Chapter 2: Forging the Sword
Vertiga Scylla watched her father work as she had many times before. She was standing on tiptoe outside his workroom, a tiny adobe-brick dome far from their house, the heat from the forges within causing her silver-white hair to mat to her sweat-streaked forehead.
Silhouetted in the red-orange darkness and smoke of the room, Carib Scylla hammered the glowing piece of metal a few more times, striking sparks with each crash of the hammer. He paused for a moment, regarding his work.
While Sirroc had many blacksmiths, experienced in taking scavenged metal found buried in the vast deserts that made up the Sphere, only artisans like himself had the skill to work the ore gleaned from within the few rocky promontories of Sirroc.
Initially, to the humans who colonized the deserts, Andric metal was simply another kind of ore--like the steel and alloys they had found in the dust-blown wreckage sinking into the oceans of sand. But Andric metal was unique in two respects.
First, it was found within the mountains and rock formations of Sirroc; it was native to the Sphere.
The second, and more fascinating property was that it conducted magic like copper conducted electricity. Shaped into a weapon, it would have been formidable enough--Andric metal was nigh unbreakable once it was tempered. But more could be done to perfect the weapon.
This was Carib Scylla's great skill.
Carib heated another, smaller, piece of metal to near a white-hot glow, slowly drawing the small stylus-like piece over the larger metal. They began as lines, then shapes.
To the uninitiated it would have seemed mere decoration, but to Carib, Vertiga, and the many that had purchased weapons from him or had them given as gifts, this was the most important part of the process.
Upon discovering that Andric metal could conduct magic, it was soon discovered that with the proper runic incantation, a spirit could be trapped within the metal, giving an already sturdy weapon an extra edge.
Vertiga had seen her father create blades that could steal the life of the being cut and grant it to the wielder of the blade. Blades that created great storms, or shook the earth with a single slash. Always a new spirit, never the same power twice.
And humans needed every edge on Sirroc. The desert Sphere was a forsaken place, apparently the site of a long-ago war back when there were nine Spheres. A terrible war with great machines that one could find in the deserts if one foolishly journeyed far enough out. A war that the Sphere itself had never fully recovered from.
No one willingly came to Sirroc to live, Vertiga thought. Our elder talesman told me once that humans had been driven here after the great war because the other races saw us as useless--not worth the trouble to enslave, unwilling to shoulder the responsibility of ruling us.
So we came here. Now it's just us, the nomads, and the Fallen, fighting over a near-infinite desert.
Vertiga brushed her hair from her eyes, squinting to see her father chanting over the blade. There was a flash of fire--different from the smoldering forge. Purple fire flashed in the darkness, forming a winged shape with the body of a lion.
Carib seemed to be struggling to draw the final rune that would seal the spirit within. Vertiga willed herself not to blink and not to say or do anything to distract her father. Unlike his fellow ferro-mancers, Carib had never been killed by a wild spirit, but there was always a first time.
He drew a broken circle, and a line from the center to the edge. The spirit thrashed wildly, purple-flamed wings slashing at Carib, their fire never burning him.
Then, in a flash, it was all over. Vertiga blinked, her eyes tearing from the smoke. Carib smiled and opened some of the shutters to let out the excess heat.
He smiled, his leathery lined face pulled taut. "You can come in now, Vertiga," he said in his familiar, gravelly voice. "I've bound him."
Vertiga walked to the doorway. "How did you know I was here?"
Carib smiled. "Vertiga, I've been a ferro-mancer for years now. As many times as you've watched me working, you could be one yourself, I think."
"I'd like to," she said, walking into the room, her hair billowing behind her from the hot air within. She looked over her shoulder, seeing the rack of finished blades, honed and shining even in the red darkness of the forge. "Are these--?"
"Yes, for your uncle in Khali'sum," Carib said, walking over to her. He pointed to a small, curved blade, polished to such a degree that Vertiga wondered how one could use it without blinding yourself in the sun. "He asked me for five blades to ward off an attack of nomads."
