Story — Iron: The Sixth World

There are those in the Lower Valley that would teach you of their Mother’s grace. The light of the moon gazes upon the world with a brilliant yet peaceful eye. They cling to their ideals because they are at the mercy of their gods. Without Yone to cultivate their crops, without Umera to bring them light, and without Ienta and Iella to harness the tides, humankind would have no place in this world. If the gods forsake us, they say, we would all be lost.

But there are those of us that do not like being beholden to powers out of our reach.

The Iron’s Chosen see the world differently. It is not a place of submission and acceptance, but one of opportunity and growth. The culmination of thousands of years and eras as new gods emerge and defeat the old.

The first god gave birth to everything. Iltar, whose being was the Sun, blinded the cosmos with his radiance and showed dominance over all. Nothing could withstand him, until Jegzol came. His was the body of the world, and this armor shielded him against his father’s oppressive light, and soon Jegzol became the dominant god. But Jegzol was arrogant. He put all his faith in his armor and paid no heed to his weaknesses. Elene, the lady of waters, saw that his armor had cracks, and so she poured all her substance into him, restraining him with her entire essence of being. In this way, Jegzol was suffocated, and Elene took his body for her own. Now she had both Jegzol’s armor and her fluid form, so she was confident that she could not be overtaken.

It was then, during this third age that Umera, the mistress of the moon, came. Her brilliance was like that of Iltar, yet it was strong and sturdy like that of Jegzol. Like all the other gods, Elene fell victim to Umera’s beauty. But like the farmers will tell you of their Mother, she was no fool. She saw Elene’s craftiness. “Take me if you can,” Umera stated. “But if you falter when I go, you will be cursed with loneliness for eternity.” Elene graciously accepted, but as soon as she did so, Umera had disappeared. You see, Umera cast a spell on Elene, so that she lusts after anything she gazes upon. By doing this, Umera showed her superiority. When in sight, Elene gazes upon Umera’s beauty and leaps for it, but the Mother never stays long.

Eohr, whose form was that of wind, saw this unity and nodded solemnly. There was no way he could defeat Umera on his own now. Elene would protect her, and the two of them together were unstoppable. But Eohr was clever, as well. And so he went to Elene while Umera was away and said, “I see you have great power.”

“I do,” Elene said, but saw none, for Eohr was shapeless. “Who is it that speaks to me?”

“It is I, Eohr,” he replied. “You are cursed to love that which you can see. You cannot see me, and therefore I am immune to your fate. But I see that you are lonely. If I embrace you and hold you tight, will you claim me as your own, rather than the temptress Umera?”

Elene said that she would, and so Eohr embraced her. Elene forsook Umera’s light, because though her curse still held, it knew less sway because she had felt the touch of another. Eohr’s cunning and his union with Elene was the fifth world, and this persisted for many years.

Many of the gods thought that this was the way it was to be. Eohr and his unity of Elene, who still wore the armor of Jegzol were perfect.

Ferreus saw this world, however, and saw weakness. The last few gods had asserted their dominance through cunning, not power. Ferreus knew that strength was the only way to secure an unyielding hold, and so he stole pieces of Jegzol’s body. These pieces were burned, turned white with power. When they cooled into iron slabs, that power remained, and Ferreus used this power to show real strength. The earth, the winds, and the seas were powerless to stop him, and so Ferreus heralded the sixth world: one ruled by superiority through iron. He taught that competition breeds power, and so gave the power of iron to all the lesser beings of the world.

There is strength to be had in cunning and words, to be sure. But no amount of words can slow a blade aimed at one’s throat, and no amount of cunning can stop a crossbow bolt. Remember that should you choose to align yourself with the Chosen.

Spear Gate — Chapter Seven, Pt. 2

Varra sighed a breath of relief. The danger had passed, it seemed. “Captain,” she said, turning to Eathe. “There are things we need to discuss.”

“It seems so,” he nodded.

“It’ll have to wait, though. I have to see to the other Hands. Keep attending to the situation here. I want the palace on high alert for the rest of the day, and triple guard duty until further notice.”

“Yes, Exalted One.” He started to bow, but Varra put a hand on his shoulder and leaned in close, staring into his eyes.

“And meet me in my quarters at sundown,” she whispered.

