The Origin of Blazer Orpheus
The sun climbed lazily in the clear blue morning sky, almost seeming to yawn as it continued its ascent. Beneath, the mostly-frozen plains of Rainier Island shone like polished alabaster, while the snow on the interior pine forest glittered like millions of sparkling diamonds. It could have been any other island on the border of the White Sea, except for one distinguishing landmark – the five-sided structure known as the Saeculo Antiquis Librarium, or just “The Library” to the locals. The Library peeked up through the tops of the tallest trees, and stood like a great pentagonal obelisk reaching for the sky. It was the start of another day, a day like any other on the sleepy little island.
Around the base of the Library stretched the remnants of a great wall, one that had long since collapsed into only half-recognizable rubble. The space between this wall and the Library itself was rife with activity. Stocky tribesfolk clad mostly in thick animal skins clumped in groups here and there, cooking food, caring for children, making tool repairs, and any number of other mundane but necessary tasks, while paler, scholarly-appearing people in long dark tunics and robes mingled about to and fro. The latter carried large books in their arms, or tended to wounds while explaining the process to tribesfolk watching in rapt attention, or wheeled about carts containing all manner of strange and wonderful contraptions, or manned such devices themselves, producing fresh food and clear water, or mending tattered clothing, or field-dressing an animal, and so on.
The island itself might have been sleepy, but the Library was often anything but; it was an old repository of knowledge and technology from the First Age, and its occupants, an order calling themselves merely the Loresmiths, had long tasked themselves with understanding the secrets stored within the pages of the Library’s tomes, and figuring out how to apply those secrets to improve the lives of others. People from several islands over often stopped in when they were in need of counsel, or to study survival skills under one of the Smiths, or even just to marvel at wonders that, while a far cry from the First Age – the monks, while diligent and learned, could only construct a very limited number of the devices they studied – were still new and fascinating to people who lived and died by the hunt. It was widely known in the small group of islands that anyone in need could find aid and shelter in the arms of the Library.
Just like any other day, this particular day found one young monk hip-deep in archives, transcribing a request from his mentor as he enjoyed the morning sun filtering in through the tall windows of the easternmost wing of the Library. He had at least seven different books open around him, and on the wall just a few paces away hung a tapestry depicting the five tenets of the Loresmith order, each one comprising a leg of the five-armed cross that served as their symbol: compassion, integrity, imagination, discipline, and open-mindedness. The young monk had a copy of that very tapestry in his own room; he had spent so many hours in this particular spot over the course of his life that he found he couldn’t work as efficiently in his own quarters unless the two matched up.
Taking a break from his writing, he leaned back in his chair some, and gave a long stretch. It was early in the day yet, but he had barely moved from that spot since several hours before dawn, working on other things. Motion in the courtyard not far from his window caught his eye, and he turned to watch a few young children in Library tunics playing a rambunctious game of tag for a few moments. Laughing to himself quietly, he eventually turned away again, and removed the thin band that kept his long dark hair pulled back from his face, adjusting it to recapture several strands that had rebelled and slipped free before turning back to his work, his pale blue eyes scanning over the pages of a tome on philosophy.
A little over an hour later, the monk looked up at the clock on the wall, and nodded to himself as he closed the books surrounding him, gathering up his personal books and writing supplies and scurrying out of the archives, down one of the many halls of the Library. He passed a group of teenagers, some of the younger apprentices, on the way, who hurriedly gave short dips of the head in acknowledgment of their senior and looked surprised at his hustle. It was true that actual Smiths usually carried a distinguished air about them, and rarely hurried anywhere, but at the same time they had always been a quirky order with a range of colorful personalities. And so he carried right on with a nod of greeting, blissfully unaware of anything besides his task at hand.
Climbing a series of spiral staircases, he eventually came to his destination, a wooden door high in the southeastern tower. Before he could even manage to knock, an elderly voice on the other side spoke up, loud and clear. “Enter!”
He pushed open the door, his arms still full of books and leather folders, and grinned as he saw the wizened old figure on the other side, seated at a heavy desk overflowing with books, scrolls, and knick-knacks of various shapes and constructions. “I wish I could figure out how you do that through a door that thick, Aiken,” he said as he entered the modest room.
“In order to hear, one simply has to listen, Shinn.” The wrinkled old man continued writing on a scroll for another moment or two, before setting his pen down and looking up. Bright blue eyes the color of the open sea regarded the youngster with a hint of amusement. “And one could hear your galloping through granite when you’re excited. I trust you’ve finished my request?”
“I forgot to ask which passage you were referring to from the sixth volume, so I just transcribed all five chapters.” Handing over a long scroll, two books, and a folder, Shinn tried to keep a rein on his eagerness. “I think you’ll find Kagen Vilo’s interpretation of the Silver Elegy most fascinating. I can’t wait to get back and read the remaining chapters.”
“I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that you’ve already managed to get so immersed after just a few hours,” Aiken said with a quiet laugh. “I’ve always said that the Blood runs strongly in you, and I still have little reason to doubt it.”
Blushing a bit, Shinn looked down. “The Blood” referred to the legacy of one Styrion Azure, the Water aspect Dragon-Blooded hero who found the Library and, as a sort of retirement, established the Order centuries before. A handful of his descendants had experienced Exaltation and left for the Realm over the years, but it had been well over a hundred years since the last one, and the prevailing opinion was that the bloodline was far too thin now for anymore to appear. That hadn’t stopped old Aiken from positing that Shinn might be next, though, even though he was well into his twenty-first year now, and the prospect of Exaltation had grown less and less likely. “Aw, c’mon, Master. I think we both know I’m little more than an aspiring scholar, genealogy aside. If I can manage to get even a quarter as knowledgeable as you, it’ll be my life’s greatest achievement.”
“’Even if undiscovered, a spring will continue to flow.’ You might be convinced there’s little greatness in your future, young one, but my visions don’t lie. I know differently. And so does Nagi.”
The mention of the Air Aspect Dragon-Blooded Nagi Mystina brought a little color into Shinn’s expression. She had shown up at the Library several years back, just before his sixteenth birthday. She was tall and slender, looking to be in her twenties and always accompanied by a light, refreshing breeze; he was little more than a clumsy apprentice trying to get through a particularly trying year. And yet, she had claimed to see a spark of something else in him, strong enough that she often brought him up whenever she would visit Aiken to discuss matters of philosophy and abstract thought. “How is she, anyway? To my knowledge, she hasn’t been around for nearly half a year, at this point.”
“Her duties elsewhere are keeping her busy these days,” Aiken responded. “And I am ultimately just an old man curious about goings-on in the outside world. She does still ask after you quite a bit, though.” Giving Shinn a few moments to be embarrassed again, Aiken grinned widely and reached into one of the big drawers in his desk. “In regards to other matters, I’ve finished with the book of paintings by Erda Cromwell I borrowed, so you’re free to peruse.”
As Aiken handed him the large book, Shinn’s eyes lit up in excitement again. “Wow, are you sure?!”
“Yes. I’ve already let Jaina know that I’m lending it to you, so just be sure to give it back to her when you finish.”
Clutching the book to his chest, Shinn bent into a deep bow, before turning to dash out of the room. “Thank you, Master! I’ll take good care of it!”