Vertiga looked at it, then looked at the blade on the anvil. "And that one?"
Carib looked at it. "Well, that one I may keep here," he said. "The spirit's wild, and even your uncle's people wouldn't have the will to control it. In the wrong hands it would be a very dangerous weapon, especially to the one holding it."
Vertiga nodded, still looking at the large blade. "Will I have a sword someday?"
And odd shadow went over Carib's face, and he put a callused, scarred, hand on her shoulder. "Vertiga, I hope you never need one."
* * *
Kirone sat in her private chamber, reading by the light of the red moon outside. The anger over her father's order had receded a bit with time, and in its place had come temptation.
I can make it work, she willed herself.
And that had brought her here, alone, with one of the books her father had stolen during the last war.
Father had only seen it as a trophy, Kirone thought derisively, flipping to the next page. But once I figured out how to unlock the book, I saw it for what it was and kept it for myself.
This isnít just a book. It's a record of the past and a blueprint for the future.
She'd guarded the book jealously, manipulating her father to give it to her as a gift for her birthday. Then every night she'd read and re-read its pages, slowly but surely learning the ancient language it was written in.
The cumulative effect of what she'd learned had washed over her like the rivers of blood outside her window, and had opened her eyes to possibilities that her father, young when the last war had been fought, had long ago closed himself off to.
The Spheres were an ancient structure. At first there has been one, then a battle between magic and science had split them somehow into nine. The final reckoning between magic and science destroyed two more, and so there were seven, she read intently. Sirroc seems to have been the site of the last battle between the forces leading the fight.
She closed the book, resting it on her lap. The curious thing she found was that the book didnít mention any of the races she knew of. No Dragons, no Angels, no Vampires. Only two races the book calls the Fennec and the Dosvan. Races she'd never heard of.
Had they annihilated each other, leaving only traces of their past while the races of the Spheres had evolved? Kirone pondered. It seems strange that an interconnected system like the Spheres would simply lay fallow and then luckily create multiple races, each suited for their respective Sphere.
No, there was too much coincidence involved.
Kirone crossed her legs and held the book against her chest, resting her chin on it.
Seven Spheres, she thought. Each of them different. Nycheladra, sphere of limitless sky, is the home of the Angels. Oceanica, world of seas, is home to innumerable water-breathers. Ladon, land of fire and mountains, belongs to the Dragons. Deiayara, land of green, belongs to no one totally, just like Sirroc, a desert wasteland, and of course, our home here in Taruga.
She blinked. That leaves one Sphere unaccounted for. The book doesn't say anything about it, and neither has any map I've ever seen. But somehow we know that there are seven Spheres.
How can this be?
She sighed and set the book on the arm of her throne. Before she could ponder that question further, there was a knock at her chamber.
"Enter," she said wearily.
The heavy black door swung open slowly and a red-clad guard strode in. He snapped to attention, then bowed to her. "Lady Kirone," he said. "I am Vantiga, Captain of the Red Guard."
"Rise, Vantiga," Kirone said. "I assume you are the leader of the squad my father sends with me to conquer Sirroc?"
Vantiga nodded. "I have prepared my squad with armor that will allow us to function under the sun with peak efficiency, my lady. Though I must question your father's order. Even on Sirroc, only ten members of the Guard intending to conquer a world?"
"It's not our place to question, Vantiga," Kirone said. "I have already taken into account our apparent limitations of force and planned appropriately."
"Of course, Lady Kirone," Vantiga said. "Forgive me for doubting."
"You are forgiven," Kirone said, rising from her throne. She gestured to it with a wave of her hand and cleared her throat. The thrones of Vampire royalty had a curious quirk, that being the bat-skull arms, the gaping mouths of which tended to dribble blood.
All the better for the subjects to do what Vantiga was presently doing. He sank to his knees before her, licking the trickle of blood as it dribbled from the skull's jaw.
"I pledge myself to your house," Vantiga said quietly. "That the dark wings of the Vampires darken every Sphere."
