Monday, June 20, 2011

Journeyman, Part Three: Absolute

"That was how it happened," Aron said wearily, leaning back into a musty armchair. He inhaled deeply, pulling in the scent of ancient books and dust. Apart from the pacing of his teacher, the annals were quiet: they were sequestered within the deepest and most private area of the University. Even the rats didn't venture down here.

"Remarkable," his teacher muttered. "Utterly incredible. You remember all of it?"

"Yes," he said. "But it's...fuzzy. Like a dream. I remember Laera talking about Elrael, and his sword, and I remember hating Reil...but after that, I don't know why I did anything. My body was moving, but my mind was...gone. Inconsequential. I didn't have any control."

"That's not unusual," said Jinevra. "It's impossible to contain the first time it surfaces."

"But next time?"

"That's assuming there is a next time. There have been people who only do it once. Their blood runs hot, their eyes spark and their hands burn with the Stars, but it never comes again. They become Artisans, or they don't. Or they die."

"Yes. But if it comes again...."

"Then you're an Artificer," Jinevra said calmly. She plucked a book from the stacks and flung it at him. "Read up on them. You'd be the sixth we know of."

"And what of the Felling Sword?"

"What of it? It's a fable."

"Fables shouldn't rouse a power as old as the Angels," Aron retorted. "And it was the Felling Sword that woke it. I've known Reil was sleeping with my sister for weeks, but it manifested after they'd told me about the sword. The Artificer wanted to know where to find it."

"Well, it knows now. What good can knowing do it, though? Even if the sword exists, there's nothing you or the Artificer can do about it from here. You'd end up chasing a fairy tale halfway across the world."

"No, not from here. I would rather not leave while there is more to learn here. It is...problematic."

"Problematic, yes. Regardless. It hasn't come back in you, has it?"

"No, but it's only been a week."

"And I assume you haven't seen your sister since then."

"For all I know, she's already found some hopelessly lovesick captain to ferry her across the Gasping Sea," Aron said bitterly. "None of the Artisans have seen her. I don't think she'd leave the Cities, but...."

"To be fair, you did murder her lover while she watched."

"Her lover was an idiot, a drug addict, and a stain on my family's honor. I was only bleach."

Jinevra chuckled and said, "Looks like your sister didn't approve of your cleaning."

Aron unfolded from his chair. "Your humor is acknowledged, if not even slightly appreciated. Are we going to study anything today?"

"Not today. I worry that if I tried to teach you something, I'd wake up something I'm not prepared to handle."

"Fine," Aron snapped. He grabbed another book from the stacks and turned to leave. "I'll see you in a week."

"What? What are you going to do for a week?"

"Chase fairy tales."

* * * *

No one in all the world heard more fables and history in a night than men in expensive bars, for there is no better place for a bard to make his living. Not one person has looser pursestrings than a rich and grateful drunk, and nothing finds more grateful drunks than a pretty tune. A well-versed singer in the right bar need never thirst.

This bar was the third Aron had sought out this week. The last two had had bards of a very certain kind: talented but ultimately empty-headed. They knew several songs and many melodies, but no stories. This one, though, seemed much more promising.

"Tell of the beginning of time," Aron called out. The bard's eyes widened for a moment, and then he smiled.

"The beginning of time," the bard began, and struck a chord, "sparked like fire in the dark.

"Some say life was spoken into the blackness by the Bright One. Others believe the world bloomed out of the nothing like a glorious flower. The Church of the Blinded Prophet proclaims that light and dark were wrestling, or loving, and that from their union our home was born.

"Yet, still others have said the Angels brought us forth—that they Seven flew into the dark and said, 'Let us create.'

"And so they did. The first carved the world with his thoughts, shaping a planet from words and will, wind and water, dreaming light into the black. The second walked on that world and spoke to it; he introduced the water and the land, making it burst with green life. The third came to them as they dreamed, and he sat with them and said, 'You have made great things.' He plunged his fingers into the dirt, and from the dirt sprang a thousand thousand creatures of every shape and kind. He looked at his brothers and said, 'But I have made greater.'

"Now the fourth was wiser than the rest, and said, 'Brothers, your works are wondrous. But in all your dreams, you have forgotten the light.' With one hand, the Angel grasped the light, and with the other grasped the dark. In a single, great effort, he forced them together and breathed upon them. They fell to the earth and, from the writhing, twisting mass, the first of our race was born: the race of man.

