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world from the Haze breaks him down more than evil ever could, and as the oblivious millions shed their blood over outdated ideals, the cliff edge approaches, the end of yet another pointless age...

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12. Solstice (2/2)

It looked so unreal that at first Valiann thought veins of ice had somehow imbued itself into the stone window, but it was the sky that broke. Clouds curdled in distinct, zigzagged lines, thin like a spider’s web but glowing along the edges. By noon the lines were numerous enough to carve up the sky into shimmering diamonds. It was as if the world was suddenly placed in a fish bowl, one in which a pebble had been dropped.  

Solstice always occured on the same calendar day regardless of year, following human dating convention to the day and to the hour. For the region surrounding the Citadel, it would occur at exactly half past one.

The instant the minute hand stood vertical, the world plunged into half-light. This dimming of the light would be a familiar sight to a drowning man: terrifying but calm, a velvety dusk. During the last Solstice seven year ago there had been sun, but not this time; it had fled before the coming of the Haze. 

Valiann put on the new robe he was given, and there was no mistaking its purpose even at first glance. Segmented armour plating had been sewn into the leather inner layer, covering shoulders, thighs, and torso. A weapon harness made out of steel chains had been grafted onto the back. The Citadel insignia was now flamboyantly displayed on the chest, in the same vein as the burning crown of the Thaumians.

Two days ago Keeper Temperance had come down to the lab bringing only the finest news. ‘Five hundred Thaumian rifleguards are entering the Pilgrim’s Path,’ she had said without ceremony, ‘they’ve blockaded the entrance and turned back the sentries. I expect them to reach our gates on the day of Solstice, and catch us at our worst.’

When asked what the Thaumians would be after the Keeper had given him a look. ‘If I have to guess? You.’

Valiann took up the steel staff in his right hand and with his left woke up Hex using the Master Cube. Regrettably the stairs were too narrow for the golem to pass. First Challenger Koh’Andiese wouldn’t be pleased about what it was about to do, but that man was long dead.

‘I’ll see you in a minute,’ Valiann said. At his command Hex lunged at the transparent stone window Koh’Andiese had painstakingly made and smashed it into pieces. Cold gusts from the chasm, mingled with the tainted stink of the wild Haze, blasted into the lab. Not at all fazed, Hex grabbed onto the upper ledge with the dexterity of a chimpanzee and swung out of sight. Hard thuds of stone against metal came from the upper floors as it climbed the outer wall with coordination unbefitting such a massive machine.

Valiann allowed himself a moment of pride before making his own way up. From barely able to walk to semi-autonomy: it was like watching his own child grow up.

Temperance was waiting for him in the foyer along with a hundred or so Cadets – all of them lacking an Affinity and the power to cleanse, yet were brave enough to come out and fight. A paradox of courage. They greeted him with whispers and suspicious looks.

‘Keeper Ivaniel has informed me that reinforcements will be returning shortly,’ Temperance announced, to general relief, ‘we must persevere until then. Under no circumstances will we engage in combat. There will be talk, and there will be demands, but our lives and the work of our ancestors must be preserved before our pride.’

She beckoned to Valiann. ‘With me.’

A Cadet shouted, ‘this is his fault Keeper! He drew them here! If we hand him over the Thaumians will go away.’

Temperance didn’t look for the speaker but at Valiann instead. ‘That remains to be seen.’

‘I will do whatever the Citadel requires me to,’ Valiann said expressionlessly. Booming footsteps came from just outside; Hex was here and ready to do its master’s bidding.

The long walk down the main boulevard gave Valiann plenty of time to take in the surroundings. Just as Tan’Nickus had said, a thin, half-constructed tower jutted out of the ground between the training hall and the armoury, already taller than all the other buildings. The web of black clouds seemed to funnel in towards its tip.

‘That’s your Tower of Attenuation,’ said Temperance, following his eyes, ‘a good place for astronomy lessons, if nothing else.’

‘You don’t believe my experiment will work, Keeper?’

‘I’ve seen it all, proposals to erase Halleaufel from existence, to permanently immunise stretches of land against corruption, to reverse the Remnant creation process, every contrived idea you can name. There was one who thought his thesis would lead to world peace. His experiment was fully funded and went on for ten years. What a bunch of fools we are, fools that never learn.’

‘Mine will work,’ Valiann said simply.

‘Humility is a trait of all good men.’

‘I’m not a good man.’

