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The Fall of Nightmares

Discussion in 'Fan Fiction' started by Kire, Mar 17, 2010. | Replies: 5 | Views: 7212

  1. Kire

    Kire IncGamers Member

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    The Fall of Nightmares

    Hey everybody.

    This is just a story I started on recently to offer some lore about the Fan class The Alchemist. It also involves a Fan monster callen Run Azar by Veskin7. This is only the prologue, but let me know what you think of it.

    -------

    The Fall of Nightmares -Kire

    Prologue

    The Chaos Sanctuary. Long had it been since he had stood within it. Even as he waited, he felt the immense power radiated from this hallowed source of darkness –it invigorated him. The years of campaigning on the mortal realm had made him almost forget the strengthening power of the Burning Hells, and yet he had been called from the mortal realm to speak directly with Diablo. The Lord of Terror had always been satisfied with his talents on the mortal realm; he was instrumental in influencing mortals to side with the forces of Hell –often unknowingly. To have a private audience with him would have to be a great honor for him…or a great punishment to come. That sense of unease left Run Azar on edge. A master of nightmares and minds, even he felt anxious in the presence of a Prime Evil.

    But he willingly served. Many of the Lesser Evils, such as Belial and Azmodan, felt that the campaigns on Sanctuary were a waste of energy. They preferred the days of direct conflict with the High Heavens; thus chafing at this goal of influencing the mortals. Yet Run Azar understood. The mortals, thought weak, had great potential –their souls contained unfathomable power that could be bent to Hell’s needs. Whichever side had control over the mortals’ souls would have the advantage. Thus, influence. This was why he was so favored by the Prime Evils. Diablo, Mephisto, and Baal allowed him to lead the Nightmares –insidious demons capable of subverting wills and creating terror in the minds of foes. To this end, he was unquestionable in his skills.

    Suddenly, he felt the unmistakable swell of power as his lord appeared on his throne. At last, Diablo was before him, and he quickly kneeled.

    “How may I serve you, my lord?â€

    The daunting form of Diablo regarded him slowly. The massive figure of red scales, claws, and horns belied the sinister mind of the Lord of Terror. Those that had made the mistake of underestimating his cunning had paid for their folly and now resided in the deepest, most miserable places in Hell. Fear was his greatest weapon, and all knew of the deadly extent of his abilities. His burning eyes appraised the general before he replied

    “You will manifest on the mortal plane, and travel to the mountains of northern Kehjistan. An old clan dwells within those mountains with secrets that I require. You will invade the city of Melatras of the Orue Agea.

    He hid his disdain for having to return to the mortal plane so soon. Normally, he would consider such a task as invasion and destruction to be carried out by mindless swarms of feral demons. If the Lord of Terror had chosen him for this task, then manipulation was undoubtedly the goal.

    “Have we any influencers among them, my master?â€

    “None of Hell nor those of Heaven –the foolish mortals are neutral in their allegiances. Yet they know much about the ties of reality. They have no alliance with the Angels, and are limited in their mortality. But beware their strength, for their wills are not easily bent.â€

    “That is my purpose, master.â€

    That, at least, granted him a wicked smirk.

    “Indeed. That is why I have chosen you. Your Nightmares must corrupt these Orue Agea and discover all that you can of their mystical arts of binding. Such knowledge would allow one to bind creatures to the mortal realm. This is your sole intention…do not fail me!â€

    Here was his chance to be the one to bring the Angels to their knees. Bending wills was his talent, and no mortal would stop him for proving his worth to his lords.

    “Yes, master, we shall crush the Orue Agea, body and soul, and wrench their secrets from their minds! The Heavens themselves will not fail to notice my works!â€

    ***

    As Run Azar took his leave from the Lord of Terror, another figure stepped out of the shadows. The malevolent visage of held a sneer as his chaotic form drew closer. Diablo chuckled darkly; Baal’s demeanor obviously expressed his doubt.

    “Will he succeed?â€

    “Only as I have designed. As he said, the Heavens themselves will not fail to notice.â€

    Baal was not so easily appeased. He knew full well the repercussions should their plan fail –a consequence that he would not allow.

    “But is it wise, allowing them to have such knowledge?â€

    “Patience, brother. Soon, we shall bring our power to the mortal plane, and the Heavens will know their mistake far too late. What Mephisto has learned from Izual is the foundation of our ascension, and the Oruegian secrets will set all things in motion.â€

    “Izual is one of them! A servant of the Light! Corrupted, yes, but he is an angel, how can we trust him?â€

    Baal was ever the realist. But the Lord of Destruction knew, as did Diablo, of the potential that Izual’s information provided. He had told them of sacred stones that could bind and even trap otherwordly creatures to the mortal plane, and sustain them with the power of souls. All that was lacking was the spells to accomplish the binding. These "soulstones" could be the key to their triumph over Heaven.

    “Have more faith in Mephisto. The Lord of Hatred has learned much in his interrogations. And Izual has turned against his own kind. The soulstones will be our means of gaining the upper hand.â€

    Baal nodded briefly at his brother’s assertion, apparently pacified for the time being. Then, a grin of malice spread across his face.

    “And as for Run Azar? He is one of our high generals.â€

    Diablo considered this. A pity, but this opportunity could not be allowed to simply pass by. The plan had been set in motion, and soon Terror, Destruction, and Hatred would consume the Light.

    “The force of the binding spells must be proven by another’s hand to preserve the deception. It is necessary.â€
     
  2. Veskin

    Veskin IncGamers Member

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    Re: The Fall of Nightmares

    Wow! Man this is the beginning of a great story. It's me Veskin7 /this forum doesn't allow numbers in name/.

    I think that you can even write a book about this.
    Great job on this prologue.
     
  3. Kire

    Kire IncGamers Member

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    Re: The Fall of Nightmares

    Thanks :) I've got the rest of the story in mind, I just have to commit to writing it all down. Hopefully I'll have the first chapter posted soon!
     
  4. Silverbeard

    Silverbeard IncGamers Member

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    Re: The Fall of Nightmares

    Definitely a good start! I am looking forward to how the story will unfold!
     
  5. Kire

    Kire IncGamers Member

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    Re: The Fall of Nightmares

    On this day, one full year after its original post, I continue with my story. Below is an extended version of the prologue and a sample of the first chapter. I need to do more revising before I post the entire chapter, but I'm steadily progressing now. I intend to keep on the project diligently this time, so hopefully it wont be another year before I update ;)

    This expands on the latter portion of my fanfic Compendium of the Orue Agea, found in the forums and on the wiki site.

    Any comments, critiques, and corrections will be greatly appreciated (be gentle, I'm just an amateur!). Anyway...enjoy!!



    The Fall of Nightmares


    Prologue

    The Chaos Sanctuary. He crossed its threshold and gasped in contentment at the pure malice permeating his mind, from which he could only smile. Long had it been since he had stood within it. Even as he waited, he felt the immense power radiated from this hallowed source of darkness –it invigorated him. He basked in its aura, taking in the stained glass illustrations of past demons and the wickedness of their sinister deeds, and could not resist running a hand across the ebony columns of the arches. The corrupted souls of the fallen were imbedded in the walls themselves, forever frozen in solid stone in writhing, twisted pain with desperate screams that would never escape their silenced throats. Of all the ominous edifices that rose above the hellfire, the Sanctuary was the unholy temple of darkness, consecrated by the eternal sins of all creation, in which demonkind worshiped the everlasting power of hatred, destruction, and terror. He had missed its empowering halls. The years of campaigning on the mortal realm had made him almost forget the strengthening power of the Burning Hells, and yet he had been called from the mortal realm to speak directly with his master, Diablo. The Lord of Terror had always been satisfied with his talents on the mortal realm; he was instrumental in influencing mortals to side with the forces of Hell –often unknowingly. To have a private audience with him would have to be a great honor for him…or a great punishment to come. That sense of unease left Run Azar on edge. A master of nightmares and minds, even he felt anxious in the presence of a Prime Evil.


    But he willingly served. Many of the Lesser Evils, such as Belial and Azmodan, felt that the campaigns on Sanctuary were a waste of energy. They preferred the days of direct conflict with the High Heavens; thus chafing at this goal of influencing the mortals. Yet Run Azar understood. The mortals, thought weak, had great potential –their souls contained unfathomable power that could be bent to Hell’s needs. Whichever side had control over the mortals’ souls would have the advantage. Thus, influence. This was why he was so favored by the Prime Evils. Diablo, Mephisto, and Baal allowed him to lead the Nightmares –insidious demons capable of subverting wills and creating terror in the minds of foes. It was his reason for being: to twist another’s mind, corrupt their resolve, manipulate their actions unseen, and glory in their despair as they offer themselves freely to the will of Hell. To this end, he was unquestionable in his skills.


    Suddenly, he felt the unmistakable swell of power as his lord appeared from his innermost sanctum. The seal glowed with blazing red light, forcing Run Azar to turn away his gaze. Then…he was there. At last, Diablo was before him, and he quickly kneeled.


