Light blazed in a diagonal ray across the room, emanating from a point in the ceiling. It weaved through various circular reflectors, growing brighter and more focused as it passed each. The final line of pure blinding white ended at a gem no larger than a single coin, though its worth was immeasurable.
Retic Drosmay said, “Turn off the magnifier. This one’s finished.”
His youngest son, Hux, went to a panel on the wall and pressed a button, and the hole to let in light from the ceiling closed over. He pressed another and fiery gold from a hidden light source painted the walls and every tool in the workshop. Hux pulled a lever on the ground near the panel, which lowered the gem from its perch.
“That should do it for now,” Retic said, patting his son’s shoulder. “Put that Mhystil with the others. They’ll be here to collect tomorrow. Count and polish them, then tuck them away. Best to have it all put together early. Ask your brother to help, he’s around somewhere.” As Hux ran out the front door, he removed a working mask from his face, glad to avoid the chore for a moment. He wouldn’t do the grunt work alone.
Retic wiped the dirt from his hands and took off a mask of his own, which protected them from the direct light of the specialized magnifier. The Drosmays’ month was wrapping up. Retic had his shipment of Mhystil ready on time, although this month had been the hardest yet. Still, he had time to set the magnifier on them. If his sons were swift, they’d have quite a shine too. That could bring in some extra coin, he thought. It’s good for them to gain hands-on experience with those gems. The more familiar now, the easier it will be later. They’ll have the business someday. They’ll serve the king his monthly supply. Retic cursed some ancient language under his breath.
They would catch his sons in the gears of this city just as he was—the talent their family had wasn’t common. Wasn’t that uncommon either. Retic and his sons could handle that gem in its unrefined form. Mhystil—a fragment of the Godstone.
To the common people, it caused near-instant madness. That did not stop Tarr’s rulers from taking what they could and denouncing all who opposed long ago. House Drosmay had since become an extension to royalty, with none of the perks. Retic worked to fulfill the king’s crazed demands and keep his family safe. Just as House Drosmay had done for many generations before him.
Hux came back with Noctivis behind, he’d been climbing the tree in their yard. A safe zone, and one where Noctivis could be alone and watch the city. That was long ago, though, when they were children. In his time since returning home from Tillinroch, Noctivis made it a point to show his brother the places he used to go, though Hux was more apprehensive to climb or squeeze into them.
Retic hung his mask near the door and left his shop later that night. The Drosmay house was a block down, and the moons sent sweeping shadows from the tree in his yard. Both his sons were home. Home to help the family business and to keep their aging father company. Hux and Noctivis sat in the main room on a sprawling rug, taking turns rolling dice and moving thick parchment cards against each other. The same game played for a thousand years and a thousand before that, continued yet again. Brother against brother. They were yelling as he entered, enthralled at their game and what the dice might say when they landed.
Noctivis said, “I stopped at the market and got dinner for us. We saved the biggest squash for you.”
Retic replied, “Thank you, we’ll go out hunting or fishing soon, catch us a meal for a change. Do something you’re a little more used to.” Noctivis had been away at Tillinroch for years.
Noctivis smiled, “I know we will, Dad. Anything else we need for the delivery? You were out late.”
“The king has requested a few reflectors to add to his array.” Retic’s eyes grew dull for a moment but warmed again. “Do not worry; they’re finished. Everything is ready.” He began eating the food while fidgeting in his chair. He quickly finished and then got up, saying, “I need to get some rest for tomorrow. After the delivery, we’ll begin next month’s bundle. We just made it this month. But we did. We always do. Goodnight, my sons. Get some sleep.”
With that, he nodded and went to the bedroom. Sleep met his tossing and turning mind, but strange dreams ensued. He dreamed of his sons and the dice game. He dreamed of a duel on a cosmic scale, replacing each card’s image, that of a Titan or a god, with its organic equal. Each roll of the die shook worlds and gave truth to the strange carved images that rode upon each face.
Lost is the great Empire of Laven, power dissolved and corrupt. Now is the time of assassin kings and unkempt rule.
- “Roon, Divided” by Agatho Spur
A box of fine quality sat upon the throne. The throne glistened, carved into a staggering crystal formation. Cushioning the seat and backrest were fabrics of royalty in all the deepest purples. Shadow withheld all but that throne as if the glaring moons held a spotlight over that hidden place alone. But there were no moons above, and the throne room was far below the surface. Hands reached out and cradled the box, lifting the lid and revealing the treasure inside.
The Godstone, Hux thought from the furthest corners of that dark chamber.
Hexing light poured out the box, revealing a silhouette of the one who held it. Hux could see only the perfect dark of that human shape. Then their eyes opened, darting down. They looked inside to the Godstone, a sphere of pure Mhystil. Retic once searched for that relic, and now Hux saw it before him.
Hux peered at the reflected crystal ball in the silhouette’s eyes and the eyes in the crystal’s reflection. Hux became caught in that loop, watching beholder and beheld become one. He plunged back into darkness, as if falling down a mineshaft.