He visibly reddened at that, but his face was stern as he nodded more covertly. Without another word, she turned around the way she had come, making her way towards the entry stairs and the council chamber. The quickest way was in the opposite direction, as the palace had many flights of stairs, but that was towards the Spear Gate. As uncomfortable as it made her in the past, now she was downright scared of it.

The building was soon flooded with guards as the reinforcements Eathe had requested arrived. They had their weapons drawn and were jogging towards the courtyard. She didn’t address them. Even if the threat was gone, she wanted her men as prepared as possible. Now was not the time for relaxation. She did slow her pace in their presence, though. It wouldn’t do them any good to know she was terrified.

She ascended the stairs and braced herself for the argument that was to come. A mental checklist of what was important would help.

The Hands would of course interrogate her on what happened and ask where she had been all this time. That was a waste of time because she knew as much as what the Hands would. She would then turn the conversation into an appeal to recalling the army back to Terrace. A land grab in the Sanguine Archipelago just wasn’t what the country needed right now. Perhaps now the rest of the council would see that.

They would of course bring up her lack of a second, again. The Hand of Defense had become a very dangerous job in recent years. With her mother’s disappearance and Morren’s sudden death just a few years later, Varra was a hurried replacement, and the last safety net of the city. If anything happened to her… Well, in the absence of a second, the duty of the Hand of Defense would turn to the Guard Captain. That brought her a little comfort, but having grown up in Lower Terrace, the Hands would never accept him being formally named second. And so that argument had been laid to an uncomfortable stalemate. That particular argument probably wouldn’t find its resolution today, but she did have an idea in that regard.

The other Hands, Elodrus especially, would also question her about the boy. The boy whose very existence was impossible. There was no doubt in her mind that his presence was connected to the Spear Gate. The staff and the gate’s opening immediately after his arrival confirmed that. He had also confirmed her suspicion that Rozire was involved, though to what extent was still unclear. One thing was certain, though: She would not bring up Rozire’s name. If they connected him with the boy, they might torture him. No. The less important he seemed, the better. At least for now, while Varra found more pieces of the puzzle.

She rounded the bending hallway as she approached the council room. A dozen guards stood outside, white and bronze armor gleaming as they saluted her. She nodded as one of them opened the door for her.

The room opened up into a wide chamber with a small but ornate table in the middle. On the far wall was an enormous window that oversaw the courtyard and the obelisk below. Twenty or more guards waited inside, many of them staring out the window. Varra kept her focus at the table. The seats were arranged in the common painting of Aenias: three left arms and two right. There were no chairs on the ends, and only one of the seats was empty. Four men of pointed robe and silver hair took up the other ones. She wondered once more how her mother had ever managed to identify with them at all.

“Glad you finally decided to join us, Exalted One,” Karayan stated. The Hand of Justice, and the youngest after Varra, though he had seen over fifty summers.

“I had other matters to attend to,” she amended as she took her place among the five.

“I don’t doubt that. Guards?” He glanced over his shoulder where several men waited. “Arrest Varra under grounds of treason against Upper Terrace and Tebrein.”

Spear Gate — Chapter Seven, Pt. 1

Varra’s sword was out in a flash. Bolting out of the infirmary and into the thoroughfare, she was met with a battle of dark and light. The streets were cloaked in darkness due to the Shadow, but several torches illuminated doorways and signs, carts and wagons. Most people stood stock still, a wreath of horror painted over their face. They all looked up, towards the direction of the palace. When Varra turned around to see it, it was hard to mask her own fears.

A pillar of blue light shot directly upwards, impossibly high as it faded into the distance. The ground was still humming, but it was accompanied now by the sound of murmurs of trepidation and shouts of worry.

“Stay calm!” she shouted to nobody in particular. “Get to shelter immediately!” Few noblemen would be out during the Shadow, Night Seal or not, so most of these people would be servants, but they were still her people. It was the Hand of Defense’s duty to protect all of Tebrein.

She ran through the palace gates and then into the entrance hall. She passed no guards on her way, which didn’t ease her fears. The council would be meeting upstairs in a room overlooking the courtyard. The council she should be at. If anyone was hurt, the blame would be hers alone.