"The fifth Angel, one of great cunning, wanted more than what his brethren had made. He was patient, and waited until the race of men had grown. Finally, when he needed to wait no longer, he took one of the daughters of men for himself. The sixth, amused, made the Folk from water and light, and then contented himself with flinging stars.

"But the last of them was not so easily entertained.

"The last Angel's name was Lhaor. Lhaor understood that, without limits, the race of man would ruin the world his brothers had made. And so Lhaor created a servant for himself, and called it Azrael. Azrael walked in the world, invisible, unstoppable, bringing the final limit: death itself.

"And so began the world."

Aron did not clap with the others. His eyes were narrow, calculating. In their depths, the Stars glowed faint gold.

The Artificer was waking.

* * *

Aron found the bard later that night, perched on a bar stool and drinking himself into a stupor. On any other night, he would have waited for a little while, let the young idiot fall to the floor. Patience, after all, is a virtue.

But, then again, he had little time for virtues.

So he slipped valerian into the man's drink. Three minutes later, he sidled up, pretended to be an old friend, and carried the man—who suddenly felt very, very tired—out of the bar, into the dark.

* *

The bard woke into the dark and, being a musician, took only seconds to start whining.

"Where am I? What's happening? Who's there?"

"Relax," came a voice from the velvet blackness. "I just want to hear a story."

"You drugged a man and brought him to my home for a story, Aron?" protested another voice—this one female, and elderly. "What story could possibly be worth this? If we get caught—"

"Then the Artificer will handle the city guard. It wants to know about the Felling Sword and it wants me to survive."

"You're making a handful of extremely critical guesses, there, Ar—"

"Shut up." Then, directed at the bard again, "Now, songweaver, I would very much like to hear a story. Elrael and the Weeping Kings, I think."

"Y-y-you want a story?"

"Always the tone of surprise," remarked his captor. Then, abruptly, his voice changed, becoming strangely flat, emotionless. "Little singing bird, let me be clear on this: you are alive because I have need of you. If you do not give me what I need, I will have little reason to suffer you longer. Do you know a story of Elrael and the Weeping Kings?"

The bard stammered. "I don't—the Weeping Kings? I don't even know—"

But that was when the building shook. Gray dust cascaded from the ceiling, and a million screeching cracks exploded from above them.

"What on earth is happening?" the bard shrieked, his pure tenor breaking in distress. As he spoke, voices—terrified, agonized voices—broke into a chorus of horrific wails. Just as quickly, they were silenced.

A dull glow blossomed in the dark, and the bard was astonished to see that it wasn't a torch: it came from the hand of one of the people who had captured him.

The man with the glowing palm held the light up high and tilted his head, as if listening. Then, his eyes dark, he looked at the bard.

"What's happening? I'll tell you. The Gray Men are here."

"The Gray—"

He didn't finish, because the Artificer lay one glowing hand on his head. Silently, he fell to the ground and slept.


Aron and Jinevra surfaced three days later, when the explosions and the screams from above had stopped. They knew exactly what to expect, so they left the bard asleep in the annals. He wouldn't have handled it well.

The Shining Cities were gone—razed to the ground. The air tasted of ash and smoke and death. As far as they could tell, no one else had survived. Just them: Aron, his elderly teacher, and an irritating, gutless storyteller.

For a while, they wandered in the wreckage. Nothing had been left. Even the Artisans hadn't been able to guard themselves: the University was only a hollow shell with a charred skin. Every house on that avenue had crumbled.

"Why didn't they find us?" Aron asked.

"The annals," Jinevra replied, "are nearly as old as they are. This is not the first time the University has been destroyed, but no one touches the annals. Ever."

Aron looked at her. "Well. I guess this pretty neatly eliminates my reason for staying."

Jinevra nodded. "Yes. Yes it does. Someone will rebuild the Shining Cities, eventually. They always do. But they won't need an Artificer. They'd kill you just as quick as listen to you."

"Then I go to Arluis. To the Weeping King. The Gray Men know what I seek, and now they have confirmed I am right to seek it."

"Will you take us?"

"My old teacher and a songbird? No. It reeks of cliche and I would rather not be distracted by your entirely predictable murder. I must do this alone."

"What will you do there?"

Aron looked at her. The Stars were burning in the dark pits of his eyes. "Kill a king. Steal a sword. Start a war."

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