The quarters of Brother Shinn were cluttered, cramped, and packed to the brim with all manner of bound, printed, and crafted materials. At least, to most anyone who visited him, that was the impression formed. Shinn, though, knew better; to his eyes, his modest room was the picture of order and structure, his entire catalogue of books, scrolls, paintings, songs, etchings, tapestries, and so forth sorted out in an intricate web of organization in his own mind. Indeed, it was rarely if ever the case where Shinn was unable to find something he knew he had in that room. He often perplexed and confounded his friends with just how easily he was able to recall the seemingly random location of any given object, a fact that he took no small enjoyment out of.
Today, though, he had cleared a large space off on his worktable, and sat before it with the book he had borrowed from Aiken. Well, one of many books he had borrowed from Aiken; this was just the most recent. Flipping through the large tome, his eyes took in image after image of the painter Erda Cromwell’s works. He had quite an eye for more aesthetic and purely-recreational art, but today Shinn was enjoying a different sort of fare.
Born during the First Age, Cromwell had taken to rendering not landscapes, or flowers, or individuals; instead, she had seen fit to capture First Age technology instead with her brush, and her books were filled with incredibly detailed, precise images of devices nearly too fantastical to be believed. A giant machine capable of harvesting, cleaning, and preparing an entire field full of different crops in a matter of minutes. Another smaller device that captured starlight and turned it into a clothing material lighter, finer, and tougher than silk. Still another that allowed a person to transport herself hundreds, even thousands, of miles in an instant.
The devices that the Loresmiths had managed to replicate were convenient and highly useful, but they were barely a drop in the bucket compared to what the craftsmen of ancient times were capable of. Thankfully, Erda had possessed both the love of beauty of an artist and the analytical nature of a craftsman herself, and so everything she depicted was always described, diagrammed, and pictured with the utmost clarity and precision. So perhaps, one day, the world might again know at least a little of what it had lost. And the Loresmiths would be among the first to bring those wonders back.
About an hour after cracking the book open, Shinn leaned back to give his eyes a break, settling against the back of his chair with a quiet sigh. He had only joined the ranks of the full-fledged monks barely two years prior, but despite already having significant recognition among the order, and an astounding number of inventions to his name, he felt as if something were lacking. For some reason he couldn’t quite put his finger on, it seemed as if something else was trying to slide into place in his mind, but just couldn’t find the proper niche. He had had the feeling for some time now, and it had always eluded him whenever he had tried to figure it out.
Shaking his head, he banished those thoughts for the thousandth time, and sighed again. “I must be subconsciously listening to Aiken’s ‘Exaltation’ nonsense again,” he muttered to himself. He knew that the kind old monk meant well, and thought very highly of him, but he also knew that true Dragon-Blooded almost always had attained their power by that point in their lives. Aspirations for greatness were all well and good, but at the end of the day, he was just a scholar. Nothing more, nothing less. If he ever attained greatness, it would be through his research, not through being a conquering hero.
Perhaps because of the direction of his thoughts, his eyes swept across his bow and quiver where they sat underneath his window. The day was beginning to draw on, and if he had any intention of practicing outside, it would have to happen soon….
A knock on his door roused him from his thoughts, followed by a familiar voice. “Hey, Shinn, are you in there?”
“I know you’ve been cooped up inside all day. C’mon, I’m hitting the range.”
Slinging his quiver over one shoulder and grabbing his bow, Shinn made his way to the door. On the other side stood his old friend, studying partner, and now fellow monk Rizo. The short-haired, hawk-nosed young man grinned at him, and shook his head. “Yup, I was right. You’ve got that ‘Oh gods, not the sun!’ look today.”
“Go ahead and get all of your trash-talking out of the way now,” Shinn said with a smirk as he closed the door behind him and started walking down the hall. “We’ll see how mouthy you are once I’ve put you to shame on the range.”
The Loresmiths were a peaceful, largely pacifistic order, and had been for some time. Only “largely” because they had no illusions about the safety of the world they lived in; from time-to-time in the past it had been necessary for them to defend themselves against incursions by particularly far-ranging icewalker gangs. Still, they preferred to avoid bloodshed whenever possible, and their isolation allowed most of the order to take oaths of nonviolence in the knowledge that they would probably never have to break them. But archery was a prized skill among the monks; on top of providing a means of survival in the wilderness, it taught patience, control, mental clarity, and precision, all of which were invaluable tools in the satchel of a craftsman. To that end, the Library had an expansive and well-used archery range in one of its grand courtyards, one that was usually chock-full of green trainees and gray elders alike.
Today, though, the crowd was considerably sparser, and so Shinn and Rizo had a section to themselves. As two of the best marksmen among the newer generation of monks, they often had spectators among the trainees when they went head-to-head, but even those were scarce today.
They weren’t alone, though. A girl with fair, curly locks and bright green eyes, also in the attire of a Smith, served as their referee, counting down before each arrow the two friends loosed.
“And…last shot…now!” Two arrows slammed into their respective targets, and the girl waved her arms, signaling for the two to lower their bows. She raised a viewing glass to her eyes, and mentally tallied up the score. “Looks like…this round goes to Shinn as well!”
Holding back the smugness of his grin, Shinn whistled quietly as Rizo rolled his eyes. “Come on, are you kidding me? Count again, Selah. I know he didn’t beat me three times in a row.”
Selah gave a wry smile as she walked over and nudged Rizo’s elbow. “I’ve got the lenses right here, dear. If you doubt my arithmetic, you can always count yourself.”
“Alright, fine, fine. I know when I’m beaten.” Down the lanes, it didn’t even really take up-close viewing to show the score. Except for two that struck the middle ring of his target, Rizo’s arrows were concentrated near the inner circle. But Shinn had peppered the dead center of his own target mightily, scoring six bulls-eyes out of ten shots. “I swear, there’s no excuse for someone who swore an oath of nonviolence to be that good with a bow.”
“Sure there is. What if I get hungry when I’m out in the field?” Shinn reached for another practice arrow and nocked it to his bow. Archery was like any other mental discipline: it could be mastered through steady, methodical determination. Raising his bow once more, he took a breath, and let his arrow fly, dead into the center of the target once again. “I’d prefer to not have to waste the arrows on a third and fourth shot, you know.”
“Uh-huh.” Turning towards Selah, Rizo pecked a kiss to her cheek suddenly, sending her into a round of surprised giggles. “You know the actual problem is that there’s a beautiful girl here. I can’t focus on besting you with her in arm’s reach.”
“Excuses,” Selah purred as she gave him a nip on the shoulder. “But it’s okay, I forgive you for getting beaten. Again.”
Shinn just shook his head and laughed as he drew another arrow, and readied himself. No sense in just letting them sit in his quiver, after all. He let fly, and struck the target just below center; he had started making mental adjustments to his stance when they were joined by another. Taller than each of them, and maybe a couple of years older by appearance, the young woman moved with a willowy grace, as if she were striding on the wind itself, and the scent of a summer breeze blew in as she stopped by the edge of Shinn’s lane, leaning against the railing with a smile. “Here you are. Master Aiken said I might find you here.”
“N-nagi!” Shinn turned beet-red suddenly, and Selah gave a knowing grin as Rizo excused himself, and tugged her along with him. “Um, that is, I mean, ‘Lady Mystina.’ I didn’t expect…um…how have you been?”
