25

May

by thefourpartland

The sound of a bell startled Yaden awake from where he had been dozing, nose down in a particularly dry and academic tract on the families of the High Arcanist, and what had caused each one to rise to that position.

Across from him, Canere was still awake, although with bags under his eyes. And sitting to either side of him was two stacks, one much taller than the other. As Yaden watched, the pamphlet in Canere’s hand was dropped onto the shorter of the two stacks.

“Canere, what time is it?”

The first answer he got was a yawn, followed by a stretch.

“Canere?”

“I think that was the dawn bell, although I’m not sure. I lost track a while ago. It’s the downside of being tucked into these archives.”

“The dawn bell? I said I was going to be finished at the midnight bell! Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I was too busy studying. You’ve known me how long and you thought I’d remember what time of day it was when I found something interesting?”

Yaden sighed. That comment was, sadly, entirely true. Canere had never been able to devote anything less than his full and undivided attention to something he found interesting. Hence why he was so suited for the life of an arcanist.

“Fine, fair point. But what do we do now?”

“Well, I have to go to classes soon.” The young mage paused. “Blast. No, I don’t. I have to teach the children’s classes. That’s much worse than I thought. You sure you don’t want to cover for me, Yaden? I’m sure you could cope…”

“I just spent a night helping you on your newest crazy idea and now you want to drag me into that? Not a chance. Me, I’m going in search of a good breakfast, and then a bed. It will at least keep up my reputation as the last roustabout of Yn Dref, provided no one knows why I was up all night long. If you want to rope someone into help you, I suggest Ira. She’s going to be fresh this morning.”

Canere snorted. “I prefer my legs unbroken, thank you. Her denials can be rather… vigorous sometimes.”

Laughing, Yaden waved goodbye to his friend as the two departed the archives.

***

Ira, for her part, was in fact engaged in something vigorous at the precise moment of Canere’s comment. And in much the same vein as he had meant it.

“No, you dolt. You don’t try and block like that, you step to the side. It’s much easier and doesn’t risk your weapon being broken. You really should have learned that by now, I’ve shown you enough times.”

The trouble of it was, the lad that Ira was instructing as part of guardsmen training was making the block work. He was the second son of one of the few remaining blacksmiths, and much like his kin, was the size of a small stone tower. And about as rugged. Which meant that if he wanted to block a strike and got his training blade in the way, the strike was going to be blocked, whether it should have been or not.

And no amount of shouting, cajoling, instructing, or other techniques had been able to get the trainee to adjust what he was doing. Yes, it worked, but it wasted energy and meant that the lad would eventually run up against someone with enough skill to take advantage of the hole.

That was the theory, at least, although in Ira’s experience, the only enemy the guards ever defended against was the wild and sometimes starving predators that roamed the peaks of the Ogleddol expanse, and against those creatures, brawn counted for far more than almost anything else.

There hadn’t been an actual invasion of Hania since the collapse of the skycities. Why should there be? If someone wanted the fabled magical artefacts of the Hanians, they could easily find a fallen skycity and plunder it, rather than invade the lands of the last working one. And no doubt that had been done, although the truly inhospitable terrain and hidden valleys that had proven so useful to the Hanians in the past were no doubt still serving to keep most treasure seekers away.

Frustrated with everything, but perhaps herself most of all, Ira waved off the few trainees, sending them to get some food and water. Trainees… There were eight of them, six boys and two girls, and that was the entirety of this year’s guardsmen class. And four of them would be useless in a fight. No courage, no willingness to take a hit, and no hint of skill with a blade.

Sitting as she was, she could only hear the approaching footsteps.

“Another rough day, Ira?”

A glance up showed her Vendol, Senior Guardsman and what passed for the leader of the ragtag Hanian fighting force.

“Even in the year I joined, some of these would have been turned away.”

“Aye, I know. But we make do with what the gods have chosen to give us, not what we wish we could have. I could wish for the serried ranks of the Dark Havoc to rise once more, but that elite corps is consigned to the pages of history. And so we take gutter orphans and make them soldiers.”

“How? I always thought I was good at training, until I met this lot. The blacksmith’s boy will be the best of them, but that’s his father’s gifts, not mine. Several of the rest will be functional, and the bottom few little more than animal feed. Three of them against a single of the winter wolves would probably see them all killed. And when the news of that filters back, it will come to rest on my head.”

Vendol clasped her shoulder, turning Ira to face him. “No one else’s death is on your head unless you run them through. I’ve done my best over the years with the guards, but that doesn’t mean no one has died. If someone’s standing livestock duty alone, and an ice bear charges him down, unless he’s got Fasnachu’s own luck, he’s dead. Doesn’t matter if it’s you, me, or anyone else. Not one of us can manage an ice bear solo. And you’re selling yourself and the students short. They’ll turn out to be better than you think in the long run, and you’ll be the one who put them there. So smile and bear up, because the gods know we need every living soul who can.”