    “How may I serve you, my lord?â€


    The daunting form of Diablo regarded him slowly. The massive red figure of claws and horns belied the sinister mind of the Lord of Terror. Try as he might, Diablo’s visage remained concealed in lurid flame and shadow to the general’s view. Run Azar himself often ruminated on the true countenance of his master, for no creature had ever seen the true face of Diablo –it is said his face reflects that which terrifies each person. Of his brothers, his strength was the most subtle…and terrible. Those that had made the mistake of underestimating his cunning had paid for their folly and now resided in the deepest, most miserable places in Hell. One only need behold the feeble forms of the imps known as the Fallen and their miserable fate in order to understand the price of treachery against the Lord of Terror. Fear was his greatest weapon, and all knew of the deadly extent of his abilities. His burning eyes appraised the general before he replied.


    “You will manifest on the mortal plane, and travel to the mountains of northern Kehjistan. An old clan dwells within those mountains with secrets that I require. You will invade the city of Melatras of the Orue Agea.


    He hid his disdain for having to return to the mortal plane so soon. Though he enjoyed the terror he brought to the humans of Sanctuary, he was rarely afforded the chance to immerse himself in the splendor of his home. Normally, he would consider such a task as invasion and devastation to be carried out by mindless swarms of feral demons. If the Lord of Terror had chosen him for this task, then manipulation was undoubtedly the goal.


    “Have we any influencers among them, my master?â€


    “None of Hell nor those of Heaven –the foolish mortals are neutral in their allegiances. Yet they know much about the ties of reality. They have no alliance with the Angels, and are limited in their mortality. But beware their strength, for their wills are not easily bent.â€


    Foolish indeed. He had infiltrated and subverted followers of many orders, yet none were so troublesome as those that aligned with the light of Heaven. Such ones were naturally resistance to corruption –resistant, but not invulnerable. In the end, all fall to corruption; even those of the light become impure. If these scholars had no relations with Heaven, they would be of little difficulty.


    “That is my purpose, master.â€


    That, at least, granted him a wicked smirk.


    “Indeed. That is why I have chosen you. Your Nightmares must corrupt these Orue Agea and discover all that you can of their mystical arts of binding. Such knowledge would allow one to bind creatures to the mortal realm. This is your sole intention…general. Do NOT fail me!â€


    He shuddered involuntarily at the insinuation of what would happen to him. The punishment for such a failure was more than Run Azar was willing to dwell on, but the promise of success was too promising. Here was his chance to be the one to bring the Angels to their knees. What opportunity…the power to trap an angel on the mortal plane. He knew well that those of the High Heavens and Burning Hells began to lose strength once they left their own plane, as they were deprived of the energy of their home; exiled demons and other such beings completely cut off from their home were far weaker on the mortal plane than in their natural element. The war would turn against the Heavens, as no angel would dare manifest on man’s world for fear of being trapped –Sanctuary would be left for Hell alone once these scholars surrendered their secrets. Bending wills was his talent, and no mortal would stop him for proving his worth to his lords. Again he prostrated himself before his lord, and vowed his loyalty to the task.


    “Yes, master, we shall crush the Orue Agea, body and soul, and wrench their secrets from their minds! The Heavens themselves will not fail to notice my works!â€


    ---

    As Run Azar took his leave from the Lord of Terror, another figure stepped out of the shadows. The malevolent visage of held a sneer as his chaotic form drew closer. Diablo chuckled darkly; Baal’s demeanor obviously expressed his doubt.


    “Will he succeed?â€


    “Only as I have designed. As he said, the Heavens themselves will not fail to notice.â€


    Baal was not so easily appeased. He knew full well the repercussions should their plan fail –a consequence that he would not allow.


    “But is it wise, allowing them to have such knowledge?â€


    “Patience, brother. Soon, we shall bring our power to the mortal plane, and the Heavens will know their mistake far too late. What Mephisto has learned from Izual is the foundation of our ascension, and the Oruegian secrets will set all things in motion.â€


    In a moment he shifted from his place in the dark corners to directly before his brother. The anger in his eyes glowered at Diablo. Any other demon would cower beneath the glare; Diablo simply hardened his stare and permitted his brother to express his doubts. The walls shook in the terrible vehemence of his voice and the shape of the world around him warped in his chaotic anger. Baal never employed much subtlety in his actions…his nature it seemed.

    “Izual is one of them! A servant of the Light! Corrupted, yes, but he is an angel, how can we trust him?â€


    Baal was ever the realist. But the Lord of Destruction knew, as did Diablo, of the potential that Izual’s information provided. He had told them of sacred stones that could bind and even trap otherwordly creatures to the mortal plane, and sustain them with the power of souls. All that was lacking was the spells to accomplish the binding. These "soulstones" could be the key to their triumph over Heaven.


    “Have more faith in Mephisto. The Lord of Hatred has learned much in his interrogations. And Izual has turned against his own kind. Heaven trusts no fallen angel. The soulstones will be our means of gaining the upper hand.â€


    Baal nodded briefly at his brother’s assertion, apparently pacified for the time being. Of the three, Mephisto, with his intense hatred for angels, was best suited to extract every useful piece of information from the fallen Izual. Even now Baal could imagine Izual in the Embrace of Hatred, his magnificent wings withered away and his skin scarred by hellfire; being forced to feel the sorrow and pain of the eternally damned over and again; the golden, crystalline ichor in his veins turning to odious black bile as the corruption overtook him. No pity or respite would come for the angel, which greatly satisfied Baal. Izual’s fall indeed would be their ascension, and Baal would do what was needed to put their plans in motions. The air shimmered as he began to depart while a grin of malice spread across his face.


    “And as for Run Azar? He is one of our high generals.â€


    Diablo considered this. A pity, but this opportunity could not be allowed to simply pass by. The plan had been set in motion, and soon Terror, Destruction, and Hatred would consume the Light.


    “The force of the binding spells must be proven by another’s hand to preserve the deception. It is necessary.â€



    PART I: SHATTER

    Chapter I –Mornings

    In a lonely courtyard, two still and silent figures regarded each other with stolid expressions, silhouetted in the glow of the coming dawn. One could have mistaken them for statues of ancient swordsmen were it not for the fluttering of their garb in the light breeze. The first was a larger, well-built young man with hazel eyes and sandy hair; the other was a lithe, toned youth of olive complexion and longer, dark hair with warm brown eyes to match. Every muscle on their frames was taut with anticipation and the stoic eyes beneath their furrowed brows locked with each other in resolute stares. As the sun climbed above a distant peak and sent its first rays onto the square, their blades caught the light and blazed in a fiery glow. In that moment, two swords became golden blurs as the two opponents sprung at each other. The dark-haired boy flourished his blade as he advanced while his foe settled back in a defensive posture. He struck high and quickly withdrew in a feint, taking advantage of the opening his opponent left in the failed block to slash right. The lighter-skinned fighter quickly retreated and created more room to maneuver, successfully warding off the surprise attack with a solid block before pressing his own assault. Tightening his grip on the hilt, the muscled warrior pushed his sword horizontally against the other’s, denying his attempts to pull away and regroup. The limber boy ducked beneath the attack and dodged to the side to give himself space…he didn’t get it.

    Without hesitation the larger boy was on him again, hammering away with methodical, unyielding blows that inevitably tore away at his defenses. With each step came a blow; with each blow came another step in advance –taking ground without mercy or relent. He was in full retreat, desperately attempting to open himself up in order to counter-attack; he was being slowly boxed in. Then he made his own opportunity. In a daring move, he switched from his defensive stance to an aggressive, precise thrust –passing right past the other’s blade and nearly piercing his shoulder. His opponent was forced to spin to the side to miss the strike, and in doing so threw himself off-balance. Seizing his chance, he advanced on his enemy with acrobatic maneuvers: twisting, somersaulting and flipping in rapid succession to disorientate him and build momentum for his assaults. The quick fighter danced around his larger opponent in unpredictable movements, switching from high to low slices, front to backhand holds, all accompanied by masterful footwork. The other combatant channeled his strength into creating an impassable defense with his movements, refusing to give much ground or allow his opponent to overtake him. Keeping his sword close to his body, he weaved his blade in complex, disciplined patterns to minimize exposure. Instead of lashing back, he relied on simple logic to regain the upper hand: eventually, the boy would tire out from his vigorous style while the larger youth conserved his energy.