When she stepped back outside into the inner courtyard, nearly two dozen palace guards were surrounding the Spear Gate, which glowed with a brilliance rivaling the sun. The entire courtyard was bathed in a dull blue light, illuminating the otherwise dark garden. The long shadows of the guards shifted slightly back and forth as they shuffled around, prepared for anything. Varra shielded her eyes as she approached. The humming was loud now. It was the tone of an enormous bell that didn’t quiet with time.

“What’s happened?!” she yelled towards the nearest guard, a grizzled man with a beard that didn’t meet regulation.

“Don’t know!” he replied, fumbling a salute before returning to his defensive stance staring at the Gate. “It just started glowing and making that sound!”

“Go g—” as soon as she started voicing her command, she recognized Eathe ahead of them, moving purposely and directing guards with hand signals and shouts. She brushed past the guard without another word and ran up to him.

The guard captain stood a strong contrast of everyone else in the courtyard. He was calm and calculative. His sword remained in its scabbard.

“Exalted One!” he bowed as deep as always in greeting. “I suppose you’ll want to take command of the situation? I believe I have it mostly handled, already though.”

“I’m… uh…” Varra found herself speechless. “I thought you were still on the perimeter running checks on the constructors?”

“Not really necessary for the Guard Captain to be doing something like that. My being here was actually a happy coincidence, actually. I had been looking for you, and then… Well, this happened.”

Time and time again, he had more than earned his title. She swallowed and nodded, sheathing her own blade, despite her fears. A leader should always be in control, and even if danger did come, there were still plenty of guards here. “Very well,” she stated. “You’ve sent for reinforcements from the outer wall?”

“Yes.”

“And you’ve made sure the civilians in the perimeter are safe?”

“That was my first order,” he smiled.

“What about the other Hands?”

“Half the palace guard are protecting them as we speak.”

“Good. Your assessment of the situation?”

Eathe frowned, glancing in the direction of the glowing obelisk. “Hard to say. It doesn’t seem to be threatening anyone, but I’ve never seen anything like this. I was planning on pulling double duty and making sure security is tight everywhere until we figure out what’s going on. Do you have any ideas?”

Right. Eathe had no idea what the Spear Gate really was. Nobody did, outside the Hands and their seconds. That information was locked tight.

But at the same time, that put the city at even more risk. Eathe had already handled the situation exactly as she would have hoped. Better than she could have dreamed. How much better could he do his job if he knew the real threat? For all anyone knew, a thousand men could come pouring out of that brilliant light at a moment’s notice. Tebrein would fall within hours.

Even as she thought about telling him everything, though, the light seemed to dim. The humming began to subside. The two of them turned to the Spear Gate to watch as the pillar of radiance weakened into a beam, and soon it was dim enough to see the obelisk itself, now impossibly shattered into a dozen shards, levitating into the shape of a doorway. As the humming faded, the shards gravitated towards each other and snapped back into place and reforging the familiar and unnerving form of a large spear pointing straight up.

The courtyard was left once more in stillness and shadow.

Spear Gate — Chapter Six, Pt. 3

The Shadow began just as Varra reached the infirmary, where the boy was kept. The quicker she was the better.

“Exalted One!” a woman a measure older than herself greeted her as she entered. Her name was a mystery. “A pleasure, as always. What’s your business, if you don’t mind me asking?”

Varra slowed her step, but kept purpose in her gait. She didn’t have time for conversation. “Is Xan here?” she said, voice curt.

“I’m afraid not,” the lady replied. “He stepped out just a while ago to go fetch some supplies. He wasn’t more specific than that. You know how he is.”

“That’s fine. I won’t be too long, I’m just here to see the prisoner. If I don’t see you again on my way out, make sure to tell Xan I stopped by.”

“Yes ma’am.”

The infirmary wasn’t a large building. It was directly attached to the palace, though it had no connecting doorways on the inside. Really, it was an afterthought. Everyone in Upper Terrace could afford to have a doctor come to them. The infirmary was designed to be useful on a larger scale, expanding a wing of the palace into a sick bay in times of war, which had never been brought straight to the capital, for all Varra knew. This meant that the infirmary was a glorified storage facility for medical equipment. Few people were actually treated here.

