They were given food and a clean room in the inn by the people supposedly in charge, the group of businessmen that ran the warehouses, the farms, the caravans, the useless guard posts, and the camp. In the dimming light the Cadets, rather than monster-slaying warriors, looked like lost children.
The town, now the refugee camp, never had a Keeper, though they needed one sorely. According to the people gathered around their table, the wild Haze has already ravaged the farms.
‘The terraces in the hills, we’s planted them just last month,’ said an elderly man wearing mud-caked trousers, ‘they’s grown already, tall stalks, full grains. It be good news for us, only that one in twenty grows bad. Look here.’
He showed the Cadets a stalk strung with purple, resinous rice. Valiann held it to a light, bending it until the pods popped out one by one. The grains felt soft and squishy, yet chipped his nail and coloured his fingertips in a powder of florescent orange.
Hanni asked, ‘In the hills you said? Anywhere else?’
They were handed a metal nail. The woman who had the nail had pried it from some square structure buried in the mud banks by the Ilmarys and had intended to sell it, before noticing the corruption. It was polished to the point of radiance, which made the orange coating its tip peculiar. Valiann touched it gently and his skin burned.
‘It’s so shiny,’ Hanni observed candidly.
‘It’s an artefact of the Old Ones. Their alloys do not corrupt, ever, with the exception of…well…’
All the faces looking at them expectantly made clear what they were supposed to do. Who else was going to help them, free of charge and for however long it took?
Hanni raised his eyebrows at him. Must’ve been his expression.
‘We’ll go to the terrace farms tonight.’ Valiann said as if he came up with this noble cause willingly. ‘Ascertain the extent of corruption, then investigate the source of this nail tomorrow. Hopefully get rid of this Haze problem by the end of the week.’
People cheered and clapped the Cadets on their backs. A hefty meal was ordered for them, as well as fresh clothing that would certainly turn into rags by the time they finished their work here. Unlike the soldiers, these people understood they were only Cadets, and Cadets don’t need to be paid: the only truth anyone has ever known about the Citadel.
‘Don’t you forget,’ Valiann said glumly, ‘each day we spend here is one that could be spent looking for the Perfect Crystal.’
‘Relax. If we could defeat Remnants, how hard can this cleansing work be?’
Three precious months later, no Keepers have come, and ‘I told you so’ quickly became Valiann’s least favourite phrase.
The young metalsmith was from Port Han’Algeis, capital of the new Thaumian Autonomy. The horseshoe brand on her face was given to all Marish sympathizers, and although Thaumian law – undoubtedly just and equal for all- carried no penalty for her person in particular, casual death threats and all manner of abuse towards her were not only overlooked but subtly encouraged, as she used to cater exclusively to Marish nobles.
Her makeshift workshop at the centre of camp became a temporary home for the Cadets, and the metalsmith their friend after Hanni got rid of some thugs for her.
‘All that’s left is the source by the river,’ Hanni said to her one evening as they sat around her fire, ‘then we’ll be gone. I think Valiann will go crazy if we stay here any longer. Just look at him.’
Valiann, scrawling in his diary with a messy hand, gave no indication of having heard anything. Despite the cold damp he wore only a thin coat, and looked quite comfortable doing so.
Hanni gestured at him and shrugged, as if saying ‘see what I mean?’
The metalsmith smiled uncertainly. ‘You are awfully confident Han’Nietzeul. Will it be that simple? This…cleansing?’
‘No, not really. We might die, go mad, lose our memory, grow extra arms, age thirty years, go blind, go deaf, become stupid…look at your face, I’m only joking. Nobody gets all of that at once. Am I right, Valiann?’
‘There was the case of Keeper Bor’Rhiaes in 4253, who on his fifty-seventh venture into Halleaufel became simultaneously –’
‘Annnd that’s enough out of you,’ Hanni concluded.
The metalsmith rummaged through a pile of random pieces at the back of the shop. ‘I was going to give you these as a…surprise, I guess, but maybe they’ll be needed sooner than that - here.’
She first laid out a pair of daggers on the table. The grips and the rounded guards were curved slightly and woven with steel threads criss-crossed in a fancy pattern. The blades were apparently edgeless, and made out of a solid black metal riddled with faint, maroon-coloured veins.
Fascinated, Hanni flipped them over in his hands. ‘Meteorite steel. Only thing in the world without the taint of Haze.’
For Valiann she prepared a full-length staff that stood two heads taller than he was when planted on the ground. Three thread-like ridges of meteorite steel were entwined upon the thin ironwood core like black serpents. It was heavy but well balanced.
‘You look like someone who would enjoy a visual statement,’ the metalsmith said.
‘This is worth a lot of money,’ Valiann said, mesmerised.
‘Not as much as food around these parts. They’re paid for by everyone here. We are grateful for our dear Starlings, helping us when no one else will.’
Valiann’s face grew strange. ‘Fancy names, but we’ve done nothing to earn them.’
The next morning was cold and damp like every other. With new weapons in hand and heavy cloaks drawn about their shoulders, the Cadets looked nothing like the youths they were, but a pair of tired, old men.
Both were much thinner than before, and while Hanni still looked healthy and athletic, Valiann was all skin and bones. Holding that black staff made him look grotesque, like some evil sorcerer trapped inside an emancipated body.
They made their way to the bank of the Ilmarys. There was a sloping expanse of mud, and embedded inconspicuously on its upper edge was a piece of perfectly square-shaped metal they have uncovered the day before. It has been buried and inundated at least once a day for who knew how long, yet there was not a speck of rust on its surface. All around its edges were twenty or so little holes filled with metal nails; quite a few were missing.
Prying open the metal square revealed a vertical, seemingly interminable shaft walled with a smooth white stone. The howl of a great wind running deep underground rose above the roaring river, and an ancient stench sank into their faces. There was a dead world down there.
As planned, they tied a Haze crystal retrieved from a Remnant to the end of a notched rope, and lowered it into the shaft. At fifty metres there was a sudden pull strong enough to almost tear the rope out of their hands. When they pulled it up after considerable struggle the small, warped rock had transformed into a greyish lump the size of a fist, reflective like glass yet jelly-soft. Wild Haze.
‘There’s no way we are going down there,’ Valiann said, quickly cleansing the crystal until it shrunk down to its original size.
‘What do we do?’ Hanni asked.
Valiann didn’t pause to think, for the plan was already in his head as if it has always been there. ‘We divert river water into the shaft. If the space down there is as large as it sounds it will move the Haze somewhere else. If the wind is just a trick it is playing on us the water will force the Haze up and we’ll handle it.’
Hanni nodded a bit too enthusiastically. ‘Can we? Handle it?’
‘This isn’t an obstacle Hanni, but an annoyance. If we can’t even manage this we might as well go home.’
They spent the rest of the day and the next digging at the mud bank. It was hard, slow work; attempting to use Hanni’s power hindered rather than sped up their progress, since ordinary iron tools couldn’t stand the torque and bent into uselessness by the end of the hour. Making things even merrier, heavy rain during the second night was more than enough to knock flat their clumsy construction, while the Ilmarys, with its infinite belly, rose but a hair’s breadth.
‘Maybe we should ask for help.’ Hanni ventured the next morning.
‘No way am I letting anyone near that shaft.’
‘Maybe the river will come up here, with all this raining.’
‘Maybe, but that means waiting,’ Valiann said, kicking at the sad-looking trench they dug until mud and sand filled his boots, ‘and I’ll not waste another month of Andariel’s life here.’
Hanni crossed his arms in annoyance. ‘You are not saying we leave, are you? After all this effort?’
Once again Valiann found the answer on his lips.
‘We need bigger tools.’