    It was true. Even now, the determined young man could feel his muscles aching from his exertions and the damp sweat permeating his shirt, dripping off his chin. Though he tried to control his ragged breath, fatigue was setting in and he had to push past the burning in his arms and legs as he kept up his offence. Looking into the hazel eyes set against him, he inwardly despaired at the relatively fresh appearance of his foe, knowing that time was against him now to penetrate that defense. Deflecting a flurry of slices, the larger one pushed forward and locked blades, forcing the boy to expend even more energy to repel the stubborn blade-lock. About to overpower the tiring boy, he suddenly felt a bump behind his left foot and discovered he had been backed against a sculpture on the edge of the courtyard; he had failed to consider his surroundings…and the young warrior had succeeded in boxing him in. The attacking fighter gave a slight smirk of understanding as he pulled back and flourished to gather speed and savor the moment. Abandoning any finesse, his cornered adversary planted his feet and swung straight across with pure strength. Amused at the desperate attempt, the fighter positioned himself to parry the strike and redirect it harmlessly to the side, then deal the critical blow to the completely open target. It never came.

    The furious sword clashed against the other, never slowing as it shattered the blade and continued on towards the face of its mark. Instead of parrying and offering riposte, the smaller boy found himself falling back in a desperate attempt to evade the tip of his foe’s blade. The length of his own blade skidded uselessly across the cold, stone ground, leaving him only a hilt and less than a foot of sharpened steel while he tumbled back into an impromptu roll. Only his training had allowed him to use the force of his roll to propel him back onto his feet, though that seemed to matter very little now. His mind didn’t even have time to contemplate the improbability of his sword breaking as he prepared right himself and attempt to disarm the larger fighter somehow. He never got close as the razor edge of the other sword came right in front of his throat. He grimaced at the hopelessness of the situation, knowing full well that the battle was over. And he could only glower at the chuckle emerging from the victor. The combatant stepped back and sheathed his blade, sticking out a hand to haul him to his feet. His eyes laughed in triumph as he dusted the defeated warrior off and gave him a playfully mocking bow.

    “I guess this one goes to me.â€

    ***

    The clamor of the meal hall rung with its typical chatter and the clank of utensils. Sri-Kurah carried his piece of fruit and goblet of juice to his usual spot. He plunked down on the bench and started his breakfast instinctively, his mind working out the events of the early morning.
    Sulking was the best way to describe it. He wasn’t angry, just confused at what had happened. Sri-Kurah knew he had the advantage, knew victory was an attack away…and Ilseun just broke his sword. He had lost before, but that was the most bizarre way he had ever lost so far. As he nibbled on a piece of fruit for breakfast, Ilseun dropped down beside him with a perplexed, and amused, look on his face.

    “Something on your mind? You look distracted,†Ilseun stared at him with an eyebrow cocked and a slight grin on his face.

    He glanced up at his friend curiously. “What makes you say that?â€

    “Well…†he drawled, “you’re eating your sucri without peeling it. Not exactly typical behavior.†He looked down and saw the oblong fruit was indeed still covered in its rough, orange skin, a chunk of red-veined yellow flesh showing through where he had bit in without thinking. “Great, as if I couldn’t be any more obvious,†he said to himself. No wonder the fruit tasted a little harsher than usual.

    He had to laugh at just how absurd he was being. Shaking his head, he set to peeling the sucri and told him, “I just don’t get it. How did you do it? I’ve never had a sword break on me.â€

    Ilseun just chuckled and took a swig of his milk before answering him. “You remember I told you I was working on new ways of tempering steel?†he asked. I nodded. “Well I found one. A new method to heat the metal. The metal’s lighter, more flexible…but just as strong. I used it on that sword I had.â€

    “That’s incredible!†He told him, actually excited at the discovery. “I thought you were faster today. Have you shown master Hethra yet?â€

    “Not yet. I wanted to test it first before I told him. But it looks like it works!†he beamed in pride. Then Sri-Kurah felt a familiar hand on his shoulder.

    “What works that’s got you so excited?†He heard his sister’s soft voice ask leisurely. The shapely, stunning young lady scooted over by Ilseun, her midnight hair falling over her shoulders and her dark brown eyes regarding him endearingly. Sri-Ajota plucked a sucri from her brother’s plate and held her palm above it. Slowly the skin split down the sides and peeled away without her even touching it, the fruit perfectly peeling itself on her command.

    “Show-off,†he teased her playfully. He and Ilseun spend their days perfecting the body and its tools –she focused on the power of the mind.

    She giggled and wink in his direction. “Just practicing something master Vost has been showing me. It takes a lot of concentration to cut just the skin and not the fruit.†She resorted to a knife to carve a piece and sampled a bit. “Now…what is going on that has you two so excited?â€

    Ilseun beamed at her brandished his sword. “The new tempering method works! Broke Sri-Kurah’s sword in half this morning.â€

    She burst in a laugh as she looked over and her brother’s sour expression. “I knew it would work if you kept at it. And it wouldn’t hurt your attitude to lose every so often,†she taunted, much to his indignation.

    “Don’t take it so personally, brother. You may have superior skill, but this time I had superior firepower,†he smiled smugly.

    “Yeah, yeah,†he deflected, “anyway, you really need to show master Hethra. After all, the sword you broke was one of his…he’ll definitely be impressed.â€

    Ilseun paused from his breakfast to consider the thought. Would Hethra be impressed, or inquisitive? He needed to perfect his technique first. There was unknown potential in this new technique, and he wanted to be absolutely sure that it was successful before he decided to tell his teacher.

    “And I’ll tell master Vost when I get back to the library. Your father will be happy to know all that time over the last months secluded in the forge have paid off.â€

    “Hmph…I somehow doubt it. Librarians rarely appreciate a good sword, especially the High Librarian,†he chortled doubtfully.

    “Maybe not. But he does appreciate you,†she told him warmly. Sri-Kurah shook his head in amusement, his sister always found a way to bring out the best in any situation. Ilseun wore a wholly content expression and kissed her hand.

    “How could I start my mornings without you?†he cooed quietly to her. She flashed a beautiful smile while her brother rolled his eyes at the extremely sappy statement. The years had accustomed him to their displays, but ever so often they still managed to be more affectionate than he could stand. “Unfortunately,†he said getting up, “I need to get back to the forge and work out all the details before I announce my results. Finishing his milk and grabbing a roll to take with him, he leaned over to Sri-Ajota and grazed a light kiss on her cheek, whispering to her, “I’ll see you at lunch. Come get me if I forget.â€

    She smirked at him and exclaimed, “Trust me, if you forget, I’ll make sure to remind you. You can’t spend your whole life in the forge, you know.â€

    “This coming from someone who spends her whole life in the library?†he replies. She pouted, he laughed, and then he was gone…until his voice rings from around the corner, “Good match by the way brother!â€

    The scowl Sri-Kurah had was only matched by the delight in his sisters eyes. Love him as he may, Ilseun was always talented in using his quick wit to poke at him, even though he would always be there to support him. It had been like that since he had met him.

    ***

    .....to be continued.
     
  6. Kire

    Kire IncGamers Member

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    Re: The Fall of Nightmares

    Here's the rest of Chap 1. It's all a rough draft for now (hoping outside opinions will help me when I go back and polish it). Just keep in mind before you start: this is a LONG read...and its just one chapter. You are forewarned. So enjoy!



    ----------

    The scowl Sri-Kurah had was only matched by the delight in his sisters eyes. Love him as he may, Ilseun was always talented in using his quick wit to poke at him, even though he would always be there to support him. It had been like that since he had met him.

    ***

    (8 years ago)

    Melatras, the Abode of Scholars, as many people called it. Sri-Kurah had heard stories about the city, but none compared to actually being there and witnessing the sight before him. But here he was, he and his sister, two fifteen-years olds in a world away from their small village in this bustling world in its own. The dawn had not yet risen above the sides of the valley, though many people seemed to already be awake and active in the streets. He tightly clasped his sister’s hand as they trailed behind the tall man leading them, following in the path in left throw the crowd. Even being twins, he had always taken the role of big brother to her; she was more nervous than he was in these unfamiliar surroundings.

    Their father had told them stories of the different peoples on this world, including those of Melatras. “Most big cities have mages,†he told them, “Melatras is a scholar’s town, where people with and without magic study everything possible. It’s said that people, including mages, come from across the world to learn from the vast repositories of knowledge in the legendary Library of Cedurnem. I’ve heard that the most impressive aspect is the Arx Arcana, the Secret Citadel, where the rulers of Melatras govern their people. People say it has the appearance of crystal and fire…maybe you’ll get to see it one day if you’re both lucky. They it’s amazing.†Honestly, the Citadel impressed him as they first arrived beyond the outer wall of the city, but it didn’t look like the crystal and fire he had pictured. Regardless, the man that brought them here, master Scoewyn Hethra, led them on towards the towering bastion; they had met him only a few weeks before, yet they felt at ease with him. He was a large, well built man in his mid-thirties with chestnut hair, skin like snow and a smile that ease the hottest tempers. His emerald eyes missed nothing and gave off even less to others, cutting harshly or warmly comforting as he needed.

    They veered away from the main road and ascended to a small patio above a shop, master Hethra greeting the owner as they passed through. Scattered on the patio were several benches and tables, where they took a seat and Hethra ordered them some tea. The morning air was still frigid, the tea was more than welcome to warm their bellies.

