The Skies of Aurlin
Author: Caela Kings

Chapter 7
Paragon


II.

I had to find the girl.

Time had passed since I'd last seen her, and she was already gone deep into the forest. Her village was the same as ever, it seemed, without her. There were a few demonic, but small, cats trying to raid one of the homes, and a cacophony of screams and cries—but I have some doubts Iythara would have made much of a difference in such matters. I left them to their business.

Gratefully, it is faster for a bird to travel than a half-grown girl, especially through trees. I moved with the clouds, the wind blowing from the mountains and under my wings. The cold weather made it harder to fly; there were not nearly as many warm updrafts to float on. But I could still manage to glide, and it was a dry, if not warm, day.

The forest was aptly named for its dark color. The majority of the trees were firs and had the color of a leaf on a twilit wind. This made it easier to find the white-robed girl traveling amongst them. I flew as silently as I could, gliding when possible, and trying not to disturb the trees. It would not have been so hard if night was not approaching. My white feathers made me look like a ghost, incorporeal—which in reality, was strangely more akin to my true existence in the Lands. But I also stood out against the dark sentinels of the forest.

Iythara looked exhausted, but determined. Her robes were lined with red thread that looked eerily similar to the blood which still stuck to her neck. The wound on her cheek had not been bandaged, nor cleaned, but it was healing nonetheless. She carried a canvas pack slung across one shoulder, and lengths of wood hung from her rope belt.

It must have been my studying of her, but my flight went awry as I tried to land on a stray branch—my wings set a chain of needles rustling and a pair of doves fluttering off with a startled song.

Iythara froze, and slowly turned toward me. She lifted her feet gently, spread her weight as to not make a sound. Then, she took one of the pieces of wood from her belt; one I recognized now to be a sling. Within moments, the weapon was laden with a rock and pulled back, but she did not fire it. She waited, her bleached eyes reflecting the moon's light like a cat. I was hidden deep in the fir, however, and she did not see me.

Or so I thought—but after a moment of careful observation, she loosed the stone and it came hurtling towards me. It was off to the left, but I could not tell in that moment and I fluttered upwards with an instinctive screech as it scored the trunk of the tree behind me.

That was when she saw me. Her eyes widened, then narrowed at the sight of my white form.

It's you,” she said. “You abandoned me. You vanished, like a ghost.”

I landed on her arm—she was tense, like a wary animal—and blinked, realizing I had, in fact, left her. My servant had pulled me from my scrying directly after the elder had proclaimed me Iythara's guide. She sighed and sat down in the middle of the path, holding me up to look me into the eyes. She regarded me intensely.

You saved my life,” she said. “But I am but a ghost. I owe you nothing, and you owe me nothing. I can do this myself, without you going and scaring off all my prey.”

I didn't point out that she had not originally been aware of the birds I scared off. Then again, I couldn't. So I snapped my beak open then closed before giving a slightly softer squawk. She eyed me oddly.

She whispered to herself, “Sometimes I think you can understand us.”

Sometimes? I flew off her shoulder and onto the rough path. It was little more than a dark line in the soil, patted down by the hooves of deer and the paws of rabbits. With every ounce of concentration I could muster, I scratched my name in simple glyphs in the dirt. Iythara inched over, her head cocked to the side.

Nice... picture,” she commented. It still strikes me as odd that she cannot read; despite that we speak the same language, the scripts are different. And, putting that fact aside, Iythara knew none of them anyway. I flapped the loose dirt away and fluttered to a close tree. Iythara watched me with with her near-glowing eyes, scratching absently at the spurs on her hands. Then, she gave a small sigh, and leaned against the tree I had perched in. She was still as tense as before, but she gave into her weariness for the moment. She looked up, making her eyes appear wider.