As such, she had no trouble finding the boy, who had been left right where she had last seen him, except now he was kept in shackles, which chained him to the bed post behind him. He wasn’t quite lying on his back—a few pillows elevated him into something approaching a sitting position. He was no longer covered in so much blood. A change of clothes and a fresh bath had ensured that the moderate amount of blood on his chest and legs were recent, and that his condition hadn’t improved.

Varra approached him cautiously. Xan had assured her that the disease, which he had called Red Teeth, wasn’t contagious. Still, blood wasn’t the most sanitary thing to be around. Nor was it easy to clean.

“Boy,” she muttered, prodding his shoulder. “I have a few questions for you, most of which require your consciousness.”

He stirred, but didn’t open his eyes. He seemed to be muttering something, but it was too incoherent to make out. She prodded him again, and with a wet cough he became more lucid, eyes fluttering open. His eyes glazed over the surroundings, focusing slowly once they found Varra, and then widening. “M… mother…” he croaked.

The Hand of Defense frowned, taken aback. “Excuse me?”

“We’ve been… looking all over for you…”

“You must be mistaken,” she said, regaining her composure. “I’m no mother, and even if I was you’re far too old to be any child of mine.” As she thought about it, they were of very similar age. Within a few years, to be sure. But she didn’t want to tell him just how young she was. Too many people pointed that out often enough. “But you seem awake enough. Can you understand me?”

The boy started to say ‘yes’, but it turned into another cough, and Varra had to sidestep to avoid getting any blood on her.

“Very well. What’s your name?”

“…Maelys.”

“Good. You’re safe here. For now at least. You’re in Upper Terrace, if that clears anything up.”

He started coughing uncontrollably at that. Varra found a nearby pitcher of water and poured some into a small cup on the table next to him. She had to help him drink it, since his hands were bound, but he seemed grateful at the gesture. Beyond that, she needed him to think she was a friend.

“Did you come here alone?” she asked.

His eyes lost focus for a few moments before he shook his head.

“How many other people did you go into the Meadows with? Just one?”

He nodded.

“His name was Rozire, wasn’t it?”

Again, Maelys’ eyes grew wide. He nodded again. “…staff?”

“I have the staff, don’t worry.”

At that moment, she became aware of a low, deep humming sound. Far lower than the horn blaring of a constructor. It even sounded like it was coming from beneath the ground. The humming grew louder and louder, until the very walls seemed to resonate with the tone.

“Wha…?” the boy sounded.

Varra didn’t bother with any explanation, or even any words of departure. She left the boy, racing back through the building as quickly as she could. Her mother had told her about that sound. It was something she remembered vividly, even though she had heard it only once nearly two decades prior.

It was the sound of her nightmares coming to life.

Spear Gate — Chapter Six, Pt. 2

Later, she sat at the desk in her room, doors locked but curtains wide open. She was exhausted, but there was too much going on to get any rest. She doubted the meeting would alleviate any of that. The other Hands never listened. Varra was just an ignorant girl in their eyes, just a shadow of the Hand her mother had been. Her mercy to the boy this morning probably did her no favors. She was not weak. As soon as he was well enough to tell her what she wanted to know, it would be off to the gallows. In fact, it was in her best interests to make sure he didn’t leave Upper Terrace alive, but now was not the time.

Varra turned around from her chair. Resting against the curtains in that small space between the window and her bed was the boy’s staff. It was no coincidence that she had placed it there where she could look at it and the obelisk simultaneously. It was a simple thing. Nondescript wood that wrapped around a small stone at the top. If she hadn’t seen the rune, she would have thought it a typical walking staff. Of course, then the boy had activated the rune once they got back into the city. A security risk, even half dead as he was. She had instructed Xan to bind his wrists so that he couldn’t etch any new ones.

But his use of magic proved that there was more going on. Magic wasn’t practiced anywhere in Tebrein. Anywhere on Asamos, even, as far as she knew. But Eranos… The sister-planet had many secrets.

The problem was, the Spear Gate hadn’t been opened in over a decade. Maybe two. That situation had been handled, though her mother had never told her what had happened to Rozire. Most likely he had died, but even if he didn’t, she made one thing clear: he didn’t open the Gate again. Perhaps he didn’t even know how to do it from this side.

Which led to the question of the boy. He wasn’t old enough to have been around during the incident. Even she was too young to remember it. How, then, had he gotten access to magic?

The most simple explanation was Rozire.