    “Master Hethra,†Sri-Ajota began, “Thank you for the tea.†A shiver ran through her as she spoke.

    “Are you cold, my dear?†he asked. Immediately, he removed his outer cloak and wrapped it around the two teenagers. He retook his seat and continued sipping his tea, seemingly unaffected by the chilly air, and gazed pleasantly over the sights from their vantage point. The shop rested at the side of a hill near the valley’s cliff sides, allowing the trio a wonderful view of the expanse of the valley.

    “Yes, I was a bit; thank you again,†she told him. Looking out over the view, she commented, “it’s a beautiful city, isn’t it, Sri-Kurah?â€

    He couldn’t help but agree, “yeah, it is,†as the coming dawn slowly illuminated the valley. “Master Hethra,†he said, “could you tell us more about the city? Where exactly is Melatras?†Geography was not his strongest area, but he wanted to know as much as possible about this exquisite place that would soon his home.

    The tranquil man smile lightly and replied, “Well…you certainly will learn more of its history and features in your studies, but I can offer you a brief overview. Melatras is a city dedicated to scholarly studies of all kinds, and is the home of the order to which I belong, the Orue Agea. Meaning ‘Seekers of the Self,’ we are purely scholars, differing from the many mage clans of the world by not relying on magical abilities. While many Orue Agea do possess a decent connection to magic, our research reaches beyond it to encompass the concepts and truth in all of existence. To this end, the city of Melatras was founded to allow us to pursue our studies in peace, without the constant bickering of the mages, and to live together in harmony. Magical or non-magical, any and all peoples and races are welcome in Melatras.â€

    “The city lies to the north of Kehjistan in the mountains that give birth to the Argentek River. The river you see there,†running his finger from on end of the valley to the other, “is one of the earliest tributaries of the Argentek, and it had carved this valley over the countless years. We are on the southern wall of the valley now, in the section known as the Mercatus Infinitus, the Endless Market. As you can tell, it fills a large part of the city. Notice the way the shops and stalls are arranged –in six-sided shapes, allowing for traders to maximize their space and for people to navigate the streets easily.†Then he stretched his hand far beyond the market to the distant cliff side. “And on the other side built into the wall is the Centrum Renovati, the Center of Rebirth, the one with large columns and a grand rotunda. There our healers take care off the people’s illnesses and study everything regarding the body and medicines.â€

    “Master,†Sri-Ajota broke in, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but what do those first names mean? Centrum Renovi…Renov…†She looked puzzled by the names, and Sri-Kurah knew she never passed up an opportunity to have a puzzle solved.

    “Renovati…a word from the Old Tongue. When Melatras was established, the Old Tongue was still the common language of many civilizations. In the centuries since, the Modern Tongue, which we are speaking, has come to supersede it although most of the structures and locations in the city still maintain their Old Tongue names. Now, along the river further upstream are the vast fields where all of our food is cultivated, and among the springs that create this river is the Library of Cedurnem, for which the city is well known. It is one of the largest collections of knowledge in the world, and most likely the most organized. The river-springs run deep beneath the mountains there, carving thousands of natural caverns in which the library has been crafted. Within its walls lies the collected wisdom of centuries, which you will see for yourself in your time here.â€

    They could both barely see the library from where they were, because of both the lingering mists and the sheets of water that ran from the springs that the library lies beneath. The prospect of such a library tantalized Sri-Ajota, she already intending to spend plenty of time studying there. Something still bothered Sri-Kurah, despite the grandeur of all that he was seeing. As he looked on the Citadel at the heart of the city stretching above the river, and beheld the detailed masonry, marvelous architecture, and its ample fortifications, he felt slightly disappointed. “Father said it looked like crystalline fire…that it was amazing", he thought. It tugged at his thoughts, but he had heard so much at the towering fortress, and he had to ask:

    “It’s all really fantastic, but what about the Citadel? I’d always heard that it…â€

    “Yes, the Secret Citadel! The Arx Arcana,†Hethra called out in enthusiasm. “It is a marvel of design and defense, where the Corpus Ducens, the Guiding Body, oversee the daily functions of the city. I wanted to save it for last…and I think I timed this just perfectly. Watchâ€

    They all observed as the dawn broke into the valley in that moment and gasped as the tips of the Citadel’s spirals caught the light, letting them shine a flickering golden red. As though the sun itself had set the Citadel aflame, a beacon across the entire valley, it mesmerized.

    “Some say that its crystal peaks catch the sunlight and make it seem the Citadel is topped with fire.â€

    “Exquisite! It’s an incredible design,†Sri-Ajota commented, fixated on the revelation. Sri-Kurah’s heart swelled at the sight; he knew it was worth it, he could appreciate this city of legends. The fiery light twinkling his eyes and soul, he echoed his father’s words, “amazing.â€

    ***

    Shortly after leaving the small café, they were on the streets again heading for the gates of the Citadel, the children gaping at the impressive fortifications at its entrance. While the heavy, metal doors did well enough in blocking their entry, no guards were in sight. As they entered the grand foyer, Sri-Kurah wondered, “Why are there no guards?â€

    “The Citadel, like the rest of the city, is a place of peace and diplomacy. The people are welcome to come and voice their concern and opinions; after all, the guiding body wishes to do what is in the best interest of the people. If anyone comes here seeking conflict, guards will be the least of their concerns.â€

    He nodded, not exactly sure what he meant by that. “What else happens here?â€

    “Along with governing, the forges are here below, where our master craftsmen work tirelessly on their creations. Those who study combat forms and strategy also train here in the lower levels and the courtyards. But we climb to the upper levels, where you both will be evaluated to determine what you each should study.â€

    From the lobby they started upwards, the section was a tower in which a winding staircase stretched up and out of sight. The building was even larger than they had imagined; they climbed staircase after staircase, apparently heading for the summit of the Citadel. They had scarcely reached the third floor when the twins needed a brief moment to catch their breath. Sri-Ajota noticed a small drinking fountain off to the side, and motioned Sri-Kurah to come with her. “This is a big place,†she commented nervously, “and what if they decide we can’t study here? I don’t even know what I would study.â€

    “Don’t worry about it…master Hethra wouldn’t have brought you if he didn’t see something worth bringing,†he assured her as he embraced her in a half-hug. “Just enjoy being here, it beats working the fields or the tiny village schoolhouse. Think of what you can learn in that library!â€

    She brightened at his words, there was no doubt millions of books and scrolls to uncover. Even if they had to leave, she would definitely see the library before she left. Her eyebrows knitted together as she took another drink, then she noticed something. The water was replenishing –they felt themselves quickly regaining their vigor…faster then they would have suspected. Her curiosity kicked in, and she cupped her hands, collecting the water and staring at it.

    “What are you doing?†Her brother asked, his brow raised in question. She often acted like this when she became inquisitive about something.

    She studied the liquid for a little while before letting in run between her fingers into the small pool. “I’ve never been refreshed so quickly…I’m not out of breath or even tired anymore. I think the water has some kind of enchantment or enhancement in it.†Drawing out some more water, she tentatively took another sip.

    “It does, actually.â€

    Shrieking in surprise, she jumped so suddenly from the startle that most of the water in her hands splashed over her face. Sri-Kurah burst in laughter, and the young man behind tried his best not to laugh too at the obvious comical situation. She blushed when she spun around and laid eyes on the culprit, left breathless by the young man grinning at her. He looked a few years older than them; he was light-skinned, very fit, and had a mess of dirty-blonde hair. His eyes were a strong hazel that twinkled with laughter. Along with his satchel, a belt hung loosely around his waist, sporting a smithing hammer, a flask of some kind of black grainy powder, and a curved sword. He dug in the pockets of his tunic and extracted a small cloth, handing it to Sri-Ajota while she shot daggers at her brother –which he ignored completely.

    “I’m so sorry…I didn’t mean to startle you,†the teenager explained apologetically, his tone sincere.

    She grimace in embarrassment and took the cloth he offered, trying her best to dry her face and the wet patches on her dress. “It’s okay…it was just unexpected and I wasn’t paying attention.â€

    “But it really does, though, have enchantments. My dad says that a long time ago one of the council members was a chubby man and hated going up and down the stairs daily. So he created these fountains around every stairwell and put revitalizing charms on them to refresh people who were tired from climbing the stairs. Of course, dad likes stories, so that might not be really why…but it seems more interesting that way to me at least. You know, I haven’t seen you two around before. Are you new?â€

    The boy was a ball of energy, Sri-Kurah could tell that much already. “Yeah, we just got here. I’m Sri-Kurah…and this is my sister, Sri-Ajota.â€

    He got a confused look and asked, “Why do you both have ‘Sri’ at first? Is it like your last name, only in front?â€

    “No,†he chuckled, “‘Sri’ is our clan name. It’s like a last name but it’s always included with the personal part of our name.†He shook his hand in interest; the guy definitely wasn’t shy.