I'm going to call you 'Spar',” she said. “It means 'ghost'.” She paused and seemed even a tad chagrined. “Can you find me a mouse, Spar? Or a bird? A bird would be better.” I nodded, slowly, though she did not see. I had never hunted before, but if I just stayed still, the whole forest did as well, and filled with a thousand small sounds. The call of a pigeon, the heartbeat of a snake, the croak of a female frog—the twitch of a rodent, hidden in the brush. It was trying to sleep, and shuffled in the undergrowth so it rustled ever so softly. Above it, a red-tipped bird slumbered in the hollow of a tree. That, I decided, would be my quarry. My legs were long, my talons longer, and the hole, it seemed, was small and had no other exit. I swooped, the wind filling my ears for a second of weightless flight, before my claws hit the bark of the tree. The bird inside gave a cry of pure and untainted terror, but it ended prematurely as I managed a lucky swipe across its chest, breaking its hollow bones. It was harder to retrieve it, as it was near impossible to hover for so long, but with enough fluttering, battering, and clawing, I clutched the small, still warm body in my talons. Warmth seeped from it, like the earth was sucking the life from the already lifeless body. I dropped it at Iythara's feet and she gave my a thankful look. She drew a small, rusted knife from her pack—it was old and worn, but intricate. I could make out a lizard's mouth and body surrounding the hilt, it's tail making up the handle. The blade was waved, like flame, and dulled over time. It was still sharp enough to split the small bird, however, and it bled black in the silver light. She poked its gore cautiously, closing her eyes as if deep in thought.

Where do you come from, little one?” she asked. “Past the forest? Have you seen past the forest?” She shuddered. “Spar, what vicious claws you have... So large...”

She went silent for quite some time. Then, vehemently, “Mindless bird”; and shoved the corpse to the side. She wiped her dirtied fingers on her robe before attacking her pack for her burgundy cloak. She wrapped herself up tightly and scooted closer to the tree before closing her eyes. Even in sleep, she did not relax.


Feld looked at Warren as the short man attempted to heave his multiple packs. It was comical to see him doubled over, straining with a stream of colorful curses. The bags moved a few inches.

Ter spoke up, “Master Warren, would you like me to carry your things?” He already had Feld's packs over his shoulder, but he did not seem the least bit nonplussed over the thought of doubling the load. Feld rolled his eyes. What he really means is that if we don't hurry up, the paragons will leave us behind. Unfortunately, Warren shook his head fiercely, then proceeded to move to the other side of his load and push with his back. This was more effective, but not by much. However, Ter decided he was tired of waiting, and went to pull the packs from the front. Warren, with his back to him, did not see the strong servant. He grinned as his stuff finally started moving, but grew suspicious when their speed exceeded his and he fell back. He let himself fall all the way to the ground, so he was laying on the cold tile. He looked up at Feld.

“Where did you find him?”

“Where ever one finds an ass.”

“Ter?” Warren asked, looking at the servant laden with the multitude of bags walking toward Landing, the hall where the paragons would arrive.

Feld shrugged. “Extremely helpful when it comes to pack services—extremely annoying any other time. And terribly stubborn.”

Warren paused, his brain sorting through the bitter jest before he laughed, “Oh! I thought you meant the other a...” He coughed, standing and restoring some of his dignity. “Never mind.” Feld snorted.

“Of course,” he replied, patting Warren's shoulder. “Let's get to Landing; shall we?”

Warren sniffed and executed an elegant bow. “After you, my good man.”


They were the last people to arrive at Landing. Sovan cast them disapproving glances, and Tria a more venomous one to Warren. San and Ali chatted as one of the other servants struggled to get their stuff stacked in the corner.

Landing was a rather small room compared to the normally open, airy construction the rest of Aurlin shared. Its corners were sharp, not round, and the ceilings low. Feld fought off the stifling feeling it spawned. It might have been overwhelming, but the far wall was completely encompassed by a large window. It had no metal crosses embedded in it—just a solid, flat, pane of glass. Bulky, metal components lined its edge, though, bolting it to the white stone wall. The flat, dusky mountainscape spanned outward, stopping short just at a huge white building complex on the horizon made small by the distance.

Ter sighed in relief as he deposited his charge next to the rest of the luggage and brushed his hands clean of any remnants of hard work. San looked up at the noise and gave the servant a wave.

“Dear Ter,” she greeted. “How would you like to accompany us to the gathering? You are such a good worker.”

“A servant?” Feld asked, stealing San's attention for the moment.

“Why not?” she replied. “He's helpful, useful, intelligent, and such good help is hard to find in the Mains.” Ter gave a ghost of a smile and bowed deeply to her. “Besides, I've been to far too many of these to quite care if it's proper.”