But no, that was impossible. She could believe that he had escaped Upper Terrace somehow, perhaps even without the knowledge of the Hands, but teaching a boy magic and bringing him back to the capital of Tebrein, so many years later? What purpose would that serve?

Still, Varra knew she was onto something. And with the boy alive, it was easy to verify, too. That was one mystery solved, at least. But it raised more questions than it answered. If he was alive, where was he? Why bring the boy, only to leave him for dead in the Meadows? Perhaps Rozire wasn’t at Upper Terrace at all, and the boy had ran here of his own volition? That made a certain amount of sense, too.

Either way, there was no use dwelling on it now. She would have her answers when she conferred with the boy. That was probably best done sooner, than later, given his condition.

Standing from her desk, Varra walked across the room to the window. The shadow left by the obelisk told her she didn’t have much time before the meeting with the other Hands. Traditionally, such meetings happened during the Shadow. But they couldn’t have the meeting without her, either. They would have to wait for her to start, and since the Hands already had a low opinion of her, it wouldn’t make much difference.

Spear Gate — Power Core

Tasina stood at the edge of the skydock, staring out into the fog below that always crept up when it started getting late. In the distance, just at the edge of the horizon, she could make out the few hazy spires that marked the Needled Flats. Lex and Neda had left just after sunrise, and there had been no word. Neda was only supposed to borrow her son for a few hours, yet the entire day had passed. Some time ago, a hulking mass of a Third Empire battleship flew overhead, straight for the Needled Flats. It would have cast an enormous shadow if there were no clouds, but there were always clouds. She just hoped that it didn’t signify anything bad for the two of them.

“Hey, Booker,” she called, glancing into the power core that functioned as a house. Where was he? “Booker?”

“Optimal Efficiency, ma’am!” The robot’s voice startled her as he replied from directly behind her. She held a hand to her chest to catch her breath.

“You really have to stop doing that.”

“[STOP]. Command received. Powering down.” Booker’s arms tucked into his chest as he bent down, collapsing into a ball.

“Gods above, Neda said she fixed that,” she muttered as she manually turned the robot back on. A few small blue flashes of the systems rebooting as Booker’s limbs extended once more, his headpiece scanning the immediate area.

“Greetings, friend Tasina. How may I be of service?”

“I need you to run diagnostics on Tink. Neda’s scanning drone. Designation M-80.”

“[RUN DIAGNOSTICS]. Command received. System link initiated. Would you like me to send it’s compacted data?”

“Just the most recent two hours. But I’d like the audio, too.”

“Affirmative.”

Tasina climbed into the power core and turned on the water heater. She had barely gotten anything done today. With the combination of the expedition Neda and Lex went out on this morning and the ship that had flown over head, it was hard to stay focused. Besides, she needed Booker for her current project, but he wasn’t as reliable as he used to be. Maybe all that rust was finally getting into his head. Neda was supposed to fix all that. She was much better at programming than Tasina, anyway.

As the water heated up, she started brewing coffee, then ascended the stairs to the second level and laid onto the bed. The reactor at the core’s center gave a soft orange light as it hummed and warmed the room. That was one perk to the tiny room, at least. You were never cold. She smiled as she remembered the time when she told Lex what the power cores really were: the dead hearts of Centurions, the first generation mech to be mass produced in the Third Empire’s army. As much as Lex hated the scrapyard, that had brought a smile to his face. They quite literally slept in the hearts of giants.

A harsh explosion came from outside. Tasina bolted up. No time to think, just move.

She vaulted over the ledge and onto the first floor of the re-purposed core. Rushing outside, she saw Booker standing stock still. Another explosion sounded, but its source was much closer than she had expected.

It was the sound of the audio file Tink had recorded. A sigh of relief was followed by an immediate inhale of panic. Tink? Explosions? What of Neda and Lex? Were they alright?

“Pull up a visual of Tink’s data storage from today.”

Booker didn’t respond, as it would disrupt the audio feed, which was mostly static and more explosions. Occasionally, though, a human shout could be heart saying something indistinguishable. At recognition of her command, a blue, holographic screen appeared before him. There was a short list of data samples. It didn’t take long for Tasina to find it. The answer she was looking for.

A confirmed reading of a specimen that weighed over 700 cubens. 96% of it was aenendium.