    “Oh, I’ve heard of such names. We have some scholars here that structure their names like that. Well I’m Ilseun Vost. Vost is my last name,†He laughed. “Welcome to Melatras. So I guess you’re here to be tested?â€

    Tested. That gave Sri-Kurah a sense of unease. “What exactly are they testing us for?â€

    Ilseun frowned slightly. “I’m not sure exactly how they manage it, but they basically determine what you’re good at. They decided I would be best at combat and metallurgy. Since then I’ve studying swordplay and working in the forges crafting; I think I’m pretty good at it. In some cases, they can identify when a person has a special talent.â€

    Again, Sri-Ajota’s curiosity peaked at the idea. “What does that mean, talent? Like magical ability?â€

    “No, I think it’s more than that. Orue Agea don’t limit themselves to the concept of ‘traditional magic.’ You should ask master Hethra or my dad, they could explain it better. I was just about to meet him here. He was in meeting with the other council members.â€

    Sri-Kurah glanced at the long, curved blade on the boy’s side, his own mind wandering to the village festivals they had every year at home. In the midst of the procession in the square, there was always a display of ceremonial swordsmanship by the young men. He had waited many years watching before he finally came of age and took up a sword for the ceremony. Since then he always spent the year looking forward to that day when he could leave behind his simple, village boy persona and make himself into a noble swordsman. Instead of a shovel, pick, or till of the fields, he held an elegant sword, and from then on wanted to master its intricate ways.

    “I think I would like to be a swordsman. It’s always been something I’ve wanted to learn.â€

    Ilseun flashed a brilliant grin and unsheathed his sword, twirling it in presentation. “Great choice,†he told him, “I hope you do! I never feel as alive as when I’m practicing my bladework or especially crafting my next piece of work. Plus, I can always use a partner to duel with…you’d be perfect, Sri-Kurah. Suddenly his eyes darted to the right and he pointed, “Ah, there’s my dad now.â€

    He led them back towards the stairwell, where master Hethra was in pleasant exchange with a thin, pale man with light yellow hair pulled back behind him. A dark cloak rested on his shoulders and his eyes were a piercing blue. His resemblance to Ilseun was enough to suggest that this was his father. Ilseun approached him meekly and waited for a break in the conversation to speak with him.

    “…and of course, we are being more selective about who uses the facilities. The council is very anxious about these brothers’ behavior and their tampering with demonic magic. It is urgent that the entire Body meet to discuss a course of action. Obviously, the reports concerning these mages has been exaggerated, but we should not underestimate the danger.â€

    “Father?â€

    Both man turned towards the three youths, Ilseun’s father appraising the twins with his gaze. They both felt awkward under his inspection, their clothes were adequate but so much inferior compared to the others’ modest but intricate attire. Regardless, he seemed to approve of what he saw, for he greeted them with a reserved smile and a slight nod.

    “I see your son has already made himself known to our new scholars,†telling the other man. “Sri-Kurah, Sri-Ajota, this is Ilseun’s father, Fen-rah Vost.â€

    Fen-rah took Sri-Ajota’s hand delicately and bowed his head to her, “indeed a pleasure, young lady.†Then he stretch his hand to Sri-Kurah and shook firmly his hand, “you as well, young man. Welcome, the both of you, to our city.â€

    “Father,†Ilseun implored, “could you help explain something for me? In the testing these two will go through today, the council looks for special talents. What exactly are they looking for? I know it’s more than magical ability.â€

    For a few moments Fen-rah contemplated, carefully deciding how best to answer before offering a response. “Magical ability is a narrow mindset. Many of us possess particular talents due to our connection to the natural energies of this world that do not involve manipulating magic like those of the mage clans. These talents are unique to each person, and must be explored to the own potential individually. For instance, my fellow council member,†indicating master Hethra, who raised an eyebrow in question, “has the unique aptitude to understand how things are connected: objects, people and even events. Because of his talent, he is a master craftsman, being able to detect defects in his work and remove them, and particularly adept at swordplay and strategy, capable of anticipation and countering an opponent’s actions. He is part of the Guiding Body for good reason: his talent allows him to make choices that have profound effects on future events, often without being aware of the consequences.â€

    “You flatter me, Master Vost,†master Hethra exclaimed, clasping Fen-rah’s shoulder with a friendly hand. “Let us take your example. My friend here has dedicated his life to pursuing the arcane arts, beyond the mundane manipulation of elements or physical things. As High Librarian of Cedurnem, he often disappears in the maze that is his library, lost in his own thoughts and ideas. He seeks knowledge for knowledge’s sake, ever investigating the mysteries of our world, both great and small. Such great is his connection to the primal forces of reality that he can even affect it with his mind and will alone. Likewise, the members of the Guiding Body all possess unique talents that lend to overseeing and directing the city in a constant, forthright way. In this testing, it will be determined what your natural gifts are, and what areas are best suited for your studies.â€

    “I’ve never felt like I had any kind of special talent, masters,†Sri-Kurah spoke up quietly, to which her brother nodded in agreement. “I just hope I can stay and learnâ€

    Hethra looked down at her sympathetically. Before he could speak, Fen-rah interjected, “Master Hethra chose you. That says something in itself –he sees potential that many would miss. I would not be surprised if the both of you possessed immense unforeseen ability.†He looked over to Ilseun and motioned towards himself. “Unfortunately, we must be going. Very good to meet you, and I am sure we will be seeing one another again soon.â€

    With a curt nod to the two and a handshake with master Hethra, he strode down the stairs. Ilseun lingered a bit and shook both of the twins’ hands. “I’ll see you around. Don’t worry, you’ll both be fine. In fact, tell me how it goes…I’ll be doing drills in the southeast courtyard. Good luck Sri-Kurah…Sri-Ajota,†he stuttered. He sprinted forward to catch up with his father, while they again began their climb upward.

    “I think he’s the most sociable person I’ve ever met,†his sister commented softly, “I wonder how long he’s lived here.â€

    “Probably his whole life, judging by how comfortable he was,†he replied. He didn’t feel like saying it, but he felt comfortable being around Ilseun, he hadn’t felt out of place while they were talking.

    ***

    They lost track of how many stories they climb, but after what seemed an eternity they arrived at a long hallway, whose walls were decorated with elegant tapestries and detailed murals. Beyond the length of the hall was a vast door. The massive stone portal was adorned with carvings of past events and sacred creeds, written in symbols beyond their understanding. Imbedded in the stone were two great statues, like artistic reliefs, of majestic warriors who lay upon the doors as if to guard forever its passage. One held a sword while another a scroll, each at their sides, as they faced one another with their heads bowed in humility, a hand raised in reverence to sculpted sun on the frame above. As the young pair waiting in curiosity as to how they would enter, master Hethra stretched his hand to the door and placed his palm against the cool rock.

    “Soldier and scholar, warders of peace, permit me passage.â€

    The two scuttled back unexpectedly by the door’s rumbling. The statues, more than three men high, twitched as the stone around them buckled and cracked by some unseen force. Then, impossibly, one wrenched his arm free of the stone, and the other followed suit –both tearing themselves free of their arrangement in the door. The floor groaned beneath the weight of the two as they pulled loose and stood free of their confinement. Silently, they both reached out a sculpted hand and grasped the handles of the great doors, the titans pulling open the portal. Their task completed, they bowed on a knee and lowered their heads in respect. They continued past into the small antechamber, where small benches lined the walls, although they made no attempt to stop. Beyond the antechamber was a large, round chamber, splendidly arrayed with seven marble seats around a slightly raised platform in the very center. The crystal-lined ceilings stretched upwards in a spiral and let in glimmering daylight that illuminated every feature of the elegant room. Far behind each seat was a door that led off from the main chamber, which they would later learn were the private chambers of each council member. Of the seven chairs, only three were filled.

    “Master Hethra, welcome home,†the lady said, “I trust your voyages were fruitful?â€

    Sri-Ajota could not help but admire the dignified woman greeting them. Tall and slender, she had deep, midnight skin and sharp, but still gracefully feminine, features. The elegant ceremonial headdress she wore seemed to be display of her tribal heritage. Yet more than any of this was the aura she seemed to project –a sense of calm and reassurance seemed to extend from her. It contrasted with the reserved, serious demeanor of the man to her left. His skin was fair brown and his hair jet black in a topknot, despite his robes a well-muscled frame was evident that came from years of training. The eyes where like those of the people of Xiansai, the intensity of those eyes illuminated the great focus the man commanded. The other woman was unreadable at first. She was a large woman and looked ill judging by her palid complexion and aging face, but her gentle smile was warm and inviting…like their grandmother. Her curly, gray hair spiraled haphazardly behind her; she was no beauty, but there was no denying an intelligence there.

    Master Hethra placed a hand on his chest and bowed to the three council members. “Indeed, but long trips as such often leave one missing home. I have brought two with me to learn the ways of the Orue Agea. I request that they be tested and welcomed into the order.â€

    He turned back and motioned for the pair to step forward, they doing so timidly.