The walls of the Citadel were just under six metres tall, sturdy but single-layered. The ramparts were thin, barely fit for two people walking abreast. It was there to separate the inside from the outside, not to defend against an army.

The web of clouds began to vomit rain. Thumb-sized droplets splattered in Valiann’s hair, fizzling slightly as if acidic. Absently he brushed the wetness away, wondering why he was so calm.

The gates opened. Thaumian soldiers, black-garbed from neck to knee, marched through in ranks of ten, the steam rifles slung across their shoulders glistening in the rain. Then came two lines of golems, each carrying a massive double-headed hammer that could knock down the Citadel walls with one easy swing. The screech of their hydraulics were only eclipsed by the tremors they sowed into the earth,

The Thaumian army fanned out in a concave but did not level their weapons.  

Temperance stepped forward until she was but five paces from the first rank and gazed into the faces of her enemy. The rifleguards looked young, arrogant, and fearless; not one shied away from the Keeper’s eyes.  

‘I fear for the future of your people, Grand Marshall,’ Temperance called out, ‘they’ve forgotten what it is to be human.’

An old voice responded, ‘show the Keeper your resolve, chosen ones.’

As one, the rifleguards pulled out the chains hung around their necks, revealing pendants of black stone. With studded gauntlets they scratched their chins just deep enough to draw blood, and raised their pendants to the wounds.

‘No! Stop it!’ cried Temperance, even though she knew well it was but a scare.

The Thaumian ranks parted down the middle, revealing an old woman sitting upon a wheelchair. The Grand Marshall looked to be in her sixties, with a pointed face made softer by thin brows and painted lips. She wore only a plain robe. The thick powder on her cheeks dripped in the rain, and she rubbed at it with one long-nailed finger.

‘Abhorrent weather, this,’ she said, ‘but no better time to call. How fares you, Keeper Temperance? Age is a nefarious villain, isn’t it? You and I, soon to be in the grave, yet fight with these younglings at our sides.’

‘It is the task of the old to teach the young, of love for all things that live, and of pity for those who live without,’ said Temperance.

‘Those who sit astride thrones of power often speak of pity. Only once robbed from their high places do they learn of the things they preach to others, and find them hollow and without meaning.’

‘Goodness is not hollow and without meaning, Grand Marshall.’

‘You’ve not lived as we Thaumians have, Keeper, beloved jewel of humanity. You’ve not seen your children branded as filth from their first breath. You’ve not had your very identity trampled worthlessly into the ground.’

The Grand Marshall leaned forward with some difficulty. ‘Our younglings lack humanity, you say? Against whom do you judge their worth? This rabble of Marish cowards?’ She gestured at the Affinity-less Cadets. ‘Indeed they must be human, frozen with fear yet at the same time have the gall to consider my proud children inferior!’

Thunder rumbled overhead, and black lightning, arcs of negative light, tore through the web of clouds.

‘That’s enough philosophy for the likes of us,’ said the Grand Marshall, ‘I’ve come for him and his – our - machine.’ She pointed at Valiann Del, and twenty rifleguards broke rank and encircled the lone Cadet and his golem. ‘Interfere and die, or stand aside and live.’

‘With that threat alone the Citadel will be forced to become your enemy,’ the Keeper said.

‘Do so, by all means,’ came the reply, ‘The time has long passed for the world to heed your beck and call. We have conquered the Haze and made it our ally, and you relics of a bygone age will understand neither the extent of our power nor your own obsolescence. Now, Valiann Del, come with me.’

‘What do you say, Keeper?’ Valiann asked, tightening his staff hand, ‘you think letting them have me will save everyone, don’t you.’

‘I…it’s for the best.’

‘There is a chance,’ Valiann admitted, the Master Cube spinning madly in his hand, ‘but today I must be selfish for the sake of someone dear to me. As repentance for the misdeeds I am about to commit, I will save the world.’

The Thaumians rushed him, their bayonetted rifles stabbing at his limbs. Hex with one arm sweep tossed five into the air, and crushed another three underfoot. Valiann hugged the staff close, used it to wedge apart two incoming blades and slid between them. Two more came around his back, and he turned with the staff tilted at the exact angle. The bayonets glanced off the steel with two sharp clinks.

One grabbed his left arm and pried at the Cube. Valiann ducked as Hex’s arm flew past and knocked the Thaumian’s head off cleaner than a blade. Four more stabbed at his shoulders from both sides. With a twist of the arm he swung the staff in an arc, narrowly knocking them away, then spun on the spot and slammed the tip and pommel into two faces. The Imperfect Crystals sizzled their jowls with black fire.

