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world from the Haze breaks him down more than evil ever could, and as the oblivious millions shed their blood over outdated ideals, the cliff edge approaches, the end of yet another pointless age...

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11. Solstice (1/2)

The next morning Valiann was alone again, as if all that bustle yesterday was but a dream. The same unnatural cold seeped from the walls, the same damp logs sputtered in the fireplace, and the same headache knocked him down as he tried to get out of bed.  

A few subtle differences did exist. There was a pot of vegetable stew on his desk, leftover from last night, and next to it was a rack of herbs and packets of medicine neatly sorted by dosage. His tattered robe, the once pristine gift from princess Lynia, had acquired a few new patches. They were made from a cottony and leather-brown material, same as the coat Andariel wore yesterday. One patch on his sleeve had a frowny face sewn onto it with white thread.

‘It’s cold and this robe is warm, of course I wear it,’ he said to no one in particular.

The week sped past and that feeling of hopeless anxiety ran away with it, replaced by a quiet sense of purpose. Even now, Andariel and Hanni were on their way east, looking for the factory from which Imperfect Crystals were being made by the hundreds. They would find it for sure; the giant golems travelling to and from the place would be a dead giveaway.

A knock came from the door. It was supply day, a joyous time when beans that wouldn’t crack the teeth were delivered alongside potatoes yet to germinate.

Instead of the old groundkeeper he was greeted by a cheery Keeper Tan’Nickus.

‘Greetings. Here you are,’ the Keeper said. The Haze came for an instant, and the two large sacks in his hand disappeared and rematerialized inside the lab. ‘May I come in?’

‘How nice of you to ask for permission,’ Valiann replied, showing him to the one soft-seated chair by the fireplace.

‘Courtesy is especially important for someone with my Affinity.’ This man was twice Valiann’s age yet looked younger than he was with that handsome voice and annoying bounce in his step. ‘How have you been? I heard you were sick?’

‘I am better now.’

‘Good. Tell me about the golem. Looks impressive.’

Valiann sat down on a stool opposite. ‘Hex is ready for the experiment. Just waiting on the Perfect Crystal now. Cadet Andariel and Han’Nietzeul are currently looking for it on my behalf.’

‘Fantastic!’ Tan’Nickus leaned in. ‘Apologies for the lack of assistance. More than half of us are now handling Remnants instead of cleansing. With the Solstice coming up next week, we will be really, really hard-pressed to make a positive net impact. You know what I mean?’

‘The global rate of corruption is exceeding our rate of cleansing. Fifteen years in a row now,’ Valiann said, ‘the Head wouldn’t be pleased.’

‘None of us are. It will be a big fat blemish in our archives, and what those dumb-skulled Thaumians are doing is not helping in the slightest.’

‘I suppose you want me to start the experiment as soon as possible.’

Tan’Nickus nodded vehemently. ‘The Seats have come to the same conclusion. As you are well aware, however, the thirty-one failed precedents make them hesitant to give you full support. Not to mention supporting you in your current….compromised…position with the Thaumians puts the Citadel at great risk of provocation.’

Valiann had expected nothing else. ‘So you want me to work hard on my own, without any help, just like I have been doing anyway.’

‘Now, don’t pout!’ Tan’Nickus waved a dismissive hand. ‘I’ll have you know the Tower of Attenuation is already under construction. So don’t start thinking we don’t believe in you.’

Some good news at last.

‘We are also turning a blind eye to your friends,’ Tan’Nickus added, ‘since their blunder at Marian Bluff really embarrassed us in front of the Emperor, and, well, favours had to be called to sort it out. As a Marish vassal that city has its own rules you know. We can’t just go in there and do what we want.’

Someone just spilled a vat of boiling water onto his chest - that must be what happened, for what other reason could his heart be suddenly burning?

‘They were sold into slavery,’ Valiann said through gritted teeth.

‘The Mark, yes? That was a misunderstanding. It’s been taken care of –’

Misunderstanding. He didn’t think a single word could be so hateful that he would want to rip out the tongue of whomever used it last. Under that slew of syllables festered who knew how many ignoble deals.

‘I see you are angry about that,’ Tan’Nickus observed helpfully, ‘your friends didn’t tell you who they killed, did they? No? I won’t spoil it for you then.’

‘Tell the Head and the Seats to give us free rein if they want no delays,’ Valiann said, jumping ahead, ‘giving us Keeper commendations would be easiest. It will make financing and negotiating much easier.’

A cynical laugh was the response. ‘Becoming a Keeper is not something you ask for, Valiann. That said, if you manage to pull this experiment off…but then I suppose without the Haze to trouble us there would be no need for Keepers.’

Valiann ignored that. ‘I have said everything I wanted to. If it pleases you - ’

‘One more thing,’ Tan’Nickus said, ‘the Citadel will be very empty next week, with all Keepers and capable Cadets away in anticipation of the Solstice, the day of Haze-maximum. Keeper Temperance will be the only senior staff member on site, since her Affinity is good for looking after the…untried students that will be staying put.’

‘You think with no one looking I will run away?’

‘You jest! No, what I’m saying is that if anything serious happens, there will only be the two of you capable of handling it.’

A vague and ominous warning. ‘What exactly are we expecting?’

‘I don’t know, hopefully nothing. In an emergency, the Head has given you special permission to act as you see fit within the confines of the Citadel.’

‘So he has given me permission to run away.’

‘To return promptly to this room after the incident, if any arises, has been resolved. Don’t get smart with me.’

‘If you think something is going to happen, why not leave more people here?’

For a moment the Keeper stopped maintaining that hatefully cheery demeanour, and the weary, stressed man aging underneath that youthful mask was unpleasant to look at yet easier to know.

‘Look to the sky in five days,’ the Keeper said, ‘then tell me the world isn’t ending. The last Trials had no survivors. You heard me right, none. Corruption has reached the Paladic Basin for the first time ever – that’s your home, isn’t it? Not to mention the two hundred and thirty-one Remnants we culled in the last month alone.’

‘Two hundred and thirty-one,’ Valiann repeated numbly.

‘They go beyond simple zealotry. It’s as if the Thaumians are being driven mad by the Haze. They have to be planning something on the day of Solstice, absolutely have to, yet knowing that we’ve still not the luxury to stay back and watch our home.’

‘So you’re saying –’

‘I’m saying nothing. Keeper Temperance will give you further instructions in a few days. For now keep yourself locked up.’ Tan’Nickus stood up and promptly vanished on the spot. He could be at the foot of the Pilgrim’s Path now, or on the streets of the Capital. One might even mistake his Affinity for freedom. 

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