    “So quick to name them Orue Agea, master Hethra?†the man spoke up sternly, waving a hand at the chamber, “Are we but a formality now?â€

    “Not at all, master Kusunoki, I simply do not doubt their potential,†Hethra asserted brazenly, crossing his arms.

    The dark-skinned woman slid her fingers together. “Then let us speak with the youths and learn more of them.â€

    “The young lady first,†The older woman said waving away the men. “Scoewyn, you two can wait in the antechamber until we’re ready.â€

    Sri-Ajota looked nervously to her brother, who reached over, squeezed her hand in support, and told her, “I’ll be just outside, shaqiqa, you’ll be fine.â€

    He turned and followed master Hethra to the antechamber, sitting silently and worrying for his sister. He idly kicked the floor with the tip of his boot and fidgeted with his hair hoping to make himself slightly more presentable. The man sensed his apprehension and placed a hand on his shoulder confidently. “You have nothing to fear, Sri-Kurah. She is strong, and will soon set herself on the path to fulfilling her potential, just as you will. Normally, I would be one of the council members speaking with you, but my previous experience with precludes my participation. Regardless, the council members are fair and kind, even my ever-serious colleague master Kusunoki.â€

    “So who are the three council members examining me?â€

    “Obviously, the gentleman was master Kusunoki Eisai. He oversees the combat training of out order, a master in several weapons and unarmed martial art forms; also he regularly meditates to hone his mind. Whenever the Guiding Body needs to make serious decisions, he will spend hours before in deep though…purging himself of conflict and bias. The younger lady was Niyma Nadeo. Her studies focus on people and their behavior, which lends to her ability to naturally sense other’s emotions and thoughts and makes her an excellent mediator. And the dear, elderly lady who so briskly hurried us from the room was Angelica Markeson; yet she insists that she be called Angie, as she despises ‘frivolous formality,’ as she calls it.†Unfortunately, her age is catching up with her. She has been ill for quite some time.â€

    Crossing his legs, he frowned a bit and tilted his head. “But you didn’t mention her ability.â€

    Hethra lifted his head and chuckled lightly as he turned to the boy. “You must expand your mind about such things and let go of preconceptions. True, many of the Orue Agea possess talents that could be described as extraordinary ability, but it is not the most important thing in making a person. Angie is a wondrously warm person who always puts the people’s needs first. Most underestimate such an ability to love. But really, who is greater: the lone man who shifts mountains and holds the elements at his command, but dies alone? Or the man who dedicates himself to helping others and dies comfortably in his bed surrounded by those who love him? The nature of her talents is less discernable…but no less important to this city. It will be a great loss when she is gone.â€

    They were interrupted by the faint groaning of the door as Sri-Ajota left the council, who looked as though she was blushing. She walked over to them and burst into a hug with her brother, smiling furiously.

    “They said I can study! I’m working in the library and learning the arcane arts…I’ll even be apprenticing under Ilseun’s father!â€

    He mirrored her smile, glad to know that she could do something that would make her so happy. The library was the perfect place for her; she would be where she belonged. He grabbed in a hug and told her, “That’s great! I told you not to worry. So what did they ask you?â€

    Her smile only grew. Shrugging and leaning forward, she whispered in his ear, “you’ll just have to find out, shaqiq†and took a seat next to master Hethra. Doing his best to pout in annoyance, he turned to the still open doors. He took a slow breath, smoothed out the front of his garment, and stepped into the council chamber. There the three awaited him, looking expectantly towards him.

    “You must be Sri-Kurah,†master Nadeo began. “Your sister seems to think quite a lot of you. My name is Niyma Nadeo. This is Kusunoki Eisai,†indicating the man, “and Angelica Markeson,†motioning to the other woman. “Firstly, welcome to Melatras. We hope that our humble city has made a pleasant impression on you.†Then, she bent forward, her silky violet robes spilling over the edges of her seat, and extended a hand imploringly. “Tell me, how do you feel?â€

    He stepped up the few steps to the round platform at the center of the room, now noticing the design carved into it. The platform was a circle, in which a triangle lay, in which there was a square, then another circle split in half vertically, and a small undivided circle in the very center over that line. At the moment, he stood uneasily and waited. Being surrounded by these highly esteemed scholars and masters made a knot in his stomach and his hands tremble. “Nervous,†he answered honestly, “I’ve never been in a place as big as this.â€

    “That’s understandable, young man. But you are among friends here,†master Markeson said warmly. “We would like to talk to you, learn more about you. Is that alright?â€

    “Y-yes, I suppose. What would you like to know?â€

    Master Kusunoki rested his hands on his folded hands and regarded him intently. “First, young one, have a seat and relax your thoughts. In the chaos of this world, we rarely are afforded the inner calm to find what we seek in peace.â€

    Meekly Sri-Kurah crossed his legs and sat, gazing at the three completely unsure of what they wanted.

    “Your mind is turbulent, filled with doubt,†master Nadeo continued. “If your wish is to study here, you will learn to discipline your thoughts, control your fear and use it to your advantage. When we ask a question, take your time and do not be afraid to answer honestly…for it will only serve to benefit YOU. For all people are inflicted with fear, and all must face it at some point to move forward.â€

    “Make no mistake, even we members of the Guiding Body have our own fears, but we continue on despite them…we live with them,†master Markeson spoke up. “So take an easy breath, and relax.†Of all three masters, she filled Sri-Kurah with assurance most, ever gesture and word instilling confidence against his unsteady nerves. He felt the knot in his gut ease and his face regain some color as he took slow breaths and willed himself to be calm. The room remained silent for the longest moment, until master Kusunoki leaned forward and began with the first, and quite perplexing, question:

    “Who are you?â€

    He was taken aback by the question, because they already knew his name. His elbows on his knees, his chin on his hands, he took a minute to think the question over but no matter how many ways he looked at it, he could not glimpse a deeper meaning. Finally, he decided to answer as clearly he understood.

    “I am…Sri-Kurah. I come from a small village in the desert four days west of Caldeum called Wahat-alqalb.â€

    Master Kusunoki nodded in response and reclined back into his seat, apparently going no further with the question. Master Nadeo then went on to ask:

    “Why are you here?â€

    Again, the young man was confused at the general nature of the question. This was not the intense questioning he had expected. If anything, he had expected to be intensely cross-examined and obligated to prove his worth to stay. Sighing deeply, he collected his thoughts and again answered as honestly as he could, hoping that his simple answers were vaguely what they were looking for. He couldn’t leave his sister, he had to stay.

    “To watch out for my sister. She wanted so much to study here, but didn’t want to go on her own. I suppose I’m really here to protect her.â€

    Master Nadeo lips twitched in an intrigued half-smile, lightly crossing one leg over another and replying, “I see.†For a brief moment he thought he caught a gleam of satisfaction and interest in her eyes, but surely he had imagined it. His attention was pulled away to master Markeson as she cleared her throat –he was not sure if that was her intention or if her aged vocal cords simply needed to make an effort to let her speak. Tilting her head to the side, she pursed her lips in contemplation; those wizened gray eyes seemed to cut into his very being, but it wasn’t intrusive…only perceptive. Her voice was a gentle tone.

    “What do you want?â€

    What did he want? That was the most difficult question of all…he honestly did not know. His mind drifted to the graceful blade on Ilseun’s belt, the weapon that had fascinated him since he was a little boy. Those few times he held it, it was natural to him. Then the idea struck him like a thunderbolt. What if that was what he could do…learn to fight? What better way to protect her than that? The answer for him was there, he hoped.

    “I want to be a swordsman, to learn more and truly be able to protect the people I care about.â€

    Master Markeson simply beamed at him. Together, the three masters rose from their chairs, as did Sri-Kurah, and shared a look of agreement between them. She opened her hands out to her sides and said, “And so you shall.â€

    He stood there puzzled, it definitely could not be that easy.

    “If your wish is to stay and learn here, then it is our wish as well,†she went on, “to have you stay and seek your potential.â€

    “Surely that can’t be all, masters,†he exclaimed, “with all respect.â€

    Master Kusunoki huffed in response. “Why not?†he asked, “What more important questions are there than these? What reveals more about a person? There is no wrong answer…each shows how well we know ourselves in that point in our lives. Who am I? Why am I here? What do I want? To truly find the answers to these questions is to master the universe within us and completely understand ourselves. Do not forget that, young Orue Ageum.â€

    “As it is, the choice is yours. If you choose to stay, you will study the art of swordsmanship and strategy,†master Nadeo explained. “Masters Kusunoki and Hethra will instruct you in these areas, until the time comes for you to set out on your own path.â€

    Turning to look at him imploringly, Sri-Kurah watched as master Kusunoki bowed to his new pupil solemnly.