‘A fighter I see,’ remarked the Grand Marshall, ‘you be careful now.’

The humans fell back and two golem came forward. One slammed its hammer on top of Valiann while the other swung at Hex’s feet. They were quick! A quarter second tardier and he would’ve been a fleshy stain. The impact force threw Valiann to the ground, the staff pommel smashed into tiny pieces.

The Master Cube burned in his hand. Hex leapt into the air and brought his hardened hand onto the head of its clumsier cousin, driving it into the ground. With a pirouette it kicked the fallen hammer like a ball, sending it into the side of Valiann’s assailant with terrible din.

The golem staggered while the first lunged at Hex’s feet and held them down. Before Hex could get free the second swung at Valiann again, hammer flat against the ground. The wind was suffocating. He barely managed to pivot into the air with the staff’s support when the hammer broke it from under him. As the golem prepared for the lethal strike Hex broke free and threw itself into harm’s way.

The blow crushed Hex’s right arm, and pieces of metal flew with the speed of bullets. With a lightning upper cut with its left Hex sent the golem to the ground, but the other one stood up and tackled. That one always went for the legs! Hex fell chest down, legs trapped. The second golem immediately rolled on its back and pinned Hex’s arms under its fat torso.

The Master Cube blinked rapidly, and Valiann, sprawled in the mud, went at it with both hands. Hex thrashed and buckled. Powerful though it was, with its limbs incapacitated there was no leverage. The Thaumians golems bore down with their combined weight.

‘Bring him to me,’ The Grand Marshall said, ‘and cut off his hands.’

Rifleguards closed around him, their bayonets sharp and ready. Keeper Temperance rushed by his side. ‘That’s enough!’ she cried, ‘he’s just a boy – he doesn’t understand what he’s doing!’

Why would she say that? Andariel had three years left to live, yet the world dared to interfere with his plan at every turn. Like the refugee camp. Like the Remnants. Like this stubborn old woman. Like this other stubborn old woman beside him, giving up her life to tell him that he was a fool and that it was fine to give up.

He would not. The days of standing in the corner, filled with regret, were done. This feeling of being alive, this sense of purpose, of action – no one will deprive him of it.

Valiann stood up and brushed the surprised Keeper aside. The encircling rifleguards paused, then pressed in.

‘I’m not finished yet,’ he said, and began the sequence.

Hex thumped mightily, the sudden bulge in its chest almost throwing off the Thaumian golems. Everyone paused as the golem’s quickening heartbeat echoed in their chests. The Grand Marshall’s eyes narrowed. The rifleguards hesitated as a few looked back.

Black lightning suddenly arched from the sky and, ignoring the Citadel’s towers and spires, struck Hex squarely on the back. Instead of blinking away it hung like a thread, and through it Haze poured from the sky. With one massive heave Hex shoved off the Thaumians golems, and as it stood up its arms began to rise in compulsive prayer.

Interesting.

Three lightning bolts came down at once and stuck to Hex as like the black threads of a puppeteer, and with them came shockwaves of wild Haze. The Thaumians fell back, the first traces of fear on their faces, as the strange golem took a lumbering step toward their ranks with its arms raised, lightning arcing from its fingertips.

After giving Valiann one final glare, the Grand Marshall withdrew into the formation, and dozens of golems came forward to screen against what looked like some powerful attack.

Opening Tears attracted the wild Haze. Even in the Koh’Andiese lab, at the heart of the Citadel, one of the most pristine places in the world, there was enough wild Haze to distort reality. Now, under the dark light of Solstice…

The Master Cube suddenly ignored his command, stubbornly spinning faster and faster despite his trying to rein it in. The erratic blinking of its inner light eerily matched the pulsing black lightning. A subtle but growing force began to push against his hand, as if the Cube was trying to escape his grasp.

Four Thaumian golems charged at Hex and shattered their shoulders against its outstretched fingertips as if they were made of glass. Two others peeled off and made for Valiann, scattering the hesitant rifleguards in the way, their intent clear: the Thaumians thought he still controlled what was happening.

‘Hex! To me!’ he cried out but the Cube did not listen. Hex would not obey. Looking over his shoulder he saw Temperance looking horrified. Stop this! Her eyes said. As if it was up to him!

Ribbons of colour began appearing out of thin air. Wriggling purple hands were spawning from the ground and twisting around Hex’s ankles. A golden line, shining like some false beacon of hope, materialised between its arms, and in a moment it would open like a purse filled with tar, spilling the Dark Sea endlessly into -

‘That’s enough.’