“Oh, I’ve been well. And you? Working diligently, I assume?”
“Of course!” Mentally cursing his inability to stay composed and calm around the young Air aspect, Shinn lowered his eyes for a moment, and cleared his throat a little. “Well, you know…Master Aiken keeps me busy with important tasks.”
“He’s spoken quite highly of your recent inventions. Had I longer to stay, I’d ask you to show me.” Her lips curved in a dazzling smile for a moment before she continued. “Alas, I’ve only a short time, and I was just on my way out. I didn’t want to leave before seeing you, though, and congratulating you on your progress.”
“You’re much too kind, Lady Mystina.” Shinn gave a proper bow, and tried not to go even redder as she laughed, a musical sound.
“I’ve told you, just call me ‘Nagi.’ Oh well; perhaps I’ll win you over yet, someday.” Flashing another smile, she gave him one last look, and then swept away in her sinuous manner, leaving him standing there alone.
As soon as she had appeared, she was gone again. That was her way, and it never ceased to leave him a little lightheaded. Realizing he was staring at empty space, Shinn shook his head a bit, and muttered to himself as he drew another arrow, turning back to the range. “Wishful thinking…I’m just another Smith.” His arrow loosed, and slammed into the center of the target. “Just another Smith.”
“So that’s an overview of kinetics, in a nutshell.” Opening the heavy book that sat on the podium in front of him, Shinn flipped through the pages until he found the chapter he was looking for, and raised his eyes back to the occupants of the room. It was one of the mid-size study rooms in the library’s south wing, and perfect for teaching small classes. This was Shinn’s second teaching day of the week, and his current class of fifteen monk trainees had just settled in a quarter hour earlier. “Are there any questions?” Giving the youths a chance to speak up, he finally nodded after a moment of silence. “Alright, then. In that case, I’ll beg-”
Shinn’s voice was interrupted by the high-pitched sound of a warning claxon, and he stopped mid-sentence, looking quickly to the nearby window. It was barely a moment later when he heard a tsunami of full-throated bellows, and then caught sight of icewalker barbarians rushing through the nearby forests towards the dilapidated outer wall of the Library. And this was no desperate raiding party, as they had seen once every few years. Instead, this was a tide of warriors who streamed like a flood towards the grounds; there had to have been two, maybe three thousand of them. Shinn’s heart nearly stopped beating – there were still locals down in the courtyards!
“Class, I need you to stay calm,” he began in as even a voice as he could muster. “Follow the emergency plan, and report to your safe zones.” Closing his book, he followed as his students filed out and split off to head to their clans’ enclaves, then darted off towards his own enclave. Some of the Smiths actually trained to defend the Library in the event of attack, but….the attackers’ numbers were over two-thirds the entire population of the Library. The defenders would be outnumbered more than ten to one.
Heading down the long open-air corridor, and trying to ignore the screams of those unfortunate enough to not get into the inner grounds before the approaching army reached them, a thousand worries shot through Shinn’s mind. Where were Rizo and Selah? Had Aiken come back early from his daily walk in the woods? Where were his mother and father? Did they have even a chance at surviving such a massive assault? As he passed a window, there was the sudden crash of breaking glass, and an intense pain shot through his head. He vaguely caught the sight of a small rock tumbling to the ground nearby, sporting a large bloody spot, before he lost consciousness and tumbled to the stones himself.
When Shinn awoke, he had no idea how much time had passed. The sounds of fighting had died down to practically nothing, though there were still the other sounds of armed barbarians prowling the grounds. But what he noticed the quickest, and most vividly, was the smell of fire. Wincing at the head wound that had knocked him out cold, he struggled to stand, and immediately regretted it. All of the nearby walls were wreathed in flame, the windows had nearly all been shattered, and several tunic-clad figures lay unmoving on the stones.
He rushed over, dropping to his knees and nudging each of them, hoping and praying that one of them would at least show some sign of life, but the first one, a young teenage girl he had taught pottery lessons, had a gaping wound in the center of her chest, while the second, an older man whose name he wasn’t sure of, had had half of his face flensed off. His blood ran cold in his veins, and he looked up desperately, but one look around told him that the others nearby weren’t getting up, whether it was because of a caved-in skull, or the fact that a torso had been separated from its lower half, or other similarly-gruesome sights.
Shakily getting back to his feet, Shinn took off in a mad dash. He had to find Rizo and the others, even if those brutes were still around. On the way, he passed more bodies, and more, some scattered alone here and there, but most in clusters of ten or more. The Library had clearly been overwhelmed so quickly that few had had time to get into their enclaves, but with the scale of the destruction he saw – the courtyards were burning rapidly outside, every corridor he entered was at least partially aflame, and entire workshops had already been reduced to slag heaps – he had the terrible feeling that it wouldn’t matter anyway, and no one would be able to survive who didn’t flee, and flee quickly. He was likely only still alive because he had been in an open walkway; otherwise, smoke inhalation would have almost certainly finished him off.
Despite the bleak situation, he pressed on towards his own “safe” zone, the enclave of Clan Aetheria. But as soon as he reached the archway beyond which lay the enclave, he stopped dead in his tracks. Though they usually hung open and welcoming to any other denizen of the Library, the huge steel doors should have been shut and barred by now. However, they were cracked open, with bodies littering the approach to them.
Right away, he could make out the form of Rizo, off to one side close to the wall. He was slumped in a crumpled heap over Selah, both of them unmoving in a pool of blood. For a long moment, Shinn forgot how to breathe, and when he finally remembered, he let out a strangled scream that sounded nothing like his own voice to his ears. The sound prompted motion from underneath a torn, still-burning tapestry nearby, and when he rushed over to throw it back, he saw the broken, bloody, and burned form of Aiken. The old monk still breathed, but it was ragged and extremely labored, and his eyes were glazed over as they darted around, unblinking.
“Shinn…boy…is that you?”
“Master Aiken!” Shinn dropped to his knees, and gripped his mentor’s hand. “By the gods, you’re still alive! Come on, let’s get you some place safe…maybe…we can….”
“Don’t…be an idiot, Shinn. My legs are…gone, and I…can’t see a damn thing….” Words were clearly agony for the old man, but Shinn wasn’t thinking straight. “The enclave’s gone…they killed everyone before I…got here. The young ones…your parents…everyone….”
“No…please, no….” Shinn shook his head, tears stinging his eyes and running down through the blood and grime on his cheeks.
“You’ve got to…get out of here. The Library’s…finished.”
“No! I won’t leave you behind!”
“You…don’t have a choice.” Aiken grew visibly weaker, the muscles of his hand starting to release their tension. “Your life…your future…is more important than a…ruined old scholar.”
“Go…find Nagi…she’ll know…what to….” Trailing off before he could say any more, Aiken’s eyes grew vacant, and his arm drooped, the last bit of his life slipping through his and Shinn’s fingertips. Shinn sat in shock for a long moment, and finally just lowered his head to his mentor’s lifeless chest, unable to hold back the tears, or to make his legs cooperate and stand.
A few moments later, he heard more movement, and raised his head as the doors to the enclave opened slowly. Four of the icewalkers, wet cloths tied around their mouths and clutching torches and bloody weapons, stepped through the doorway, their eyes cruel and sinister. Shinn couldn’t see too clearly through the haze of his tears and the pain of his head wound, and at first he was resigned to just sit there and let them finish him off, but then a voice spoke in his mind.
