly rolling backward and kicking up, just
missing another swing, she threw the vial into the ground. By the time it hit, the
two other Reclaimers had brushed passed the first, one readying a magical
charge in his hand. The vial exploded, its dark blue contents combusting in a powerful
wave of force, passing through and blasting all of them away from its point of
impact. Kaelyn was ready for it, eyes closed and magically warded from its elements,
she controlled her movement through the air and landed gracefully near the
other end of the alley. One Reclaimer had also landed on his feet as the two
others started to quickly rise. Killing a
Keeper and escaping the Tops, she thought, there's a first time for everything. She turned and sprinted toward
the alley's exit. Behind her she sensed two of them following and the other—the
one versed in magic—was pressing into the shadow of the alley wall.
South back toward Crestridge Tavern Square. The airstrip and its adjacent
living quarters were far too quiet this late to provide the needed cover to
lose the Reclaimers. In two hundred yards the district would be alive in
nightlife bustle, and there was at least one dwarven underpass between there
and Greenfall. She darted back into an alley as what looked like a small sharp
object flew just past her shoulder. The alleyway here was T-sectioned so she
made a left, running hard, readying her next dart and feeling for her grappling
hook. Ahead was a small jump into a lowered part of the alley and as she made
it another small object flew by her. Jumping and turning she concentrated her
aim: the Reclaimers were gaining, only a few yards away, yet the shape of their
bodies blurred before her eyes. She fired anyway, missing wide while she turned
and landed and kicked off again. As she ran now she focused her powers upon the
grappling hook, enchanting with elvish words. She rounded another alleyway
corner, kicked off the near wall and turned, throwing the hook upward. The hook
shot up as if fired from a cannon, dug strongly into the roofing of a stone
house and suddenly began to shorten, pulling her upward. She heard cursing
below and caught a flash of light.
As the rope
neared its hook Kaelyn let go and rolled over the roof. Just as she landed she
felt a great force slam into her stomach, heaving her back into the ledge. As
she looked up she caught another blow, this time an iron-tipped boot across her
face. A metallic taste filled her mouth as she reached again into her
alchemical bag, slumping and fighting for her strength to return. The third Reclaimer,
somehow waiting for her, sheathed a small mace and began to conjure forth a
magical charge from his hands. Kaelyn lifted her eyes to see the green ball and,
without thinking, threw the blast vial into its glow. The Reclaimer's hands
instantly exploded in a green-blue light, the wave of energy knocking Kaelyn into
the air and toward the adjacent roof. She turned and reached for the ledge, using
the momentum from the blast to pull herself over, rolled, limped, and worked back into a run.
She ran as
hard as she could manage, her stomach and face aching, bounding over roof after
roof. She glanced behind her to see one Reclaimer gaining and another far off,
likely tending to the third. As she reached another roof she could see ahead of
her the white, green and red enchanted lights of the party ahead, and caught
above in its glare the ferries flashed in the night. Somehow, despite the pain,
Kaelyn felt comforted by the city's aesthetic. Entertainment corporations
sometimes illegally enchant their lights with spells of invigoration, and
despite knowing its corruptive addition she desperately hoped it to be true
right now. The roof ahead was the last before the great bustling square, and as
she bounded over she reached for another vial. Kaelyn leapt from the roof into
the street. Just before being dashed to the ground she threw the vial underneath—its
foggy-white plume acted at once as a pillow of air and a dispersion of smoke. Landing
and rolling, she felt a crack inside of her. The gods, my ribs are shattered.
from the roll and pulled her hood up, its stitching torn at the top. She closed
her eyes and moved forward into the crowd as the Reclaimer vaulted and floated down
from the roof. Her eyes closed, Kaelyn grabbed the garb of her light cloak with
her left hand and reached out into the crowd with her right. Once she felt the
fabric of another cloak she began her chant, swiftly grabbing on. Within two
words the hue of her cloak and the other's switched. She hurried forward,
stopping at a tent to feel her face beneath the hood. The lower right side felt
wet, jagged around the chin, and as her fingers traced the outline of her jaw a
stinging forced her hand away. All this
can be fixed Kaelyn. Dark as blood,
smooth as blood. Dark as blood, smooth as blood. You are the crowd, now sneak. Gathering
herself, she shifted back into the square. Within the fullness of night and the
square's patrons she moved unseen. In short time, she would drop into the soft
darkness of the Dwarven caverns, and from there the tunnels to Greenfall were
not far. Death was behind her, and survival ahead.