“I would be delighted to accompany you, my lady,” he said. “It has been so long since I was in the true Aurlin and I do miss it.”

Sovan looked up from his book, gazing over his small reading glasses. “You've been there before?”

“I schooled there, just as everyone else,” Ter said offhanded. Most of the Mains was sectioned off, separating visiting nobles and government officials from the children and teachers. “I still remember the marble staircase leading to the observatories, and the gold platform which held the Regent's throne...” He trailed off, his dark eyes becoming a rare, softer shade. Then, he seemed to shake himself out of the reverie and coughed to hide his embarrassment. “I'm sure you do as well, Master Sovan.”

“I remember quite well.”

“How?” Ali laughed. “All you did was spend time in the libraries. I'm sure, if you could, you'd live in there for the remainder of your life.” Sovan's mouth twitched in a frown and he closed his book a fraction. It was a thick thing, bound in satin cloth and edged in gold.

“Do you know if they keep an Avitorium?” he asked, voicing one of Feld's thoughts. If he was not allowed to scry, he would not be able to finish his work in time to turn it in—they were going to spend more than a month in the Mains, and he wanted no time wasted.

“Of course they do,” Warren said. The first time any of them had scried was in this section of Aurlin, not in the Mains. “Everyone has an Avitorium. How else would they keep occupied?”

“And what about the Risen?” Tia supplied. She was shorter than all the others in the room by at least a hand, and made Warren look tall when she stood next to him. Her hair was a bright yellow and caught the light which occasionally streamed in through the many clouds and large window.“They are allowed to scry, if just once. Would they send out paragons to other sections just to let important servants use Avitoriums?”

“I am more than certain there is an Avitorium in the Mains,” Ter said in a concluding manner. He glanced at his pocket-watch. “The paragons are late.”

Ali got on to the tips of her toes. “I think I can see them. Those specks. They're getting closer. Fast.”

“So they are,” Ter observed.

“How do they travel so quickly?” Warren wondered, eyes alight. The prospect of being so close to the technology the paragons used to travel was obviously exciting him. “It must take large amounts of energy.” He blinked, then lunged for his pack. “I've seen the paragons before, if not so close, and they use these mechanical horses or flying creatures to travel,” he said. “But I've always wondered—why not use wheels? It would be much more efficient—a noble might even be able to create a solar-powered engine able to maintain it.” He smiled just slightly. Feld knew, when he said “noble” he meant himself. It seemed to be Warren's goal to create the ultimate machine, one which generated power with no use for other fuel. Something completely self sufficient.

The mathematician gave an “aha” or triumph as he drew a couple metal objects from his packs. He knelt on the floor, tinkering with each one.

“This one,” he said, “is simply a box with wheels. It's powered by a battery placed in here. This one is a little figurine based on the vehicles the paragons use. It's the same mass as the first, and uses the same battery.” He must have pressed something to make them activate, for they both began to move forward. However, after two laborious steps, the horse figurine stopped moving and collapsed on its side. The wheeled box moved for near twice that length before coasting half its original distance more once its battery died. “This is a dilemma, you see? But just some more observations might help me improve my scale model.”

Sovan came a step closer, peering at the toys. “A strange enigma we have here,” he mentioned. “Though truly, I've never quite thought about it myself, this is very strange. But perhaps the answer is just in the Regent's more efficient inventors?”

Warren frowned, normally good-natured eyes flashing. His skill in arithmetic made him more suited to mathematical theory, but the pure numbers bored him more often than not, and his curiosity gave him a good edge in his inventing—as did his advanced knowledge in math. However, he did not know all the small tricks and skills learned from a true inventor. That fact made him more determined to out-class his fellows, but it proved a sore spot. One Sovan was all too aware of. Warren forced a nod.

“That could be it,” he said, mastering his emotions. “But I would quite like to be the one to figure it out.” He smiled then, shrugging off Sovan's barb with practiced efficiency. Sovan gave him a small smile in return, but Warren's soured just the slightest as the philosopher went back to his book.

“What are you reading there, Sovan, that has you so engrossed?” Feld asked, leaning closer.

'The Theory of Irrationality and Other Factors in Normal Emotion',” Sovan replied. Feld snorted.

“Definitely sounds like something you would enjoy.”

