Chasing the Dark Sea

No magic, no heroes, only the absurd struggle of a young man too willful to be sane, too clever to be compassionate, and too infatuated to be clever. Valiann's self-made quest to save his dilapidated world from the Haze breaks him down more than evil ever could, and as the oblivious millions shed their blood over outdated ideals, the cliff edge approaches, the end of yet another pointless age...

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That afternoon, the Seats convened once more. It was decided that Valiann will spend the next two years of his life in solitary confinement. Through his insistence that all that had happened was his own doing, Hanni was acquitted. That leg was punishment enough.

Two years. To everyone else it sounded like nothing for the amount of havoc that was done on that night, but to Valiann it was a third of Andariel’s remaining time gone with a stroke of the pen.

Later, as he was carrying his belongings to the basement of the Cadet wing, where he was to live, work and study in seclusion, Haylis called out to him from the top of a very long flight of stairs.

‘Hey!’

‘Hey. You look sane. Suppose the Trials went well,’ said Valiann, thinking of a way to make her go away.

‘Well enough. Let me haul some of that stuff for you.’

‘No it’s fine, I can handle it.’

‘Sure you can,’ Haylis said, coming down in an easy trout and plucking the massive box out of his arms, ‘where are we going? The Detentions?’

‘The Koh’Andiese lab, basement level two.’

‘What, the whole place? Doesn’t that old lab take up half the floor?’

It did. A pair of lockless iron doors stood at the end of a single corridor. A sign plate, rusted beyond recognition, suggested that this was the entrance to the laboratory of Koh’Andiese, First Challenger of Halleaufel.

The doors opened creakily, revealing a cavernous space lit with three shafts of sun coming in from a formation of skylights. The far wall, more than a fifty paces away, was a single pane of darkened glass overlooking a snowy chasm of infinite depth. Three long benches, burdened with countless machine parts, glass beakers, and strange tools, sat in the middle of the room. In the far corner was a small bed and a dwarf of a desk already cluttered beyond hope.

If this sight alone wasn’t enough to drop Haylis’ jaw, the three golems standing in silent guard must have helped. Half-bent to accommodate the ceiling, they idled with their hands held before their bellies like a trio of giant butlers. The quiet whirling of motors inside their bodies each had a different pitch that, together, enchanted the place with a mechanical lullaby.

‘How – what – that – the view! And the golems! They are alive!’

‘Keeper Tan’Nickus moved them here. The glass? That’s always been here. Keeper Koh’Andiese had the Affinity of Transmogrification. He made the transparent stone…for the pretty view I suppose, though alchemically it isn’t all that impressive,’ Valiann explained.

‘But this is amazing!’ Haylis declared, dropping the box haphazardly and running around wide-eyed, ‘people would beg to stay in here! Look at the crystals on the ceiling, those skylights…that view!’

Valiann, who thought the vista of the chasm unsettling, checked the box’s contents to make sure they weren’t broken before answering. ‘It’s big, but starting tomorrow I won’t be looking at anything else for two years.’

Haylis spun around with a horrified look. ‘What about food? Visitors? Class?’

‘Ingredients delivered once a month. Visitors once a week. Academic credit suspended until I have completed the detention. Low priority graduation for the rest of my life, meaning that as long as there are other Cadets good enough to become Keeper, they will be chosen over me.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘It’s only fitting,’ Valiann said, pulling out one thing after another out of the box and putting them in random piles. They were mostly books and loose pages, ‘at least I’ll be able to sleep more now.’

It was strange seeing concern in Haylis’ eyes. ‘You look like someone who is very poor at taking care of himself. Are you going to be all right?’ she asked.

‘I know how to cook and clean, if that’s what you are asking.’

‘No that’s not what I’m asking,’ Haylis said, ‘you are taking this awfully easy.’

‘It is easy.’

Chatter came from the corridor and Andariel walked into view with Hanni, who hobbled on crutches. They held between them a package wrapped in a purple ribbon.

 ‘This is for you,’ Andariel said, putting it on the corner of a lab bench, ‘hi there Haylis, congratulation on the Trials, glad you made it.’

Valiann looked at the suspiciously large box with a raised eyebrow.

‘It came through official couriers, addressed directly to you. I’ve a feeling it’s a mutual acquaintance,’ Hanni said with a daring wink.

Inside was a full-length robe made out of black wool embroidered with gold and silver. A jewelled and rather grisly broach depicting a snarling gargoyle, with spiked wings and ruby-red fangs, was pinned onto its collar. There was also an ivory comb, with a lion and a lioness on the hunt carved onto the handle. Everything smelled like roses.

‘Wow,’ Haylis declared, ‘quality haul.’

‘Can’t say I disagree with the comb,’ said Hanni, looking him up and down.

‘Looks like your dear princess got your measurements right, down to the thickness of your thighs. Are you sure you’ve only met once?’ Andariel asked with a grin that looked a bit too wide.

Valiann grumbled, but was thankful no letters were enclosed.

 

The skylights faded as mist poured out of the night and overfilled the chasm, roving its white fingers over the darkened window and obscuring the view. The lab grew cold and shadowed, and an unearthly echo, like the sigh of a stone giant, made the Cadets huddle closer together by the small fireplace.

Haylis left after having promised to visit every week – a lie, though a kind one– but Hanni and Andariel stayed behind. Valiann’s seclusion would start at midnight, but until then they were determined to stick around.

Hanni had this blue look that said his leg was hurting, but he refused to return to the infirmary. There were also dark bags under his eyes and strands of grey at his temples. He looked to have aged ten years since the Ilmarys.

Valiann felt Andariel tugging at his arm and looked down. Her hair spilled down his chest in a flood of fiery silver, rippling gently as she nestled against his neck, her breath ticklish and hot. Her hands clawed the hem of his robe as if he might run away at a moment’s notice.

‘You look after yourself,’ she said, ‘and pick yourself up after this is done. Don’t worry over the Perfect Crystal until you are out; knowing you it’ll drive you crazy.’

‘Leave the Crystal to me,’ Hanni mumbled, ‘the moment this stupid leg rights itself I’ll hunt it down.’

Andariel smiled and Valiann mirrored it reluctantly. It was impossible not to smile with her, with her lips curving so perfectly and her tongue half sticking out. Her scent was warmth itself, a radiant but invisible glow that bathed the grubby Cadet she leaned on with ordinary yet extraordinary happiness.  

A bell tolled somewhere above. 

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