    “It is my honor to teach you, student. The path you have chosen will be arduous and demanding, but in doing so you sharpen your body and mind. You must have a strong will.â€

    He swallowed and bowed in return. “It’s my honor to learn from you, master. I will stay.â€

    “It is settled, then,†master Markeson remarked curtly. “You are a scholar of the Orue Agea.†She motioned for him to descend, which he did, and gently walked to him, pulling him into a soft hug. “Welcome, young man.â€

    The other masters shook his hand and smiled at him. Remarkable that a few minutes ago he was nearly paralyzed at the idea of being before them, they did not carry themselves so far above others like many rulers…and for that he respected them even more. He found himself smiling back at them.

    “Thank you, so much.â€

    “Well, if there is nothing more to be done, we will allow you to return to master Hethra so that he can help you and your sister get settled in. Once more, welcome to Melatras, young scholar,†master Nadeo said. They placed a hand on their chests and bowed to the new scholar, a gesture he returned before turning and beginning for the entrance. Opening the doors to the antechamber again, he bowed again and took his leave from the council, leaving them to their discussions.

    “Fascinating…are they not?†Niyma remarked to her fellow council members.

    Angie nodded in agreement, “They certainly are, and so humble…a quality many students seem to lack these days.â€

    The warrior had his hand on his chin in thought. “Scoewyn was right about them. He said in his letter that they could have great potential, but I did not expect what we saw.â€

    Niyma strolled behind her chair, resting her hands on the smooth stone and idly running her fingers across it. “I sensed so much emotion in the two of them: confusion, anxiety, excitement, connection.†Her face twisted at the memory of the feelings, then it became calm. “But something was beneath it all –a desperate desire to reach beyond their current life. I wonder what will become of them.â€

    “We must let them find their own way,†he commented. “I believe what can expect from them something quite interesting and…unexpected.â€

    “Yes, let them be for now, they are still young,†Angie told them. “Let them enjoy youth and benefit from the experience of becoming adults. Whatever they do will be to the good.â€

    ***

    Beyond in the antechamber, Sri-Kurah rejoined his sister and new master. His expression told them just how well the meeting had gone; it mirrored Sri-Ajota’s. She jumped up and dashed over to him while master Hethra simply reclined leisurely, expecting this outcome.

    “I take it from your smile that you are going to study here?†master Hethra inquired, his eyebrows raised. “Somehow it does not surprise me, it was never in doubt.â€

    “So does that mean we’re staying?†Sri-Ajota asked excitedly. His chest swelled in pride knowing that he was worthy of being here, to learn and live with his sister. She could follow her dream, and so would he.

    “Yes…we’re staying!â€

    She shrieked in excitement and enveloped him in a hug. She really would not want to stay without her brother –it just wouldn’t feel right.

    Along their trip down again, Master Hethra was very pleased when he heard that he would be one of Sri-Kurah’s teachers. “Just pay attention to what master Kusunoki and I teach you, and you will one day be both a warrior and a leader of men. Master Vost will also be delighted to know that you will be his pupil, Sri-Ajota, he already knows of your intelligence. Just one bit of advice…he appreciates a flexible mind. Do not be afraid to ever push the limits of your imagination. Now, today we will find you accommodations in the residential district, which is mostly on the northern side of the city. That will be your home during your time here. The second floor deals with housing concerns.â€

    “Swords…that fits well enough. As often as I saw you stick fighting in the fields, I should have known that you would want to study combat,†Sri-Ajota commented in her good-natured voice. She knew he would make an excellent swordsman, it was his dream deep down.

    They stopped on the second floor and started the tedious task of obtaining a residence for the twins. Master Hethra knocked lightly on the counter of a old, wooden desk. From the adjoining room a short lady, likely in here forties shuffled out with an arm full of papers. Her face lit in cheerfulness upon seeing the man rapping his knuckles for her attention.

    “Scoewyn, I’ve not seen you in months! Where have you been hiding?â€

    “Around Caldeum and the jungles, following my senses,†he replied shaking her hand, “and I have returned with two bright young scholars in need of housing. I trust you can take care of them, Delia?â€

    “Caldeum? I’m surprised the Vizjerai or the Zakarum haven’t tried to induct you into their ways of thinking, as much time as you spend around them. Oh well, let’s get them a place to live then. I’ll get the forms to chronicle their residence in the city,†she went on before hurrying into the back room.

    He glanced at the siblings and shrugged. “Even in a city of scholars, there is always paperwork. It is the only way to keep order in such matters.â€

    As soon as he spoke, Delia returned with a sizeable stack of parchment, the beginning of the forms to register them in the city and receive a house. They each picked up a quill and began filling out the information as Delia asked, including their names and ever other detail of their lives. Luckily the process went rather smoothly and they received one near master Hethra’s. As amazing as the city and citadel were, Sri-Kurah found himself getting bored with the minutiae. Suddenly, he remembered something he had been told earlier.

    “Master Hethra, is the southeast courtyard near here? I want to talk to Ilseun.â€

    He turned from scribbling on a parchment and looked around the area. “Yes, actually, it is very close to here. Do you see those doors down the hall?†indicating a pair of doors, “Take those outside and then the stairs to the left. You will see a walkway that leads out to the southeast courtyard. I will be here finishing the paperwork. It may take a while.â€

    “Thank you, I won’t be long. Sri-Ajota, do you want to come with me?â€

    When he looked at her, he thought it strange that she turned a little red and stuttered at the question, as he just wanted to go talk to Ilseun. The intimidating part of the day was over now.

    “No thanks, I think I’ll study the city maps here while master Hethra finishes, so I can be more familiar with the area and where everything is.â€

    Shrugging off his curiosity, he started down the hall while she stared at a large map hung on the wall. Easing past the people bustling from one section to the next, he pushed through the doors and down the steps toward the courtyard. There he saw Ilseun sparring with another man in an intense duel –Ilseun with his sword and a shield, the other with some type of fist weapons over his knuckles extending to cover his forearms. He was very big and burly, with balck hair slicked back and a pronounced jawline, which currently was clenched tight in concentration. Sri-Kurah sat on the wall surrounding the courtyard and watched the two practice, curious to see what he would soon be learning.

    They were taking turns, one attacking while the other worked on defense, then switching. The man was steadily pummeling Ilseun’s shield, which was deflecting and absorbing the brunt of the attacks with loud clangs. He moved slowly, deliberately taking time to put force into each punch, his feet seeming to sink into the ground itself as he planted them. Ilseun relied on evasion and redirection to keep those fist from reaching him, his footwork keeping him on one side of his opponent or the other. Then they switched, Ilseun swishing his sword forward as he charged and the man falling back, allowing his armguards to block the blade. Sri-Kurah’s jaw fell when he saw sparks trailing Ilseun’s blade as it cut through the air, building an electrical charge with each pass. In a burst of speed, he hooked his partner’s left fist with the edge of his shield and wrenched it to the side, leaving an opening for his sword. The man jerked his other fist upward and, unbelievably, a mass of stone and dirt surged up in front of his arm to intercept the blow. The blade clashed with the fist and stone, releasing something akin to a thunderclap, before the earthen shield fell away and carried the electrical bolt with it into the ground. Both combatants stayed motionless for several seconds, staring at each other, before pulling away and disengaging.

    “Come on, no earth shields!†Ilseun called out. “We’re supposed to be practicing pure physical strategy.â€

    Panting, the man threw up his arms in exasperation and responded, “Had to! You threw lightning at me…I thought we agreed no enchantments!â€

    “Oh,†Ilseun remarked sheepishly, “sorry about that. I’m learning about lightning imbuing and they say it’s unpredictable. Apparently I haven’t gotten it just right yet,†he said, holding up his sword, “because this one keeps sending out random bolts when I use it.†Suddenly he looked over and saw Sri-Kurah watching from the sidelines. “Hey, Sri-Kurah! Come over.â€

    Sri-Kurah hopped down from the wall and joined the boys as they walked off the square and caught their breath. The other man looked ever bigger from up close, definitely not someone to mess with.

    “So how did the testing go?

    “Not bad,†he answered, “shorter than I expected…and more confusing.â€

    Ilseun chuckled and shook his head. “Yep, the three questions. So what will you study?â€

    He grinned. “Swordsmanship. Masters Hethra and Kusunoki are going to train me.â€

    “That’s great!†he exclaimed, “They’re the best and we need someone else to practice with. Oh, speaking of which, this is my friend Mitrand Call.â€

    Sri-Kurah extend a hand to the visibly irked man, who was currently glaring at Ilseun. Yet he took it and shook with a pleasant, albeit reserved, attitude.

    “Although I’d prefer it if you call me Cestus. Wouldn’t you if your parents named you Mitrand? Two brothers and a sister, and I get something like Mitrand,†he told him gruffly. Noticing his weapon of choice, the nickname made perfect sense. “So let’s not make it a habit, stick with Cestus. Good to meet you.â€

    Despite his annoyance, he didn’t actually seem too ill-tempered…more like aggressively sarcastic. “Sri-Kurah. Good to meet you to. So are you a fighter?†he inquired.