Valiann spun around and saw the Headmaster standing five paces away, half-carrying a barely conscious Tan’Nickus. Black ooze from a Remnant was splattered all over both their robes, and blood seeped through the hasty bandage on the Head’s shoulder.

‘Stand aside. Nick, take his Cube,’ the Head said, and raised a blood-stained hand to the approaching golems. A third of their torso with an arm attached unceremoniously disappeared. They fell over, oil and steam shooting out in hot bursts from their perfectly circular wounds. ‘Tan’Nickus. Move!’

Valiann made no effort to stop the Keeper from taking the Cube even though Tan’Nickus was barely standing. ‘You need to help me a little,’ Valiann heard him gasp.

Words ran from Valiann’s mouth as if he was the one who spoke them. ‘What are you doing?’

‘Stupid kid, I’m getting it away from here. Now help if you don’t want me to kill myself.’

With the help of his Affinity Keeper Tan’Nickus mustered what little was left of his strength and vanished, taking the erratic Master Cube with him. Hex collapsed immediately as the black lightning that had enveloped its body fizzled out.

The battered Thaumian golems wasted no time in securing it, driving metal stakes through its key bundles of hydraulics. Valiann winced as if they were stabbed through his own body.

‘You can’t let them take it!’

The Head walked to the Thaumian ranks, paying no attention to both the hundreds of rifles pointing at his vitals and Valiann’s plea. The Grand Marshall reappeared, her face pleasant. ‘Apologies for calling unannounced, Hi’Taunas, but my comrades and I have concluded our business and will abuse your hospitality no longer.’

Unbelievably, the Head bowed. ‘It is I who should apologise for the behaviour of my student, and I thank you for sparing his life.’

The Marshall’s brows arched. ‘I’m afraid we’re long past the time for words. Valiann Del will be coming with us, with or without your permission, and in this matter we shall not be moved. ’

The Head spoke without raising his head, ‘I must emphasise that those who trespass the Citadel in our moment of weakness amount to the utmost cowardice. Regardless of the circumstances, however justified they may be, those who violate our sanctity will be punished.’

The Marshall’s laugh was coarse and hearty. ‘Will you let one rotten beam sink your beloved ship, or will you cut it down so that the rest may yet survive the coming storm?’

‘Curious analogy, one that assumes to power of the storm to be absolute when it could amount to nothing but noise to the strongest ships.’

Before the Grand Marshall could reply a rifleguard stepped forward with weapon lowered. It was a handsome girl no older than Valiann whose voice shook with emotions. ‘How can you…behave in such a way, say things as if you know best? You sit here on your mountain wielding all these…these powers, looking down at people as if they were somehow lesser than you because they are worried about things other than the stupid Haze!’

The Grand Marshall beckoned the girl to her side and held her hand. ‘Don’t waste your words, sweet child. You see that Cadet’s face? That face says he has already decided that what he does is right, and what people do against him is wrong. In his eyes our grand struggle is but a road of ruin, devoid of meaning, and thus he thinks nothing of stealing our dreams.’

‘I doubt there are many that dream of becoming Remnants,’ said Valiann.

Shaking her head the Grand Marshall said to the girl, ‘show him your Crystal,’ the black pendant came into view, ‘tell them why you wear it.’

The girl, the black-garbed rifleguard wielding a deadly weapon, said proudly, ‘I have nothing. My family died as Marks in the Capital, leaving me nothing, no home, no language of my own. Every day I speak this disgusting Marish tongue because the words of my ancestors have been lost forever. The Grand Marshall gave me all that I am and to carry her will into battle is an honour.’

‘I pity you,’ said the Head, his eyes shadowed.

‘I do not,’ Valiann said, ‘it is easy to assume your own pain eclipse everyone else’s, and then use it to justify whatever you do.’

‘You understand nothing!’ the girl yelled.

‘Of course I don’t, I didn’t go through the things you did, but that’s a poor excuse for turning into a monster,’ said Valiann, ‘what do you say, Headmaster? Will you force me to leave with these people?’  

The Head was inscrutable. ‘It is difficult to justify keeping you here, given our predicament…but that is irrelevant,’ turning to the Grand Marshall, the Head’s voice boomed, ‘you have come into my domain and attempted to do harm to those under my protection. Whatever your reasons are, such an act demands retribution. Leave, now. Though I wish no harm comes to you, it has been a very trying day and my temperament wears thin.’