"My house values your loyalty most highly, Vantiga," Kirone said, running her hand from his hair to his armored shoulder. She moved her white boot between them, the brilliant red blood spattering and covering the toe of it.
"But I would prefer you grant your loyalty to me and me alone," she said quietly, offering him a view of the bloodied boot.
Vantiga looked up at her, her red eyes steely and not a little angry. He knew what she wanted. The Red Guard's loyalty to the Imperial lineage was without question. To demand loyalty to any specific figure in the court was to invite a charge of treason.
However, to disobey a member of the court was to invite immediate execution. The worst possible kind--the slow death on a Sunstone--flesh slowly boiling away in the glare of the only light on the Sphere of darkness.
He grit his teeth, baring his fangs. She had him in her grip, and she not only knew it, the thin smile across her black lips showed that she positively reveled in it. His expression softened, his head bowed, and he quietly licked the blood from her boot.
"That's good, Vantiga," she said, sitting back down. "I just wanted to make sure your loyalty to me was absolute. I'm depending on you for my protection when we go to Sirroc, after all." She grimaced and pushed his face away with her boot. "Now, you may rise."
Vantiga rose to his feet, the severe poise of a Guardsman still evident, but a slight hesitancy that told Kirone that she had indeed broken him to her will.
And though blood sustained her, that feeling of power was an even sweeter taste.
"And now, Vantiga, let's hear your thoughts on how we'll conquer Sirroc tomorrow."
* * *
Darken sat alone on the topmost tier of the ziggurat, watching the skies above him change colors as the sun sank into the horizon. As much as he wondered what was beyond the horizon sometimes, he found himself accustomed to the peace of Deiyara.
In his twenty years he'd flown over the entire Sphere, been everywhere. Deiyara was a serene paradise, one couldnít stay for any amount of time and not feel free in a way that was unequaled anywhere else.
Or so he thought. Darken had spent his entire life on this Sphere, never journeying and though from what Ka'el had taught him there were six more out there, the more he heard, the more he wondered if he wasn't uniquely blessed to be apart from it.
Here there was peace, here there was freedom, here was everything and anything he needed or would ever need. He had friends and a family--not his true ones, but in every other respect, a family--and most all, he felt like he belonged here.
In his few encounters with other races, especially Angels, he'd endured their sneers and cruel glances and occasionally wondered why. After all in all respects, except for his wings, he looked like an Angel, and he'd hear Kael and a few others speak of how even Angels sometimes had wings other colors than white.
But it never seemed all that important, truthfully. Interesting, but never something he was in a hurry to find out about. Not when he had a place he could call home where no one ever made him feel less than perfect.
So let them fight and posture and wallow in arrogance, Darken thought. So long as they never bring it here.
"What are you thinking about?" a familiar voice asked behind him.
Darken stood up, folding his wings behind him. "Nothing much, Ka'el," he said, smiling and brushing his hair from his eyes. "Just thinking about how lucky we are that we're outside all the mess you keep telling me about with the other races."
"Outside of it?" Ka'el said, leaning on his cane. "Is that how you see it?"
"Well," Darken said, gesturing to the skies. "They're out there, on their Spheres, and we're here, and well . . .it's not like they ever really come here, is it?"
Ka'el smiled sadly. "You miss the point, Darken," he said, shaking his head. "The Spheres are a part of our world as surely as the ground and sky in our own. We are all interconnected. How do you think we travel between Spheres?"
"Well, Liandra's . . ." Darken began, catching himself before he gave away too much. "Uh, she says you can travel between them with the Gates. Like the one in the Skycity."
"She is correct, but there are other ways," Ka'el said, thinking about the Eagle Clasp in his pocket. "More than that, have you ever asked yourself who controls these Gates? Why is it so easy to travel to one Sphere or the other?"
"I . . .never really thought about it."
"Even when you read the books in the temple?"
"Ka'el those books talk about things from centuries before any of us came to be," Darken said. "Whatever they mean, how could any of that survive? If there was a quick way for people to travel between Spheres, why isnít everyone doing it?"