“Well, of course,” Sovan gave him an odd look. “I did write it. In fact, Feld, I was telling you some snip-bits from it a few days ago."

"What is it about?" San asked.

"How irrational ability increases exponentially with strong emotion."

“I'd think that fact is obvious," San said, almost sweetly.

Warren snorted. "Yes, but he wrote a hundred pages of it. Now it's wisdom."

“Perhaps I should look this over,” San commented. “To better defend against your methods. One of those chapters is on manipulation as I recall.”

“I know better than to put my secrets out for the public to read." Sovan rolled his eyes.

“As if anyone reads this, dear.”

Feld stopped listening to the two of them, standing near Ali instead. She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye for a moment, but most of her attention was on the growing white dot of the nearing paragons.

Then, “Did you ever figure out what that table was?”

“The one down in the old hall?”

Ali nodded. Feld frowned. “I didn't have time to go back.”

“Ah,” Ali breathed. “You've taken a strange and sudden liking to scrying, I've noticed.”

“It helps me think,” Feld replied, feeling evasive. If he couldn't confide in Ali, then who?

No one, he realized, but he was not overly shocked by the thought. While Warren and Sovan were his closest friends, and he truly did love talking to them—talking about anything intimately personal with them was simply... not done. But did he have to?

“Nearly here,” Sovan commented, glancing at the forest. The dual figures of the paragons were visible now, white and silver clad horses thundering across the landscape, two pulling each cart. They were close in little time at all and, in response to their arrival, the glass wall opened, like a vertical door. Cold air and a misting of rain gusted into Landing; even Feld was startled by it, and Sovan was nearly knocked backward. The metal hooves of the paragon mounts struck the tiled floor with a sound akin to thunder. They shone like enamel, their skin made up of interlocking plates of the white-coated material. As they bent and moved, silver skeleton became visible.

The paragons themselves were seated behind their two charges, clothed completely in white—only their eyes were visible through the slit between their scarves and cowls. They themselves could have been automatons from the stillness they embodied—looking front and forward with eyes of stone. Ter went about loading the luggage, as did San and Tria's servants, into the undersides of the carriages that lay hidden by canvas curtains.

Overcoming his surprise, Warren ventured toward the horses, brazenly stroking the shining plates. The horse shifted in response, swiveling and turning its neck to meet Warren's eyes with its gemstone ones. The light which emanated from them flickered like a dying candle; Warren took a step back.

“They seem very alive,” he mentioned, shivering just slightly. He reached out to touch its snout, but it shied from his hand and shifted its weight between silver-shoed feet. “Might I ask how they've been constructed?”

The paragon did not respond. Warren frowned, then crouched under the machine. “Where is its power source?” he asked. “Is it internal?”

Yes,” was the paragon's curt reply. His voice was rough and halting, like wind across rock. Grating. “Internal.

“They speak...” Sovan murmured under his breath, watching Ter intently as the servant diligently went about his task.

“How long can they run?” Warren asked. “Must you stop in Aurlin often.”

No.

“And this,” Warren ran his hand along the horse's side, “what is it made of?”

Silence.

“Metal?”

Yes.

“Silver?”

No.

Warren frowned as he began to sense a pattern. His bright eyes studied the stalwart man. Feld thought he could make out yellow in the paragon's gaze, but beneath the layers of fabric, even that was hard to see. He looked as if carved from white stone, even his skin pale despite his extended periods outside.

“Nearly done, Kel?” Ter called over one cart. Tria's servant peered around the edge of the cart, nodding her brown-haired head. “Lon?” San's servant replied in affirmative as well, stuffing the last of his charge's luggage into the cart. Sovan smiled, walking blithely beside Feld.

“I dearly hope my memory of the library is accurate,” he said. “Can you imagine the tall arches and towering cases of book after book? Are they as large as I remember? As tall as the sky? Or was that an illusion of childish perception?”

“You are not spending all your time in the company of tomes, Sovan,” Warren said. “I'll drag you by the throat if I have to.”

“Let him do as he pleases,” Feld said. “With all luck he'll wonder in there and never come back out.” Warren laughed.

“Why, this place without a Sovan to occupy it?” he asked. “I don't think I could imagine it.”