“Hux, wake up,” Noctivis shook him. “Hey, cloud-head, open your eyes. What are you doing with Dad’s Mhystil?”
Hux opened his eyes with a half-dozen heavy blinks. “Dad’s what?” he sat up on his bed, pulling away from his brother. The gem was on the ground near a crack in the floor. It was Mhystil—a single piece that’d been stashed away before Retic’s death.
“I told you to leave it alone. Why can’t you leave it alone?” Noctivis said as the mid-day sun lit the small shack they now inhabited near the slum-docks of Tarr.
Hux rubbed his eyes, “It’s been a year. What better way to remember him do you have, Brother? This is all he could leave us. I had to hold it.”
“You had another vision. The king will feel it!”
“No, I don’t think he did. It was not just a vision. It was a feeling, and if you worked in the shop half as much as I did, you would feel it too!”
“Don’t start this again, Hux. I had to leave.”
“And why was that?”
“Because Retic wasn’t always right! You know we lost Dad in his work. It’s what killed him, and it’ll kill you too.” Noctivis beat his fist against his doorframe.
“He found something!” Hux yelled. “They tasked him to do the research—just as our family always has.”
“And I had a chance to escape that cycle and took it. I was better in the desert than I ever was here.”
“But you came back!”
“Because I knew you needed me, Hux. Don’t be so thick about it. I loved our father as much as you did, but he’s gone now, and the king has cut his ties with House Drosmay. We are all that remains. The two of us and no more. Stop living in the past, and stop digging up old tokens. The visions you have will get you killed—maybe both of us. Mhystil has done us no measure of good. Leave it alone, and don’t let a single person see that. You’re crazy, you know, for taking it out.”
Hux stood, tired of being talked down to, “It was ours to use. Maybe it’s time that you try it. I’m done with it.” He still looked down at the Mhystil. “I saw why the king killed our father. I saw why he no longer needs House Drosmay.”
“What?” Noctivis asked.
“I’ve been seeing it little by little, and now I’ve seen enough. King Riktis discovered Dad’s personal research.”
“Dad found the Crystal Caves?”
Hux met his brother’s eyes, “Yes, but so much more. He linked hundreds of texts, from the historic to the fringe. He believed that the caves hide a throne like no other, and I have seen it. I have seen Riktis taking that secret throne.”
Noctivis said, “A throne? Like for a ruler? What more would he rule? He already has a kingdom.”
“Bulzamath Riktis would rule everything,” his brother replied.
Noctivis stepped closer, “You’re speaking like Dad. Get ahold of yourself. It was only a dream, Hux.”
Hux shirked away, “It was so much more than that. It was the future; it was our world ending.”
Noctivis shook his head in disbelief, “If that’s the case, what could you ever think to do about it? The king takes what he wants. Whether he rules over one kingdom or the land entire, would there be a difference? He is mad as it is.”
Hux grabbed the tiny fragment of Mhystil from the floor, avoiding eye contact with his brother as he did so. “Sitting on that throne is the Godstone.”
“The Godstone? All right, you’ve lost it, and it’s time to stop looking down those avenues of thought. Just put the Mhystil away and come here. Some mail marked for me came—it’s why I woke you.”
On the other side of their home, only five or six strides, was a tidy desk with a letter set in the middle.
“Unmarked?” Hux said walking to it, not forgetting his dark vision. Black wax had held the message closed, but there was no seal of any kind pressed into it now.
Noctivis said, “Read it. Tell me what you think. I think this might be more important than your dark dreams.”
Hux looked at his brother with a scowl, but as Noctivis grinned, he couldn’t help but smile back. Then, Hux eyed the letter, scribbled on yellowed parchment in a fast but articulate hand.
“Tillinroch has fallen?” Hux asked in disbelief.
“That’s what the note says. Keep reading,” his brother replied.
Hux’s eyes sharpened as he finished reading the letter. He said again, “Tillinroch has fallen? What about the mutants in the desert? What’s left to stop them? Gods, look, it’s signed by—”
“It’s signed by my teacher, I know. It can’t be real.”
Hux said, “Well, how could we be sure? Did you save anything from Tillinroch he might have written?”
Noctivis thought on it for a moment, burning with a cold sweat as he wondered at the truths in that letter. If it were true, then in a matter of months, with few remaining Outlanders to guard against the desert, mutants from the inner waste would cross the sands and wreak havoc on the kingdoms of Renloss and Laven. “The only place they’d be is in the workshop. I kept a few scrolls on fighting technique, though the guards who locked the workshop up might have taken them. The whole place could be empty by now.”
Hux said, “We need to compare the handwriting.”
“Are you suggesting we break into the workshop? Guards are always watching it. When did you become so willing to sneak around? How do you even expect us to get in?”
“I expect you to already have a way—you’re the one with a hundred hiding spots around the city. This should be easy for you. I know you think I’ve lost it, but I need to find Dad’s research notes. He found a way to stop King Riktis.”
Noctivis shook his head saying, “How in Nod do you know any of that is true?”