What are you doing?! Get up!
Why should I? Everyone’s gone. My clan, Rizo, Selah, Master Aiken…my whole family’s dead.
And if they kill you, too? What about Master Aiken’s last request? Who else is going to carry on the work of the Loresmiths?
For reasons he couldn’t quite put his finger on, that was actually enough to get him moving again. The barbarians seemed to sense his fading will to live, and stalked towards him casually, but he caught them off-guard by scrambling to his feet and bolting, tearing around a corner and fleeing as fast as he could. All around him, the devastation was soul-crushing, but he forced his feet to not stop, even though his lungs were burning and his vision was growing hazier by the moment. Clan Aetheria’s enclave was near the center of the Library, but he knew the route by heart; if only he could avoid drawing more attention….
Unfortunately, it was not to be. His complete memorization of the Library’s corridors and passageways kept his physically-superior pursuers just far enough back, but he was thwarted as he came to one of the last legs of his flight, an open courtyard at the Library’s exterior. It was filled with literally hundreds of the brutes, who were gathering up devices and printed material that had been used in that morning’s daily tasks, and setting fire to them, smashing them with hammers, or otherwise destroying them as thoroughly as possible. He skidded to a halt as he turned the corner, but his pursuers were hot on his tracks, and there was no longer anywhere to run.
“End of the line, whelp.” The icewalker who had been in the lead most of the way, a one-eyed man holding a wicked saw-toothed blade in one hand, took a step toward him. “You gave us a good run for it, but you have to die here.”
Shinn backed up a few paces, his heartbeat louder in his ears than any other sound around him. There was no way he could overpower even one of those barbarians – and though the larger group in the courtyard still seemed not to have noticed him, that would change in a matter of seconds, he was sure. And now that he had stopped running, the crippling ache of his leg muscles powered through his determination, and his lungs suddenly seemed to be on fire. He couldn’t remain on his feet, and dropped to his knees, gasping for breath in between hacking coughs, his hair tangled and matted with blood and soot.
I don’t want to die….
The heat of the burning Library seemed to be right next to his very skin, and despite his blurring eyes, he couldn’t get the image of the immolated towers out of his vision.
I don’t want to die….
Master Aiken’s lifeless stare bored a hole in his heart, and the sound of his hand hitting the ground filled Shinn’s memory with renewed pain.
I don’t want to die….
Rizo and Selah’s grinning, happy faces were suddenly overlaid with the sight of Rizo dead over her, murdered while trying in vain to protect his beloved.
The sounds of commands in a tribal language from behind him said that the other barbarians had noticed.
…don’t want to…
The one-eyed barbarian in front of him raised his sword, and prepared to take Shinn’s head.
The entire world went white for a moment. That moment stretched to hours, and the hours expanded into days. Shinn floated in a pure light, bathed from head to toe in its radiance, and tugged his arms around himself as if pulling a blanket around his body. It was warm, serene, comforting. Where was this place? How long had he been here? It felt as if he had just stumbled upon something unknown, and yet at the same time, the sense of familiarity humming in his mind was overwhelming. Like the feeling of greeting an old friend thought lost many, many years prior. He could see nothing beyond the brightness of that light, but for the time being, it was truly all he needed.
Eventually, his vision perceived something outside of the radiance, an image of a figure standing alone in a white void. The man’s hair was black as midnight, several feet long and left to trail in unruly tendrils, a stark contrast to the trim, pure white clothing that covered his frame. The man opened fierce green eyes, and suddenly a torrent of images flooded Shinn’s mind, all involving that very man. Images of strange, impossibly-built cities, people in ancient attire speaking unfamiliar languages, technological wonders beyond anything he had imagined…and countless battles. There were emotions there, as well, that took the form of images themselves; the rock-solid trust of camaraderie, the euphoric epiphany of invention, the smoldering fire of passionate love affairs.
And then, with growing steam, the bitterness of betrayal, the despair of dashed hopes, the soul-crushing pain of lost love, and the all-consuming rage of battle without honor, limit, or humanity. All of these things swirled together in a tempest, gripping his mind and heart and refusing to let him look away. Friends and lovers lay among countless thousands dead. The sky itself fractured, the stars winking out one by one. And the world blazed in a colossal inferno, the man silhouetted in darkness against the flame, his eyes glowing and a tremendous bow made out of light extending from one hand as he walked with grim, deadly purpose. A word suddenly manifested in his mind, something scrawled on the surface of a great tome: “Orpheus.”
And then, in a flash, the visions were gone, and the light suddenly collapsed around him. The visions replayed themselves in his mind, flying by a thousand at a time; only now, it wasn’t as if he were an outsider watching. He was inside the body of that man. He was doing all of those things. These weren’t images, they were memories. He wasn’t observing, he was larger than life, a being with the power to rival a god, and it was exhilarating and terrible all at once. Shinn blinked once, and he was no longer the other man, he was himself once more. And then a bright blue light appeared in his hand, extending into that same bow….
He was back in the courtyard of the ruined Library. Only a split-second had actually passed, but things were suddenly different. His head no longer throbbed, his lungs no longer burned, and his vision was clear again – lethally so. The one-eyed icewalker, previously so intimidating, was in the process of falling backwards, his good eye impaled by a bright blue bolt of energy in the shape of an arrow. All three of the others in his group had similar shafts of light sticking out of them, either through their throats, their foreheads, or their hearts. Shinn could see all of this, and to him, it was as if they were all falling in slow motion around him. He hadn’t even recalled firing a single shot, but the bow was in his right hand, his left still drawn back as if having just loosed an arrow; there was little doubt that he had killed those men.
Somewhere, a voice in his mind screamed at the thought of having done so, but he couldn’t make it out over the tumult raging in his soul. The power…the unbridled, limitless power! It surged through his veins, crackling and alive, and oozed from every pore in his body until he shone with a radiance entirely of his own making. An icewalker voice behind him bellowed something he couldn’t quite make out, and as he turned he saw a cluster rushing him with weapons drawn, while the others converged in the square immediately dropped what they were doing and prepared to join the fray. It would be over eight-hundred – eight hundred seventy-four, he instinctively realized – against one. Those suddenly seemed like very, very poor odds for his aggressors.
They were still moving in slow motion as he leaped into action. The bow didn’t quite look like a bow, at least not like his practice weapon. It was literally tangible light, emitting its own blue aura. But it certainly responded like a bow, as his hand pulled back an eldritch string, and launched a shot at the closest of the barbarians. And then another, and then yet another, in such a rapid succession that he could barely believe they were his own hands. Arrows began to fly like a lethal rain, killing invader after invader in a single shot each time. But the waves continued crashing around him, even as he dodged, dashed, vanished and reappeared around the courtyard.
Skidding to a temporary stop next to a pile of what the barbarians had been burning, he suddenly noticed a page torn out of one of Erda Cromwell’s works. It was singed on one edge, but hadn’t yet made it into one of the many fires; on its surface was a depiction of one of the weapons of the First Age, a great hulking shoulder-held cannon. Shinn recalled that perfectly; it was a weapon used to spew fire at one’s enemies. It seemed suddenly very appropos. Letting his bow fade to little more than a glow in his right palm, he reached down for the page…and then into the page, grasping at what lay underneath the surface. Looking up, he noticed that some of the icewalkers were starting to flee, likely to call in reinforcements from the Library’s perimeter.