The mountainscape, while beautiful, did not stray an inch from its grey rocks and ashen dust and bleak, heavy skies. It rained once, and thundered in the distance, but no lightning could be seen. Only Aurlin, the huge fortress rising on the horizon.

She was build as a castle from times long forgotten, many spires rising from her thick walls; they were large things, nothing like the thin, spiraling towers Aurlinites favored. Silver-lined windows—some even sporting color glass—were set ablaze even by a spare glance of the hidden sun: a thousand vibrant eyes. She simply sprawled like a weary mountain cat, majestic even in her slumber. The small sections which nobles lived where pale visages of the city—eager ghosts ready to please, but never more than a step closer to the glory itself had spawned from, yet never a step further away. Aurlin was life given brick and stone.

Feld hadn't realized how deeply he'd missed the Mains until they'd come close enough to see it once more. A sudden envy of Ali—able to come for a fifth of the year, every year to this. Even his memories of Aurlin were foggy, given how long ago he'd walked within her halls. The white marble and crystal arches and windowed courtyards glowed anew in his mind as the paragon's pulled the enclosed carriages to a halt at the grand entrance. The doors—nearly half as tall as Aurlin herself—swung open.

“It doesn't matter how many times I come here,” Ali mentioned. “It's still beautiful.”

The hall was large, and certainly not empty. Two men stood in the center, just before the large staircase, and a group of servants behind them who came forth to help the others with the packs—the paragons were to leave as soon as possible.

One of the men was of stocky build, but he managed to look elegant in his deep blue clothing. Just looking at him made Feld feel as though he was slovenly dressed. Gold threading marked the man of high rank, and as he gazed upon the newcomers, he gave just the hint of a bow. But it was the person beside him who was of true important.

The Lord of White was aptly named; Regent Kratos Laufrey was unnaturally pale even by Aurlin's standards—His long hair was stark white, His skin just a shade darker, and His eyes just tinted with grey and yellow enough to be considered colored. His pinched face made Him look gaunt, and His loose, black clothing had Him appear more as a wraith than a man. When He moved it looked like a piece of parchment folding and unfolding; as He walked, the only sound He made was that of his gold, dragon-featured staff clicking against the floor.

“Welcome,” He said simply. “I trust the trip was pleasant?” He looked at them as if He expected an answer, but Feld dared not speak, not did anyone else. The Regent has a presence to Him which commanded silence.

“You are the first to arrive,” He continued. “My ladies, you will be shone to your rooms shortly.” He paced, his watery gaze falling on each individual. He smiled as He said, “Ah, Master Warren, this is the first time I've had the pleasure to meet you.” He inclined his head, and even the slightest bow was enough to bewilder Feld. He had no idea how Warren must have felt, but the mathematician must have been shocked.

“And Master Sovan,” Kratos Laufrey said, “I've been debating when to drag you down here, my good man. I hope you are as interesting to talk to as your work is to read.” The Regent leaned forward, as if to whisper, but His hushed voice was audible to everyone. “Maybe it just might make the rest of these boorish fellows more tolerable.” He straightened, then glanced back, ignoring Sovan's ashen face. “Present company not included of course, dears.”

His smile grew a tad bit larger as He came to Feld, though the light dimmed from those strange eyes as He said, “Master Feld, be sure not to break any windows during your visit. They are terribly hard to replace.”

He moved away before Feld could react—not that the poet truly could, but he felt the blood drain from his face and he blinked as his fear just then overcame his surprise. There was a large amount of mythology surrounding the Regent; that He had powers an ordinary man could only dream of, or a mind which could span Aurlin in a heartbeat. That He could take the form or any bird at any time He pleased to fly higher than any other Aurlinite. Most people scoffed at the ideas. Magic did not exist, though, sometimes, technology made it seem as through it did. However, Feld could not fathom how the Regent could know that one fact in such a short time. Or rather, he could not imagine who would go to the effort to tell Him.

“You've done a blessed job, Tellfere,” Kratos Laufrey said. He was speaking with the servants, most specifically Ter. “I'm glad they managed to drag you here.” Then, He bowed and left the Aurlinites in a state of confusion as he offered no explanation.

“That was... odd,” Sovan remarked, giving Ter a pointed look. The servant glanced away sheepishly.

“It was nothing, my lord,” he said. “Please do not mind me.” He went about unloading in silence.

 

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