At least she had some answers. But the fact that she now knew exactly where that behemoth of a battleship was headed was no comfort.

“Booker, stop the audio file.”

The sound cut out. “[STOP]. Command received.” Again, Booker folded back into a ball with little ceremony. Tasina scooped him up and headed towards their spare hoverbike.

 

Prompt:

Spear Gate — Chapter Six, Pt. 1

Varra preferred this dining hall because it was on the first floor, and had no inner wall, which gave it a pleasant view of the inner courtyard in the center of the palace. As uneasy as the obelisk in the courtyard made her, it was easier to bear in the daylight, and it felt better to have it within line of sight. Besides, this hall was just as lavish as the one upstairs, but it was rarely used, especially in the morning, and she enjoyed the peace and quiet.

“Good morning, Exalted One,” an older man smiled at Varra as he approached her table. She knew his face well. Elodrus, the Hand of Ceremony. “Mind if I join you?”

“Not at all,” she lied, gesturing to the seat opposite her with a small cup of tea in her other hand. She wore no armor now, instead opting for a simple tunic and breeches that contrasted against the extravagant nature of everything around here. “Though I’m afraid I won’t be much good for conversation. I didn’t get much sleep last night.”

“So I heard,” he replied. “Rogue constructor running rampant in the Meadows, only to disappear when you go looking for it. I’m sure that’s given you no small amount of concern.”

“To be entirely honest, the constructor is the least of my worries at the moment.”

Elodrus tugged at his beard a little. “You’re referring to the boy you found?”

“He’s a piece of the puzzle, nothing more.”

“I’m curious as to the reason you decided to bring him to Xan,” he pondered. “Bandits sneaking into the city should hardly be granted free entry, don’t you agree?”

Her guards had been the only ones to see the boy’s staff erupt into flame, and she had sworn them to secrecy. They didn’t know about the rune hidden within it, nor would they know it’s purpose if they did. But Elodrus would, so it was best kept under wraps for now. “I wanted to question him about what happened. How he avoided the constructor for so long.”

“You won’t get anything out of him. A wounded and scared captive rarely says anything of use.”

A servant walked by, and upon Varra’s request, she refilled her tea. Elodrus sent for some water, and within moments it was retrieved for him.

“I’ll let the Hand of Justice handle that part,” Varra continued. “After he recuperates, that is. Xan says his condition is more related to illness than injury, in any case.”

“You’re being quite soft towards him. He’s a criminal, Varra. He’s committed sacrilege by venturing out at night, and he tried to gain access to Upper Terrace illegally. People have been hanged for much less than that.”

“There will be time to hang him after we learn his motives.”

“What motives?!” Elodrus was exasperated now. “He’s just a foolish boy!”

“No, he isn’t, Elodrus. None of it makes sense. There’s too much going on for this to have been a coincidence.”

The Hand of Ceremony sighed. “You think this is related to the Gate.”

Varra glanced out into the courtyard.

The bronze-colored obelisk reflected a soft, dull light towards the two of them as it loomed over the hedges and flowers around it. It was thin and tall, in the shape of a large spear that pointed directly up towards the heavens. Or, more accurately, towards the sister planet.

“Varra, won’t you let this go? This is nonsense.”

She shook her head. “I don’t intend to, no. When I became a Hand and was told what that obelisk really was, I lost my ability to sleep soundly. I wake up in the middle of the night with the curtains thrown back, when I know I closed them before I went to sleep. It’s constantly watching me, Elodrus. And if my worst fears come true, Terrace would be wiped out in the blink of an eye. The constructors would be powerless. You can’t tell me you’re not concerned, too.”

Elodrus frowned as he followed her gaze. “I suppose not,” he agreed. “But we can’t simply recall all of our forces.”

“We can. I’m the Hand of Defense. I don’t need the other Hands’ approval.”

“No, but historically it’s been safer for the city when we act in unison and cooperation.”

Varra set her cup down. “I’m going to bring it up in the meeting today.”

“The others won’t like that,” Elodrus said. “We have more important matters to discuss.”

“Somehow I doubt that. We’ll talk later.” And with that, she walked out of the dining hall, leaving Elodrus alone to ponder the circumstances and the Spear Gate in the courtyard.