“Escape? I think not.”
Pulling his hand out of the page once again, Shinn hefted an exact copy of the weapon to one shoulder, placing the targeting sensor over his eye. The barbarians that were currently charging him tried to disperse, but it was too late; he pulled the trigger, and launched a gigantic fireball into their midst. The explosion left little more than pieces of organic material sailing through the air, and he resumed his assault, unloading blast after blast into the ranks of the icewalkers. Those that had been regrouping never made it past the courtyard, but the legion of over a thousand maintaining a perimeter around the Library was nevertheless called by the ruckus.
It seemed to make little difference, even when Shinn’s cannon refused to fire any more. He just stopped for another book, flipped to a page of another weapon – this time, a strange coil that wrapped around his entire forearm, and expelled lightning bolts that lanced like the spears of angry sky spirits – and continued his extermination.
What seemed like mere moments later, the courtyards lay strewn with the remains of the dead icewalkers. He had killed them to a one, going through six different ancient weapons, but he still wasn’t finished. There was still the inner grounds of the Library to cleanse, after all; the rats likely had crawled into every nook and cranny, and he wouldn’t stop until every single one of them was neutralized. Drawing his new energy bow again, he took off at inhuman speed, a white wolf preparing to descend upon its prey.
His route carried him down every corridor, through every courtyard, into every laboratory and colonnade. Everywhere he found icewalkers, he struck like a viper, quickly, lethally, and completely without remorse. The fires were still burning, but it didn’t slow him in the slightest. He actually managed to find a few Library survivors here and there, holed up in little hiding spots or with barbarians bearing down on them, but he didn’t pause. With a glance to make sure they were safe for the time being, or a few effortless shots to take the lives of their attackers, he would move on every time, not even noticing the horrified looks they gave him. He could all but smell the invaders by now; he instinctively was able to locate them, and used his new senses to mow them down in the quickest, most efficient manner possible.
Finally, all awareness of the icewalkers vanished from his mind. The sense was still there, he could tell that much; he had just eliminated them all. Well, not all of them. Phasing back into one of the courtyards, where he had crippled a cluster of them and bound them all with chains of light, he walked up to one that lay on his stomach, kicked him over onto his back, and placed a boot against his chest, forming one of his energy arrows and pointing it at the man’s face.
“One chance. Who sent you?”
The man snarled something vicious and vulgar, and Shinn loosed that arrow, splattering his brain all over the ground. Moving on to the next, he repeated the process.
“Who sent you?”
This warrior kept his mouth shut, but the defiance in his eyes was tangible. So Shinn put three arrows in him in vital blood vessels, and left him there to bleed slowly and agonizingly to death.
“Who sent you?”
“I’ll tell you,” spoke the next man, “but only so that you’ll know who will bring your eventual doom.”
“Spit it out.”
“The Bull.” The man grinned maliciously, his face a mask of fear and horror at Shinn’s appearance, but also of mad glee and devotion towards the warlord known as the Bull of the North. “He said to eliminate possible threats to his power. Looks like we picked the right place.”
“You should know that your ‘Bull’ won’t outlive you by much.”
The warrior laughed, a sound that would previously have been unnerving. “We’ll see, demon. Go on, make it quick.”
Shinn obliged him, and then finished off the rest with a volley. A couple of moments afterward, he heard motion from one side of the courtyard, and pivoted, instinctively forming another arrow but holding off on its release. What he saw wasn’t a straggler icewalker, but someone in the tunic of the Smiths, blood-splattered and torn though it was. His hands raised, the man lowered them slowly when it appeared Shinn wasn’t going to fire, though he still eyed the young man cautiously. “Shinn…? Are you…alright?”
“Vezu.” Shinn recognized the monk right away – he was a senior lecturer in mathematics from Clan Crescens. “I’m glad to see you’re alive.”
“And you.” Others were visible now in the direction Vezu had come from. It appeared that they had all hidden in a little alcove on the edge of the courtyard, probably once they had seen the area cleared of all but immobile invaders. But it seemed only six or seven had accompanied Vezu, which still made them the largest group of survivors Shinn had run across thus far. “Are we…safe?”
“Yes. The filth has been completely removed.” Letting his bow fade, Shinn suddenly felt very tired. And heavy. “You should go find…the others…still some…around.” It seemed as if the light that had enveloped him was fading, too.
“Shinn…what happened…no. That’s not important right now.” Turning to wave the others over, Vezu gave Shinn a stern look. “You should get some rest. You look worn out.”
Putting his hand to his face, Shinn sighed, and turned to walk away. “You’re right…I’ll…I’ll get out of the way.”
There was unfortunately no saving the Library. Though the attack had been swift, the invaders had known exactly what to hit first; any of the supplies the Smiths had kept for dealing with fires had been ruined quickly. So all that was left to do was gather the few survivors, which numbered less than twenty out of the more than four thousand inhabitants, and head outside the grounds to wait for the fire to burn itself out. A couple of hours after the attack, the upper floors collapsed entirely, and the final death throes of the Loresmiths’ home began.
Vezu had gathered the others in the safest, most hidden area in the surrounding woods that he could find, but Shinn had found his own spot far away from them. Someone had to keep watch in case the icewalkers had allies waiting nearby, but he already knew that anyone who had been around had fled long ago. In fact, his heightened senses had told him that there had been no survivors in the enemy force. And he couldn’t decide if the fact that he had slain them all was better or worse.
There was another reason why he distanced himself from the group. It had to do, quite plainly, with the fact that he knew exactly what had happened, and what he had become. Once he had had a few minutes to himself, and recovered most of his composure, he finally recalled what that icewalker had called him after he had killed the first four: “Anathema.” Shinn had known it himself in his heart the moment he had awoken from that strange series of visions, but he hadn’t really wanted to admit it. It was true, though; he was an accomplished scholar despite his age, and he had read quite extensively on the demons known as Anathema from the ancient times. There was really no other reasonable way to explain what had just happened.
He still felt that power, though it was a little different than before – not quite as raging or intense. It was still there, though, inside of his spirit. He preferred not to think about the ramifications of that, but the fact remained that it had only been because of that power that he and the few survivors had made it out alive. He vividly remembered the rage that had consumed him, and though the thought of it scared him now, there was no remorse in his heart. He had been chosen to save them, and save them he had done.
The fire burned on into the night, through the morning, and well into the next day. Shinn would occasionally leave his spot to check on the others, but beyond that he stayed where he sat. The day passed mostly in a blur, as he tried to keep his thoughts from wandering to those who had been lost, and finally, as the next night rolled in, the last embers died down. The once-mighty Library was now little more than a burned-out corpse, littered with the bodies of thousands, many of whom had been so badly scorched that they were literally unrecognizable as friend or foe.
Of the twenty who had survived, over half were children, so that left only a handful of adults capable of locating and retrieving the bodies of all those who had been trapped. Shinn was tasked with assessing how much of the library’s archives could actually be salvaged, but even from the start the outlook was bleak. Every one of the repositories had been set aflame individually, and the most he could find at first was a few crumpled bits of parchment here, or a fraction of a once-exquisite tapestry there. As the night wore on, he was able to find a few shelves here and there that had survived the damage, but it was so very little compared with the wealth of knowledge they had previously watched over.