“I have seen it. I have seen Riktis lay eyes on the Godstone, and I’ve seen the demon he becomes when that power is his. It is not so hard to believe, if you could see what I see.”
Noctivis said, “Well, Brother, then I have no choice but to believe you. I hope you only mean to help me in my search of the workshop. If what you’ve said is true, then I see no way for you to stop it. Don’t run off on a fool’s journey.”
Hux said, “I will help you find the scrolls you need—one with your teachers’ signature. If I happen to come by the other things I wish to find, or not, so be it. From there, I think we will both be on a fool’s journey.”
Noctivis looked at his brother and nodded, then folded Arkon’s letter and slipped it in his pocket.
He opened the door of their shack. Though the sun was out, shade cast from the taller stacks of housing around them made the afternoon air brisk. Fall was coming early this year if Hux had to guess. There was no tree in that yard, and no memories of old days for the brothers to look back on. Not there. Not anywhere. Their childhood home had burned to the ground soon after their father’s death, and the tree went up with it.
Noctivis said, “We’ll sneak around back of the shop when we approach it. The adjacent house has a low roof, and we can climb up. Follow my lead from there and stay quiet when we get close.”
Hux smirked and looked to Noctivis, wishing he hadn’t yelled, “I knew you’d understand. Let’s go.”
Before you or me, or even the gods as we know them, there was Axidros. Axidros spread over the infinity of the cosmos, because he was that infinity. After countless, nameless cycles of pre-time, Axidros took a breath. It had never occurred to Axidros to breathe before, and upon exhaling, Azioc and Abbytris formed.
- “The Axidrium” Channeled to Agatho Spur by Zhou Song
Tarr had long overstayed its time as the golden capital of Renloss and twisting to a rotten doppelganger of its former self. Dominating its center was Teal Keep, stretching into the glare of the afternoon sun with many battlements, bastions, and great slabs of stained glass. The castle gave way to a bridge high above the ground, connecting to a grand domed outcropping.
Tarr’s streets grinned the snaggle-toothed smile of a thief. Contorted houses lined intersecting paths, warping to meet them. Stacked, tan stones one or two stories tall gave way to wooden additions above, high and bent so the roads became like tunnels. Dust-filled shafts pierced that urban canopy of roofs, ropes, clotheslines, gargoyles, and other hangings. Lamps boasted eerie fire outside doors to homes and shops alike.
The towering architecture opened up to shipyard and shantytown, beginning at and extending beyond the coast as eclectic docks packed with houseboats. The walls built around Tarr circled its entirety, stretching to a sea that encompassed hundreds of ships in a man-made bay. Salt and sand wore the docks into a drab gray, but tattered flags of all colors flew above. Center dock, traders bartered wares of many origins; pirates did their dirty business at the far end; and the shack Noctivis and Hux moved to after the fire was on the shore where the farthest dock met the land. They walked from their living quarters and along the winding streets.
Noctivis went over the letter again and again in his mind.
Tillinroch has fallen. We are few and losing ground. You, Noctivis, are the only Outlander who is not already defending the desert. The students and masters of Tillinroch have all but perished, and the few out patrolling cannot give up their position to do the thing I ask. You must find a book called The Floating Pages. It will tell you what has become of Tillinroch and what tore the towers down. Once you identify the source of the destruction it can be dealt with. Until then, we cannot rebuild Tillinroch without fear of a return attack. Until the source of Tillinroch’s fall is destroyed, there will be no new Outlanders. The desert will crumble to those things that thrive in the inner waste. The world is falling to chaos; we cannot lose the way. Seek wisdom when it suits you, but you must also trust your instinct. May Azioc guide you.
It was a terrifying letter to receive. The only thing that didn’t fit the Arkon that Noctivis had once known was the last line. May Azioc guide you. He’d never known his old teacher to be a religious man, and the school taught nothing of the gods and their place in the physical world. Terrifying, down to that last line. Was this a message from Master Oryx or a trap? Was it real? How long would the remaining Outlanders last—the ones caught out patrolling while their base of operation fell?
Too many questions and too much riding on a simple letter. How could Arkon trust a letter to send that kind of information? How long ago was it sent? From what Noctivis saw, there was no date to mark it.
“What are you thinking about?” Hux asked from behind as they continued their walk toward the high district, where the Drosmay shop waited, locked and abandoned by all but the guard posted out front.
“If Tillinroch is gone then it might be years until we can train new students,” his brother replied. “Even then it will be slow. The world will soon realize how big a threat the desert is. Many have forgotten. It’s easier to forget it if someone else can do the work for you. But now the Outlanders have all but vanished. I wonder how much the world will change. As Arkon said, the world is already falling into chaos.”
Hux said, “I don’t think it ever left the chaotic state it was born into. The world, and all its children, are catalysts for chaos. I think we just need to find a balance.”
“Your philosophy is fine, but if this letter is true then we have an urgent threat we can’t balance. The Outlanders need to be all but resurrected from their graves for the kingdoms to survive what Arkon speaks of.”