That drew a slightly pained grin from Ira, but a grin it was. “Fair enough, Ven. And while you’re here and in a good mood, do you mind if I take the kids down below? There’s been reports of some wolves harassing the outlying livestock pen, and I’d like to check it out.”

“Just remember to issue them real armour. Having any crippled this early on would set back the whole class.”

Ira nodded. “I understand. Was planning on bringing my homemade bow as a just in case.”

Vendol sighed. “That monstrosity? Fine. But if you break your back carrying that thing through the brush, it’s all on you.”

“Always is, chief.” Sketching a rather jaunty salute, Ira trotted off towards her home.

22

May

by thefourpartland

Dinner had been a tepid affair, as it always was these days, with little to recommend it and no flavours to speak of. It was nutrition, pure and simple, and that was all that could be said in its favour. Indeed, it was a meal to dampen the spirits, as were all the meals taken on Yn Dref these days. It was in those dampened spirits that the three friends found themselves wandering the city streets, past grey mothers and greyer children.

Ira waved a hand at the Hanians that flocked around them. “Are you sure you don’t want to help these people, Yaden? There’s little reason not to.”

Yaden sighed. For once, the boisterous nature was gone. “Ira, I’ve nothing of what they truly need.” He flicked his hand into the air, and a light shower of sparks came from it, twinkling as they extinguished themselves in the night air. “You’ve witnessed something near to the extent of my powers right there. And what we stand on is the floating remains of a mountain top, ripped from the ground and upended by magics that we can barely comprehend. The gulf between my meagre talents and the arcanists of the golden era of Hania is so vast as to swallow all the valleys that feed us and then some. To save our people, we need gifted who can cross that gulf. Instead, the very best we have exhaust themselves daily just trying to keep what remains flying. And they’re failing. The old Market District is somewhere down below, now. As are the original barracks, some of the Temple Quarter, and who knows what else that fell before I was old enough to understand. The entire might of our existing arcanists is not enough to keep one skycity in the air, and yet in the history books, we learn of a time when there were dozens, if not a hundred or more, floating above the vast canyons of Ogleddol. So no, it’s not that I won’t, it’s that I can’t.”

Canere, ever the scholar, began to muse. “But why has our talent level fallen so far? We’ve the same bloodline as the arcanists who came before. Indeed, most of the upper families remaining can trace their heritage back to the greatest of the great, and are more intermingled than any twisted vine. So that’s the same. The world around us has changed, for sure. The old empire of Arhosa is no more, but Hanian society was long somewhat separate on our skycities in the first place. The Enayinbo magicians who helped forge Arhosa were our equals, not our betters.” He paused. “I’m going to the archives. The answer has to be in there somewhere.”

The other two groaned. They had seen what happened when Canere got caught in the throes of an idea, and it would mean him spending hours upon hours digging through whatever had caught his fancy. And then dragging the two of them into it.

“Tomorrow, Canere. Despite being the one who wasn’t a fool on the edge of the world today, I’m tired. Maybe that’s because I was doing actual work. So, before you have your mad moment, I’m leaving and going to bed. Yaden, I suggest you do the same.” Ira departed, shaking her head at the ideas that would sometimes sprout in that mage’s mind.

“Yaden, I kept you safe today. The least you can do is give me a little bit of a hand with the research.”

“Canere, I’m going to say yes, even though I’ll regret it within moments. I’ll help until the midnight bell, but then I’m off to the comforts of my bed, such as they are.”

With that, the two of them set off in the direction of the arcanist archives.

***

It had taken some begging and other whining to have the librarians allow the two of them access, but after being persuaded it was a historical topic, they relented. The librarians, mages themselves, had seen too many young fools hoping to find the secret to the lost power of Hania somewhere in the stacks. Usually followed by said young fool attempting to cast one of the spells he had found and killing himself and possibly others.

And yet it was precisely to those shelves that Canere first went. Although he did send Yaden off to collect a host of histories from around the golden age until the present. As a fully trained arcanist, albeit one quite far down the pecking order due to youth, Canere did technically have access to the shelves in the back, although his instructors had rather pointedly not mentioned them to him. He’d had to discover their existence for himself, as well as what they contained. But his studies in the dusty corners of the archives had given him some of the insights that allowed him to become the arcanist he was today. Which, on the whole, was not saying a great deal.

Yaden returned to find his friend nose deep in a scroll, peering at oddly scribed words. “I’ve got the mess of documents that you wanted. Now what?”

Canere poked his nose over the scroll. “Start reading.”

“I need to know what I’m reading for…”

“Something that’s not the same as it is today.”

“Canere, that’s everything. Aside from the fact we still, barely, live on a skycity.”