So while the others were primarily concerned with identifying and burying the dead, Shinn agreed to continue with the salvage efforts, as fruitless as they seemed to be. Over the next four days, he gathered what few intact materials he could find on the edge of the large eastern courtyard. It was a paltry, ragtag collection; a few dozen books, some small statuary, a painting here or there, and an assortment of contraptions and devices created or reproduced by his peers. All told, it wound up being around a hundred or so pieces. That was all that remained of the Loresmiths’ wonders.
His tasks served another key purpose: they kept him occupied and separated from the others, save for the occasional passing encounter. He pretended to be too absorbed in handling the sometimes-delicate specimens he was retrieving, but he saw the looks that the other survivors tended to give him. He had seen them all, or quite nearly all of them, while enacting his one-man extermination of the icewalker invaders. And they had seen what he had become in that nightmare, changed from a peaceful, quiet individual into an engine of exquisite, total carnage. They saw the fact that, even though they bore cuts, bruises, broken limbs, and other maladies, he looked as fresh as if he had just stepped out of the baths just a few hours after the attack. They all knew what he was inside now, and he didn’t want to think on what that would mean going forward. So staying busy was the perfect course of action.
“I think it’s time,” Vezu said while wiping his brow, having just leaned up from the skis of a sled they had managed to repair. It had been a week since the attack; naturally, more time would have been preferable, but there was no telling when another force might show up to find out what had happened to the last one. The Bull would probably have quite a bit of interest in locating such a sizable force. Besides that, burying each of the dead individually would have taken months, even with ten times their current number. Vezu was very much of the belief that the responsibility of the remaining Smiths was to care for the survivors, and Shinn couldn’t fault the man for it. “We’ve got enough transportation for ourselves and what little we’ll be bringing with us.”
“I agree.” Shinn nodded, tightening a screw in the sled’s side a bit more. “Top priority is getting the young ones to a safe place. There’s not much more that you can do, here.” He could tell that Vezu gave noticeable pause at the wording of that last sentence, but Shinn kept on working away. After all, he hadn’t really considered himself part of the “us” that Vezu had mentioned.
“…What will you do now?”
“I don’t rightly know. I hope to spend some more time trying to give a proper burial to our fallen family, but I know how that will end.”
“It’s safe to say that the Bull will send someone to investigate this, whether it’s a scouting party or another attack force. Will you fight again if it comes to that?” Immediately after the words left his mouth, Vezu shook his head. “I’m sorry, that’s none of my business. Rather, let me say this: the Library is gone, Shinn. We can’t take much of it with us, because if it gets out that we’re carrying on our work, we’ll become targets, as will the people we help. Whatever we accomplished, it was good, but we have to let it go for a while now.”
“Are you telling me to move on?”
“I’m telling you to find something, hopefully far away from here, to care about.” Looking over at the rest of the group, who were fixing a meal in one of the portable stoves they had salvaged, he gave a quiet sigh. “We’re going to be leaving this part of North country, probably for the Threshold. We might be able to find protection there, or at least to evade the notice or concern of the Bull’s forces. I’d like for us to continue our work, of course, but it will be some time before we can return to being preservers and explorers like we once were. I would ask you to come with us, but-”
“You will do no such thing,” Shinn interrupted, “for the very reasons we’re both aware of. Whatever my path winds up being, it has to remain separate from the rest of you.”
The other man looked at him sympathetically for a moment, but he wiped the expression from his face shortly after, and just nodded. Vezu was a wise man; he understood that any further discussion in that regard would only be more heartbreaking for his younger associate. “Alright then. Shinn, take care of yourself. I hope we’ll meet again someday.”
Later that day, as the sleds loaded down with the last of the Loresmiths bore them across the white plains towards the White Sea, Shinn watched them from the same spot where he had kept watch immediately following the attack. He watched them until they vanished beyond the trees, and then turned to walk back onto the grounds of the Library. The vast majority was still inaccessible after the collapse, but he was still able to pick his way along, gradually coming to the spot where he had found Selah, Rizo, and Aiken. They weren’t there any longer – he had buried them personally – but he found himself staring at the ground for what seemed like hours. He could see them in his mind still. Finally, though, he moved on, and just began wandering.
His steps carried him past the enclaves of clan after clan, the supposed safe havens that had become bloodbaths. He wasn’t sure, but he thought he could feel something calling out to him, beckoning. And that new part of his heart was responding, guiding him like a compass as he navigated the ruins. When his feet finally came to a stop, he stood in front of a familiar location: one of the stones of the Library’s central foundation. Towering taller than a man, it was one of several that had always been a particular favorite in his architecture classes, for the stone was completely symmetrical, flawless save for the section where support structures had been attached, and rounded on the corners.
Further, it looked as if no tools or hands had ever worked the stone – if more perfect building material had ever existed for such a large structure, he would have been hard-pressed to identify it. Here, of all places, the voice inside of him grew silent, and he stopped to examine it. Flawless stone, despite the fire that had just raged and scorched everything else…perfectly shaped without visible effort. They had always known that these stones operated on magitech principles, but suddenly, there was something else to it.
And then he noticed a familiar symbol start to glow about halfway up its surface. It was in the shape of…a circle, the top half light and the bottom dark. Almost like a sun that had set halfway below the horizon. Before he realized what he was doing, he had reached out towards the symbol with one hand, and just as he was about to make contact with it, the mysterious sign vanished. A line formed in the stone, stretching down the middle from top to bottom, and a moment later the two halves parted, opening into a passage lit by a dim radiance.
Shinn froze in his tracks for a few seconds; there was no passage behind the stone itself, as it wasn’t more than three feet thick. Which meant that this had to lead to some sort of pocket dimension. When he realized just how much he was hesitating, he drew in a deep breath, and frowned. “No sense in getting cold feet now…may as well figure out where this leads.”
Stepping through the portal, he found himself in a short hallway that traveled down at a slight angle, leveling out again after ten or so paces. When he reached the bottom, he stopped again, not out of hesitation this time, but awe. Stretching out before him in over two-dozen shelves was a collection of books and materials he had never seen before, in a room lit by glowing sconces. He had read quite nearly every book in the Library’s vast collection, even the archives he had only recently gained access to as a full-fledged Loresmith, but these were entirely unfamiliar. The room was the size of a small house, and in the center sat a pedestal, upon which a great thick tome rested. It was open, and as he walked over, he could see words appearing on the page, though no hand or pen wrote them.
“…and then, the one I had been waiting for stepped through the door…”
As he came to the pedestal, he could hear a woman’s voice speaking directly into his mind, and saw that the pages of the book in front of him were covered in writing that detailed what he had been doing for the past hour: saying goodbye to the last of his friends, wandering the grounds, and finally, discovering the hidden archive. He then noticed that the writing left off for a bit, before the book turned to a new page on its own, and began anew, the voice returning.
“…Hello…Shi…nn. Forgive my slowness with your name, I…only recently became aware of it. But then, I’m not truly here, this is only a shallow copy, a half-intelligent message for you. My name is Yukiri Tavon, and I am…well, was…just like you. A Twilight Solar.”
“Twilight Solar” struck a chord in his mind, and he saw once again the image of the white-clothed man, only this time the symbol he had seen on the door shone brightly over the man’s entire chest.