The Grand Marshall laughed, though her withdrawal into the formation was all but hasty. ‘You grow ever surer of yourself, Hi’Taunas! You are but one!’

‘You have been warned.’

The Thaumians drew, but the deafening screech of steam against steel that heralded a hundred bullets never came. In the blink of an eye every steam rifle in sight has vanished. Confused, the rifleguards reached for their scabbards only to find the hilts unattached to any blade.

The golems took a single step before realising their legs were no longer working; the hydraulics attached to their joints deflated all at once as the pump chambers were emptied of liquid, and the ground shook in amusement as the steel giants fell over with arms uselessly flailing.

Unfazed by the sudden catastrophe, the Thaumians charged forward with their fists.

The Head frowned, ‘I cannot target their bodies. Valiann, I require your assistance.’

‘Yes Headmaster.’

Valiann let his Haze rise to meet the Head’s and felt a stinging sensation on his skin, as if an invisible razor was running all over his body. The greater one’s strength, the better his Affinity amplified it, and the Headmaster’s power of making things disappear became absurdly strong.

The ground disappeared beneath the Thaumians’ feet as a great hole was instantly excavated right under them. The pit was no more than a man’s height and easily scaled if any were to try, but none did in the midst of sudden chaos. The rifleguards fell on top of one another, shoving, kicking, and pulling one another down while trying to stand themselves, all semblance of order gone. The golems too fell in, crushing many unfortunate limbs.

Valiann turned to the Head in exuberance, and saw his hair visibly turn white at the temples.

‘I need more!’

Five hundred black uniforms, pairs of boots, satchels, cloaks, all ceased to exist. Five hundred naked Thaumians gaped at one another in the muddy pit that slowly filled up with rain. They fell silent, their arrogant and zealous faces that had apparently lost their humanity became scared and lost, more human than ever.

The girl who had spoken so proudly a moment ago now squatted in a corner, arms crossed vainly over her breasts and shivering with terror. The drops of rain glistening on her bare shoulders were the ones she had carelessly brushed away earlier.

‘Let this be a lesson to all of you,’ the Head declared, ‘now leave, or be annihilated.’

As the Thaumians climbed out of the pit and walked away with hung heads, Valiann noticed the obsessive way many clung to the pendants around their necks – those and the Master Cubes were the only items that didn’t vanish. Everything else, be they made of cloth or metal, was gone forever.

Hateful eyes were aplenty, but with the Grand Marshall unwilling to show herself, no one acted. The golems crawled away, their operators loathing the use of one precious hand to handle the Cubes instead of themselves. The last of them left Citadel grounds just as the rain came to a stop.

Muddy, Haze-tainted water has filled the massive hole in the ground to the brim.

‘They could have turned into Remnants,’ said Temperance, ‘and we would’ve been finished.’

‘That despicable act requires intent,’ the Head muttered weakly, ‘and impossible to perform when fear overpowers the malice in one’s heart.’

Hex, which had sunk into the pit with the Thaumians, was still stuck like a roasted pig with stakes all over its body. Its chest panel had cracked, and the golden glow of its core seeped through unharmed and unwavering. Though severely damaged, it looked to be the first one to fully recover from the ordeal.

Temperance led the Cadets away but Valiann remained. The Head was barely standing. His eyelids drooped as he spoke, yet his voice was as cold and steady as ever.

‘This is escalating out of our control,’ he said, ‘what the Grand Marshall said was true; if it weren’t for your doing our relations would have remained…manageable. The Thaumians would not have come so far without as perfect a pretext as your deeds, ’ the Head looked him in the eye, ‘I know that face. I wore it myself, once, when I was young and had a dream of being someone I wasn’t meant to be.’

‘Should I have gone with them?’ Valiann asked, afraid of the answer.

‘The Citadel will always protect one of their own, no matter the consequences, though sometimes I wish it was not so. Because of this you have abused our trust.’

‘I’m sorry.’

The Head didn’t care for his throwaway apology. ‘That said, a conflict was inevitable. The Thaumians have been twisted by the Haze under our noses. Until we find out how this has happened we remain their enemies, and enemies will harbour ill towards each other regardless of reason. That is the way of things. Do not make me regret pulling you from the jaws of wolves, Valiann Del.’

With that the Head walked away in a weary shuffle. Sunlight was filtering through the clouds; Solstice was not yet done, but it was waning, and despite all its terrors there was a limit to its evil, since in a day’s time it will dissipate, and the world will return to normal. Normal. 

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