    He clinked his knuckles together and flashed a smile. “Everyday. Specialty is fist weapons and unarmed combat.â€

    “You guys are ready good,†he commented. His mind traveled back to the last part of the fight. “But…how did you do the lightning and the stone?â€

    “Well, I have an affinity to the earth element,†Cestus explained. “With enough concentration, I can move it around or use it to fortify myself. But I like combat too, so I use both skills together. Ilseun’s lightning was because of an enchantment he put on the sword. He’s a swordsmith, so he’s learning how to do things like that.â€

    Ilseun flourished his sword, sending out a crackling noise and a sensation that made their hair stand. “It’s not perfected yet. So do you know where you’re staying?â€

    “Not sure yet exactly,†he told them. “All I know is that it’s near master Hethra’s place.â€

    “That’s close to where we live,†Ilseun replied, indicating his friend. “Cestus and me are neighbors and master Hethra is only two blocks from us. We’ll get to see you a lot. Hey, grab a staff and let’s practice some, we can show you what you’re in for with the masters.â€

    Nervously he picked a sword-sized wooden exercise staff from the nearby rack, as did Ilseun, while Cestus kept his weapon. They walked back into the training ring and spaced themselves out. The older boys positioned themselves into battle stances, Sri-Kurah left unsure of what to do with himself. Their first passes were very straightforward, and he warded them off well enough until he lost balance and tripped. He scurried to his feet quickly, feeling his face get redder.

    “It’s no big deal, little man,†Cestus spoke up. “Just do whatever feels right. Instinct.â€

    Taking his advice, Sri-Kurah thought back to the days of the village festival, when he imitated real swordsmen passed, and remembered practicing with his father. “Do it again, son,†his father instructed, repeating the movement. “The festival’s in three days, you’re only halfway through the sequence. Just let your muscles learn the patterns until it’s instinct, be natural. You can do this.†He was right, he had learned the sequence perfectly. But it had always been that way: once he did it, it was like he could copy it…he never forgot. Reaching back to his roots, he dropped into the traditional stance of the ceremony. As the two advanced on him with simple attacks, he actually fended them off one after another with the elegant movements he had learned from years of childhood practice. He noticed their eyes widened while he repelled more of their strikes, which were slowly getting more complex.

    Maintaining his economy of movement, he kept things simple but intuitive. His doubts lessened as he became bolder, twisting and lashing out as the ceremonial dance he taught him and incorporating the styles of the other combatants. Yet, of course, in the end he began to be overwhelmed. In a burst of intuition, he gave his movements over to his instincts and spun away as the two attacked him simultaneously. Whereas two fists and a sword should have overtaken him, he dodge skillfully between them, whirling backwards with his staff spinning and landing with no problem. He immediately pulled his staff back and held it pointed at his opponents, ready for their advance…then he realized what he had unbelievably done. They stood there frozen at the display and struggled to find words. Then, they both burst out laughing, and Sri-Kurah found himself joining in. Out of breath, they all headed for a nearby fountain and rested on a bench.

    “How…how did you do that? Have you fought before?†Ilseun asked incredulously.

    “Only with my father and in the village festivals,†he told them. “It was the one time when I got to use a sword, so I always made the most of it.â€

    “That was impressive. So Sri-Kurah,†Cestus said, taking a swig of water, “how old are you? You look sort of young, judging by your size, no offense.â€

    He felt embarrassed by comparison; they were both bigger and probably older than he was. “Fifteen,†he told them awkwardly. Ilseun seemed to notice his discomfort and slung an arm around his shoulder.

    “So? I’m seventeen and you’re eighteen…and he still gave both of us a run for our money,†he jabbed at Cestus, them making their way over the walkway towards the Citadel again, stopping at the stairs. “He may be scrawny now, but in a few years he’ll probably be showing us the moves.â€

    “Yeah,†Cestus admitted, unwrapping the leather from his hands and flexing, “we’ll see. Are you ready to go? I’m getting hungry.â€

    Ilseun shrugged and sheathed his sword. “Sure. So, Sri-Kurah, when you get settled in have master Hethra tell you where we live. We’ll be seeing you around a lot. It’ll be nice practicing with someone who knows how to use a sword.â€

    Cestus huffed in indignation and kicked a spray of sand at Ilseun. “I’ve never had complaints before. Now come on! See you later, little man.â€

    He turned right and started down the stairs to ground level. Ilseun clasped Sri-Kurah’s shoulder reassuringly and said, “I’ll see you later. Welcome, little friend.†Then he turned and followed his friend. Sri-Kurah felt a charge of excitement move up his back as he sprinted back up the stairs into the Citadel. Exactly where he left them, master Hethra and Sri-Ajota were talking with Delia who was explaining to her everything about their residence. As he skidded to a stop behind them, his sister glanced over his shoulder and smirked.

    “Why do you look so tired?â€

    He walked beside her nonchalantly. “I’ll tell you about it later. So are we set?â€

    She eyed him inquiringly and motioned to master Hethra. “Almost. Ms. Delia is preparing a guide to show our domicile and the nearby points of interest. The place sounds really nice.†Something had gone on, of that much she was certain, but it could wait until later. She was really excited to see where they would be living.

    Master Hethra strolled back to them with Delia, scroll in hand and a happy expression. “All is ready, young ones. You have a place here. Thank you so much, Delia.â€

    “My pleasure, Scoewyn. You two enjoy your new home and ask if you have any questions,†she said cheerfully before gathering another stack of papers and wandering into the back room again, shuffling through her work.

    “Shall we?†master Hethra asked, gesturing ahead. “We still have much to do to settle you in. Then your journey really begins.†As they walked out of the grand gates, it was not even noon –the crisp morning air having given way to the warm breeze of the midday –and yet it seemed a lifetime since they first entered the Citadel. They were different people now in a way.

    Sri-Ajota peered up from her map, radiating excitement from her eyes. “There’s so much to experience in the city, I can’t wait to get started. It’s been quite a morning, right brother?â€

    Every event that had transpired led him to feel the same. But more important than anything, he was here with his sister and, recalling his friendly duel, he had a friend. “It sure has been.â€

    ***

    (the present day)

    “What are you thinking about?†His sister prodded. He cocked his head at her and grinned as he grabbed his tray and stood up. They disposed of their breakfasts and headed for work.

    “About our first day here,†he replied.

    “Oh, yes,†she giggle, “that was a nerve-racking day. And possibly the best of my life. Leave it to you to get into a fight on your first day in a new city.â€

    “Friendly spar,†he corrected, “which you could have seen if you had come. Why did you spend your time staring at maps, you could have seen Ilseun again.â€

    She rolled her eyes. “You are so dense sometimes,†she exclaimed. “Do you think I want to embarrass myself by saying something completely foolish to the boy I had a crush on?â€

    “Crush!? You mean you already…†he questioned.

    His sister just shrugged in response. “He felt a spark too, even in the beginning. Just nature I guess,†she explained reminiscently. “So what are you doing today?â€

    “Drills with master Kusunoki. I think he’s impressed with my progress –even if he won’t admit it. You?â€

    “Library. I think I’m supposed to take some of the young ones on a tour.â€

    Walking down the halls to the training rings, he perked up and put on a comical deep voice. “Ooo…telling the children about the angels, demons, and mages? And the noble founding of our order?â€

    “Almost blasphemous you are,†she chuckled, “and you know better. We just soften the story and dress it up for the kids. I don’t think parents would appreciate my terrifying their children. But you must ‘never underestimate the dangers of tangling with evil magic’,†she proclaimed in her storyteller voice, wiggling her fingers.

    “I’ve seen my share of arrogant mages and wily demons, thanks. And how are you feeling about Ilseun leaving?†he asked, switching to a more serious tone. He saw her face fell slightly, it was a topic she was trying to avoid. She was being stubborn, she knew, because every Orue Agea had to go on an expedition to bring new knowledge about their field to the city. That did not mean that she felt any happier about him leaving her for a while. Expeditions could last from months to years.

    “I know he was to go…I’m just concerned about how long it will be,†she told her brother. “They say some scholars spend years in the field. What if he stays a long time?†It was obviously weighing on her mind, upsetting her.

    He shook his head. “Impossible,†he replied, “Ilseun gets fidgety if he goes a day without seeing you. He won’t be gone long, I promise.â€

    Her face brightened at his comforting words and he gave her a quick hug. “And you’ve still got me, shaqiqa.â€

    She hugged back and gave him a wink, heading down a flight of stairs to get to work. “Thanks, shaqiq. That means a lot.†He went on his way outside, taking in the fresh morning air and preparing for a day of rigorous training. The azure skies were fair and inviting, he felt sorry that she would spend the day inside. But as she began the trip back to the library, she wasn’t as worried it or anything else at the moment, because it was true. They always had each other. They would be fine.
     

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