“I wish I could say that I hope your Exaltation was a pleasant experience, but I know better. My visions spoke of great pain and anguish for you in the moments leading up to your ascension, and even now, somehow, I can feel it, though I’ve been dead for centuries.”
The writing left off again, dropping a few inches down the page before resuming. “There is so much I wish to explain, but I’m afraid that I lack the time and the power. The collection you see before you is all I was able to salvage of the more ‘dangerous’ materials I kept here, before they ransacked my great library. They will tell you a little of the truth about what happened to us, and how it all came to this. Also, please, take this book, the most treasured of my possessions. You have a long, difficult path before you, but know that you possess everything you need to make it to the end. I must go now, but…I wish you the best. Never forget who you are, and what it is you really value.”
As the writing left off, the voice grew quiet, and a moment later he could tell that she was truly gone. Turning back through the book, Shinn found that the previous pages were devoid of the writing that had been there. Instead, he found drawings, detailed schematics of the weapons he had manifested during his battle. Each of them were there, but there was something different about them: rather than being the work of some ancient historian, they each looked as if he had drawn them by his own hand.
Flipping through those pages, he found an entry showing a short, squat humanoid figure, no more than three feet tall, that looked to be made entirely of gears and metallic bits. Another entry some ways through the book – it was hard to judge actual page count, as even at a cursory glance he got the impression that the tome either shifted things around based on the reader’s thoughts, or it was simply a physical manifestation of some magical storage device – he found a description of how to fold space. All of it seemed so foreign and bizarre, and yet…he understood it. Looking up from the book’s pages once more, he let his eyes scan around the collection, and realized he had made up his mind. He would accept Yukiri’s offer.
When he emerged from the stone once again, the central tome tucked under his arm, it was once again morning. Turning back towards the closing portal, he waited for it to seal itself, and then concentrated on the stone. “Alright…do it just like we read….” Reaching out a hand, he felt space warp around the giant stone, and as he watched, it compressed and folded in upon itself until it vanished into a ripple, leaving behind only a single piece of paper. Bending down to pick it up, he opened his tome, and placed the page within; it seamlessly merged with the existing pages, just as expected. Nodding once to himself, he closed the book, and repeated the action, though the book simply vanished into a similar ripple without leaving anything behind. But he could still feel it, tucked away into a corner of his mind.
Over the next couple of hours, Shinn made another circuit of the Library’s ruins, fetching as many salvageable research materials as he could. With his newfound storage center, he could transport a hoard of knowledge, and he got the feeling that he could expand it exponentially. Taking books and other materials that were mostly destroyed, he managed to nearly double the collection he had been given by Yukiri, before he was willing to admit that he couldn’t find any more.
While he was busy wrapping up, he caught the sight of motion nearby, and whirled to face the newcomer. Long, flaxen hair that became almost wispy at its tips. A slender form with a fluid, superhuman grace in her gait. None other than Nagi Mystina approached the courtyard, her face set in a mask of worry. But even then, she was beautiful beyond description.
“Shinn…by the Dragons, are you alright?”
Letting out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding, he just nodded. “Yes, I am. It’s good to see you, Nagi.”
“If I weren’t so stunned, I’d be shocked you so readily used my name without correcting yourself.” She walked closer to him, and smiled a bit. “When I heard that the neighboring islands had seen a gigantic fire, I came over right away. But I see that it’s really all gone.” Her smile faded, and she sighed wistfully as she took in the sight of the ruins, before looking back to him. “What happened? And where are the others?”
“They…they’re gone.” Suddenly, the thought of telling her what had happened crashed down on him like a mountain. It had been difficult enough to see the looks from Vezu and the others. How would she react? “Icewalkers working for the Bull of the North did this.”
Her eyes suddenly flaring, Nagi’s look grew intense, though it shifted slightly as she spoke up again. “Icewalkers?! They never come this far with such a force. Are you sure?”
“I am. I saw them with my own two eyes as they murdered everyone.”
The look in her eyes grew more and more curious, and she took a few steps closer to him. “Shinn…that’s terrible. How did you survive?”
“I…” There was no real need to hesitate; he could trust Nagi, as Aiken had always trusted her. The Bull was an enemy of the Realm, was he not? Surely she would be happy to know that he had dispatched them, and he certainly needed a friend right about now. “I killed them.”
“Yes. To a one.”
At first, he could tell she didn’t believe him; she must have thought him addle-pated after such a traumatic event, or simply hallucinating. But then the memories of what he had done came flooding back in a torrent. It was all so fast and violent that he wasn’t prepared, and he cried out as he started glowing again, and could feel his forehead growing warm.
Nagi’s eyes went wide, and she took a few steps back, bone-chilling horror plastered on her face. She got one look at the glowing blue aura, and the Twilight seal that appeared on his forehead, and shook her head several times in disbelief. “No…no…no! Not you!”
“Nagi…please…” Shinn tried to talk through the maelstrom that raged in his head, forcing the memories to halt abruptly. “I’m…I’m telling the truth…please don’t run away.”
“Stop it!” Nagi turned away from him, refusing to look his way. “This is…this is some sort of cruel joke!”
“Nagi….” Before he could utter another word, there was a bright flash, the push of a fierce wind, and a flurry of motion. When his vision cleared again, he saw something he had hoped to never witness in his life: Nagi stood with one hand pointed towards him, a blade constructed from compressed wind extending from her fingertips and stopping just a couple inches from his throat. The look in her eyes had gone from horror and disbelief to…hatred.
“Who do you think you are, using my name like that, demon?” The blade moved closer to Shinn, but he was frozen in his tracks. “I may believe that icewalkers killed my friends here, but you’re Anathema. It’s just as likely that you murdered them all, though it really doesn’t matter one way or another. You have to die.”
Shinn suddenly felt very cold and numb inside. “No, please, I…I’m not….”
The blade moved another inch, until it was just a hair’s breadth from slicing his windpipe open, and he could feel static electricity building up around Nagi’s form. “Silence, monster! You may look like Shinn, but you’re not him! My pretty scholar…he was going to become one of us! He should have, Aiken’s visions said as such! But now, you’ve swallowed him whole. I….” Something clicked in her gaze, and she suddenly grew angrier, visible electricity starting to crackle around her. “Yes…that’s why he still hadn’t Exalted…it’s because you were lying in wait, keeping him from transcending.”
Her look suddenly became still more dangerous, and Shinn decided that he couldn’t give her any more of an opening to do something drastic. Calling on his new speed, he dashed backwards in an instant, and kept his eyes focused on hers as she slowly, steadily lowered her blade. He wanted to say something to make her stand down, anything…but what? He couldn’t deny what he had become. And so he just stood there, fumbling for words, while Nagi started towards him with a steady, casually lethal air.
“You robbed me of my gentle monk, monster, and of the happy life we would have had.” She extended her other arm, and an identical razor wind appeared in that hand as well. “But it’s okay. The only way to save my Shinn is to destroy you utterly. Perhaps then his soul will be at peace.”
Time itself seemed to halt around Shinn. His heart raced frantically, and he felt panic cast its web over him. As he watched Nagi approach, her face that of a stoic executioner and her eyes pools of death, there was little doubt in his mind that this time, she would kill him. Nagi Mystina, the enchanting, brilliant Air aspect he had been sure he was falling in love with.