Ka'el sighed, raised his cane, and swatted Darken over the top of the head. Darken recoiled in pain, then looked at Ka'el, cane poised for another strike as he winced.
"What was the first lesson I taught you?" Ka'el demanded, his voice suddenly louder and more commanding. "Before you began reading the books?"
""The past always survives,"" Darken repeated. ""The past is the ground we stand upon, the present is where we stand, and the future is the sky ahead that you fly into.""
"Very good," Ka'el said, setting his cane down. "Darken, you must believe me when I say the past in those books is very much alive, and has a very real bearing on everything around us."
"Especially here," Ka'el said. "This may seem like paradise to you, but there will come a time--and it may be soon--when you must leave."
Darken looked nervous. "You're going to send me away?"
Ka'el looked at him and slowly shook his head. "No," he said. "But soon you may have questions that I can't answer for you--even with all the ancient knowledge in this temple. Questions about yourself. About who you are, who you were, and who you will become."
"Ka'el . . .Master . . .I . . .youíre talking in riddles, and I'm not sure I understand what you mean," Darken said.
"For those questions, you will have to go outside, away from this temple, away from this Sphere," Ka'el continued. "I know not where your quest will take you . . .if you decide to go."
"Then you are sending me away."
"No," Ka'el said. He reached into his pocket and took out the Eagle Clasp, tossing it to Darken, who reflexively snatched it out of the air. "But this may beckon you away."
Darken turned it over in his hands. "What is it?"
"That . . .belonged to your mother, Darken," Ka'el said. "It is a tool. It is also a path. And it is your heritage. This is your past, present, and future. You hold it in your hands. Every lesson I have taught you, it has led to this moment."
Ka'el gestured for him to come closer. "Sit," he said. "We will speak of your beginnings, now."
* * *
Vertiga sighed as she walked down the steps down to her bedroom, the dull heat of the desert slowly yielding to the cool stone within. She hadn't stopped thinking about what her father had said to her, about how he never wanted to see her with a sword.
Specifically, why he would object to it so.
For my entire life I've been taught to fight, she thought. I was warned to keep close to the settlements, and if I saw any Fallen or nomads to run back and warn the others. When I was old enough, Father taught me where to hit them that was sure to make them let me go. He even made a small knife for me, to protect myself.
I always assumed one day Iíd get a sword of my own and be able to protect everyone too. So why would he not want that?
Vertiga supposed her father was being foolish, still hoping in vain that one day peace between the three races that lived there would be realized, or at the very least they could all live where they chose and leave the others alone.
To Vertiga it seemed like a fool's hope. She walked into her room at the bottom of the stairs and sat on her mattress, reaching out for the small sun stone on her beside for some light. Reacting to the heat of her hand, the sunstone glowed to life, filling the small room with light.
Of the two other races, Vertiga had found the Fallen far more agreeable. Father had even designed swords for them when the nomads began attacking their settlements. They looked strange--gaunt, pale, vaguely unhealthy and ill-equipped for the desert sun, but generally they were reasonable folk.
The nomads, however, were another story. They were strange creatures--pale, like the Fallen, but hulking, powerful, and able to survive in the open desert as easily as they were able to kill a human.
Vertiga had only ever seen three nomads, but never saw what happened to them. Her mother bundled her off to the strongholds underneath the settlement's gathering hall when the dark ragged silhouettes had come on the horizon.
Only the men, her father especially, had stayed behind to meet the threat. When her mother had taken her back to their home, the nomads were gone, and rarely if ever did they return immediately after a confrontation.
She sighed and leaned back on the mattress, closing her eyes. Maybe that's what he's afraid of, she thought. That our lives--his and mine--will always be like this. Constant conflict. Fear that something terrible is always going to walk out of the desert and come for us, and one day, we just wonít be strong enough to stop it.
She turned on her side, reaching out for the sunstone, it's light slowly dimming and extinguishing altogether.
Questions about the future were a bit too much right now, she thought. Whether a threat was on the horizon or not, it would wait until tomorrow.