The young mage paused, marshalling his thoughts. “Okay, here. Look for things that aren’t done the same way as today. Especially magical things. Something’s changed between their day and ours, and I want to find it. Our connection to magical energy isn’t as strong as it once was, and it’s not the bloodlines that’s causing it. So somewhere in those documents should be at least a hint of what’s causing it. Habits, behaviour, something’s changed that brought about Hania’s downfall. And it has to be wide enough to affect a whole civilization.”

“And if there isn’t?”

“It’s either in your documents or mine, so start reading. Hemming and hawing isn’t going to get through them any faster.”

Shaking his head at his friend’s surety, Yaden began to pour through the stack of old books in front of him.

21

May

by thefourpartland

The Last City is the next in the series of short stories and novellas that take place in the land of Arhosa, a long standing setting of mine.

The city of Yn Dref floats among the clouds of the Ogleddol Mountains, the great expanse that spans the north-eastern region of Arhosa, inhospitable to almost all life. Peaks permanently covered in snow and ice rise from the mists that wreath their noble shoulders, and even the birds do not frequent these icy slopes, preferring warmer and softer climes.

But there is life here. Small creatures dash across the snowy covering, sleeping away the winter and reviving in the summer to eat of what little food they can find. And then there are the secret valleys, nestled between the forbidding peaks, full of cold and hard earth, barely fertile. These valleys are the lifeblood of the Hanian people, for, scattered and weak, they farm amongst the rocky mountains, providing the grains that feed their floating cities.

There is little of life here, up atop the crown of the world, and it is life that gets smaller every year, for the people of Hania breed slowly, and die at a faster pace. Once great mages who travelled the lands in their flying cities, they are now reduced to little more than maintainers of the past, holding on to the remains of what once was theirs. Their libraries are full of old texts on manipulation and modification, on making a stone as light as the air or a feather weigh the same as a boulder. Yet almost none of the mages living can manage those spells, and the shrinking brotherhood watches as their flying home crumbles into the mountains below.

***

“You might want to consider stepping away from the ledge, given how much of the city has fallen in recent years.” Canere stared over at Yaden, his lifelong friend. And a bit of a fool, in Canere’s eyes.

“But if I do that, I can’t see what’s below me. And it’s such a view.”

Indeed, it was, for although Yn Dref was failing, its perch high above the ground gave it a view of the world that naught but the birds had ever possessed. Well, the birds and once the entire Hanian civilization. Now most of the people who claimed that heritage worked down in the valleys below, harvesting grain and managing what livestock there was. In decades past, those hands would have wrought spells, summoned food with a flick of the wrist, but now they were the lowest of peasants, unable to do anything but grub in the dirt.

“Yaden, I don’t want to have to explain to your parents why you’re nothing more than a red coating on some rocks. Even if it is a lovely shade of red.”

“Fine, fine.” Yaden slipped back from where he had lain, peering over the edge. “But I still think you’re being overly cautious.”

“To you, being cautious is being overly concerned.”

Yaden shrugged. “Well, what else is there to live for? The glory of our people? We all know that’s long gone. A beautiful wife? Most of the people around here look more weathered than the stone. Good cheer? We eat gruel and stew, and pray to Challineb we have a harvest each year. So I take what pleasure where I can.”

“You could spend your talents bettering the situation, working on restoring Hanian and Yn Dref.”

Yaden snorted. “That’s why you became a mage, and I didn’t. I don’t have the scales over my eyes.”

Canere pointed at the implements that hung from Yaden’s belt. “You might not claim to be a mage, but you still have some talents in that direction. Talents that could help this city and its people.”

“Talents that I am perfectly happy using for my own amusements, I’ll have you know.”

“Oh? Is that why you use them trying to entice Ira?”

For once, Yaden had the good grace to blush. “I do nothing of the sort, I merely acquire presents for her when the moment seems right.”

“Presents for whom?” Ira laughed as she ducked around a fallen pillar, her reddish blonde hair drifting in the breeze.

“According to Yaden, anyone but you. You’re just too hideous to give anything but a mask.” Canere was already ducking the punch coming his way as he said it.

Although he ducked the wrong way, since he was expecting it from Yaden, and instead got smacked by Ira.

“Ow! That hurt!”

“Best be careful what sharpness comes out of your mouth then.”

Canere rolled his eyes at Ira, causing her and Yaden to burst into fits of laughter.

“On a better note, I’ve been sent to summon you lot to dinner. Not that the magister will be entirely happy, if he finds out you were up to your old tricks of hanging off the lip again.”

“I counselled against it, as I always do.”

“Canere, you’ve been counselling against it since Yaden was five, ad you’ve never stopped him once. At this point, that just makes you as complicit as him.”

Yaden smirked. “You see, Canere? You should be doing the things I do, rather than just standing around and watching. At least you’d have earned getting in trouble then.”

Ira glared at Yaden, who grinned and sauntered off in the direction of dinner. Staring over the edge of the world did give him a frightful appetite, after all.