Now you face a choice, spoke the same voice that had urged him to stand after Aiken’s death. Do you give up here? Do you give in to your feelings and let her finish you?
Two more steps, and the electricity that had been crackling around Nagi before started to surge even more, accompanied now by a powerful wind that was whipping up around her, sending her pale hair flowing up behind her.
Or do you fight, even now? Do you keep going on the path you started when you killed that first barbarian and saved what was left of your order?
His heart heavy to the point of breaking, Shinn nevertheless drew in a long breath, and exhaled. Then, in another instant, he called out his bow, and brought his left hand to the light, drawing back a radiant arrow and pointing it straight at her. “I’m sorry, Nagi. I don’t want to fight you…I never would have wanted to…but I also won’t let you kill me. I didn’t live through that hell for nothing; I have things I still must do.”
She paused for a moment, her eyes growing indignant once more, before that too faded, and her stoic manner returned. “Clearly, you truly are just wearing my Shinn like a mask. He never would have pointed a weapon at me.”
“Yes, I suppose your Shinn really is gone forever.”
The feeling of lagging time passed again, and in a heartbeat Nagi was practically in his face, slicing at him with both of those blades. He managed to evade without too much difficulty, loosing a shot, which she deflected, and then dashing to put some distance between them. He might have attained phenomenal powers, but he was still a dedicated archer with absolutely no close-combat ability. If she successfully turned this into a melee, he was done for. She made several more passes like that, using the air currents around her to heighten her reflexes and give herself impossible turning radii on those charges, but every time he managed to duck or roll away, peppering her with suppression fire to buy some time.
After a few minutes of this, she halted her forward motion, her bangles and bracelets jingling slightly, and studied him for a moment. “Very well, then. A ranged battle is what you wish for, demon?” Allowing her blades to dissipate, she took a different combat stance, pulling one fist back steadily. She then punched forward, and a shockwave five times the size of her fist flew through the air towards him.
Shinn leaped to the side, but another blast met him there, too; cartwheeling with his left hand, he broke into a run, intercepting the next few shockwaves with energy arrows and trying to find an opening to strike back. She didn’t make it easy for him, using the air itself to strike at him with her fists and feet every few moments, barely having to do more than pivot despite the fact that he was rushing around constantly.
He stumbled briefly after reappearing on a patch of rubble, and she leaped on the opportunity, throwing both fists forward in an attack twice as large as any she had launched yet. It caught him off-guard, the force of the blow hurling him dozens of feet through the air and slamming him into a pile of burned-out wood across the courtyard. He was stunned for a couple of moments, and when he crawled out of the timber, he saw Nagi once again marching towards him.
“You should just give up now, Anathema. I can tell your powers aren’t stable yet; you’d be better off letting me finish you now. The Wyld Hunt won’t be so merciful.”
Shinn got to his feet, dusting himself off and taking stock of the situation. Sure, that last blow had hurt pretty good, but he was still feeling fine. Far more than he would have expected to, really; he wouldn’t even have been surprised if there wasn’t a bruise on his ribcage, later. There wasn’t time for much more analysis, though, and he sprung back into action a moment later, as a flurry of air shells launched his way.
She was fast, much faster than a human could ever have been, but…he was getting her timing down. If he concentrated, he could follow every motion she made, every point of every stance, even the tensing of her muscles. She spun after throwing a wave at him, and her hair launched a fusillade of needles as it whipped around with her momentum; he actually managed to ping an arrow off of several of them individually before vanishing and appearing above her, bow drawn and ready to fire.
Pivoting again, Nagi spun into a wide roundhouse kick, slashing the air in another wave up at him. “You fell right for it, fool. Enjoy your-”
Before she could finish, Shinn braced himself on a platform of solid light that he had suddenly conjured in the air, and sprung away just as the shockwave slammed into the disc. Nagi’s eyes widened in shock at the impossible dodge that had put him to nearly within arm’s reach, but he didn’t give her any time to recover. His bow flashed three times in a split-second, and all three arrows slammed home into her stomach, knocking her clear off of her feet and sending her skidding into the ground some distance away.
Shinn made his way over after catching his breath, and looked down at her on the ground. Those arrows had formed with blunted tips, so while they might have seriously knocked the wind out of her, they hadn’t punctured her skin or caused any lasting harm. But they had fused into a band of light that had her well and truly pinned against the ground. By the look of scorn and fury on her face, she knew how well she was stuck.
“Showing mercy, demon? I wouldn’t have thought your kind capable of such. Unless you’re….” She cut off the rest of that thought, her eyes burning indignantly.
“No, I don’t plan on taking advantage of you.” She hadn’t spoken the words, but Shinn had heard them as if plucked from her mind – he wasn’t entirely sure that he hadn’t done just that. “But I do plan on keeping you held there for a while.”
“For what? To trade me off to others of your vile kind?”
Sighing, Shinn shook his head, and looked down at the ground, away from her eyes. “Nagi, just…never mind. I guess this is how it has to be between us, now. I imagine you’ll be turning me into the Wyld Hunt, but…I just can’t kill you. Not you.” Though she didn’t respond, he could practically feel the loathing emanating from her. “I’m sorry. For everything. I…I think I wanted that life, too.” Turning to look at her once more, and getting only a hateful glare in return, he walked away without another word, and vanished a few moments later. He had little-to-no idea where he was going, but all he knew was that he could no longer stay. Aiken had been right; the Library was finished, and so was Shinn.
As he fled as fast as his legs could carry him, Shinn thought again to the visions he had seen of his former life. At least, if what he knew of Anath…of Solars…was true, it was his former life that he had seen. Visions of the stark-looking man with impossibly-intense eyes, wreathed in fire. Shinn was dead as well and truly as if he had been murdered along with the others. But he had a new name, now.
From now on, there is no more Shinn, he thought. Only Blazer Orpheus.
An hour later, the cuff holding Nagi against the grass vanished, and she got to her feet. Her first instinct was to spring up and bolt after the monster wearing Shinn’s flesh, but she knew that would be a waste of time. If he was even half as smart as Shinn had once been, he was already long gone, and she wasn’t exactly well-trained in tracking. Her poor scholar…she had had such high hopes for him, as had Master Aiken. With a few more years of training, he would have made a great Air aspect, and eventually they would have bred brilliant children.
Of course, all of that was dashed to hell, now. She’d had some time to think about it, and she was certain her previous intuition had been correct. Aiken’s visions were vague and unpredictable, but they were never wrong. Never. And she had felt a light of greatness inside of the young monk, there was no mistaking it. It just had to be that the Anathema had blocked his proper Exaltation – there was no other good explanation for why he had failed to ascend. The only question was…how long had he been corrupted? Was that why he had grown increasingly distant and hesitant in her presence? Had the demon started whispering to him even while still a teenager?
Summoning up a small cyclone to gently carry away any dirt from her light garb, and causing her bracelets to ring out again, she looked back at the ruins of the Library, and shook her head. Such a waste, all of it. The perpetrators might have been dealt with, but there was still one final loose end to tie up. “The Wyld Hunt? Oh no, monster. They would be far too lenient, too…impersonal. I plan on taking my time with you – you have to die by my hands, and mine alone.” With one last glance at the razed majesty of the Library, she turned and strode away.