The Shardspur, Aeviternal Expanse, Vershellen
The Shardspur was ancient
. People tended to forget. Clinging to an unforgiving fragment of planar rock, surely the remnant of some much larger island shattered in a long-ago catastrophe, it sailed serenely through a plane of venomous, unmerciful light. Its foundations – the obdurate white granite so ubiquitous to Vershellen as a whole – had floated undisturbed for millennia before humans had ever set foot in the plane, and it bore its far newer burden of towers and bastions lightly.
The old fortress’ archaic battlements and ramparts scowled out at the bright, mad distance of the Aeviternal Expanse, and its rune-worked walls – many feet thick, hewn by desperate hands rather than the smooth precision of golemry or the surpassing skill of magic – bore the wild assault of the planar winds without complaint, as they had for nearly half a millennium.
Once, the Shardspur had been the last refuge of a people driven from their world by a calamity so great it threatened to end them all, but now…well.
The proud pennons of Vershellen – and House Hellebore – still snapped and raced from the squat towers that rose from the scree-littered slopes, the odd lufwood and seeking heartvine clinging grimly to the cliffsides, its garrison of Brass Legionnaires manned the walls with perfect precision and its bronze-dipped siege batteries kept a close and wary eye on the struggling trading settlement of Port Sunlight, but there was no denying that the Shardspur was a backwater.
And that suited Alexander Hellebore, by grace of the Crown Viscount Shardspur and – almost by default - Governor-General of the Expanse Aeviternal, down to the ground. He was a lesser scion of House Hellebore in many ways, a mediocre magister of the second rank – which still left him far above the common masses in skill and power – and without much in the way of besetting pride and ambition that characterised many born to his station. He had his fair share of luxuries, a secure position far removed from the cutthroat politics of his distant and glorious cousin the empress’ Court of Days, and his duties were, while useful, in truth not onerous or critical to the continued prosperity of the empire.
Yes, life was good.
His study was in the highest tower of the Shardspur – which wasn’t saying much, by Vershellese standards; it had been built long before modern reinforcing techniques and metamaterials had even been dreamt of, and so where newer mage spires soared up to the bright heavens, raised by tireless golems and powerful magic, the Shardspur squatted, bristling suspiciously against the world. Whilst the citadel-isle hadn’t seen a major renovation project in two centuries – and why would it? – successive generations had at least seen to the gentle modernization of the interior.
Thus, Alexander’s study was a comfortable place of plush crimson carpets and orphidax wood panelling, the poison radiance transmuted into harmless and rich blocks of vermillion light by the elaborate stained-glass windows, waves of sumptuous colour washing up the panes in an ornate display of the glassmage’s art. Magelights glowed warmly in baroque sconces, highlighting the archaic pale fan-vaulting that supported the roof and bathing his desk in abundant radiance.
A desk that was piled high with paperwork, brigaded by overstuffed bookshelves groaning under the weight of tomes, everything from the ancient and carefully-preserved handwritten vellum and leather to the more modern printed paper and cloth, to a few precious examples of memory-glass and manasteel, for the truly critical records. Even a sleepy, bucolic backwater like the Expanse generated tremendous volumes of paperwork – bills of lading, taxation records, reports from the small squadron of sky-cutters based in the Shardspur’s rudimentary docks, Courts of Appeal cases, maintenance requests…the list went on and on and on, all important work, all necessary
work, but – and Alexander always felt a slight, glad glow – nothing that was critical. No princely magister’s pet projects needing immediate and total
attention under the threat of annihilation, no political intrigue requiring the prioritization of this
, none of the inevitable reprisals and recriminations…just the regular business of citizens sept to the House of Hellebore, the concerns of the few minor Houses that made their homes under that same imperial aegis and the yearly visit of the empress’ circuit rider from the capital.
Finishing the latest – a dispute over jurisdiction, of all things, of one of the essence-mills that powered the mana grid of Port Sunlight – and setting his seal with a sizzle of arcane sparks, Alexander rose from his chair with a sigh and padded over to one of the windows. A lingering touch, a mote or two of mana, and the dense scarlet cleared and paled obediently, letting him – if he was careful, and didn’t spend too long at it – take an unfettered look at his province.
At this time of year, the light, the endless, all-pervading light of a million stars, was tinged green and gold and the winds were heavy with the promise of life. Everything
grew when the skies were saturated with virescence, farmers delighting as their crops exploded out of the ground like fireworks and gardeners despairing as their fiercely parterred and pleached arrangements were swallowed beneath the relentless tide of new growth. The air was heady with the sweet scent of exile’s roses running wild, carried through the long-defunct Gate – which resided not a stone’s throw from the Shardspur, a vast and empty arc – from Gaia as a memory of the lost homeland and distributed everywhere the empire found purchase.
The Aeviternal Expanse wasn’t the heart of the empire, it wasn’t the Crownsward with colossal, glittering Cynosure at its heart and a sky dreadnought hovering protectively over every trade-lane, but it had been settled for a long
time. The worst of the local fauna had long since been exterminated, brought low by sword and bow and desperate spellfire in the earliest days of Vershellen, the wildwoods which had run rampant over the larger islands tamed and brought to heel with axe and saw and the untapped demesnes roaring with magical flux capped and channeled, their riotous, surging energies directed to civilisation
rather than the birthing of fresh arcane horrors.
Placid homesteads stood, plumply self-satisfied, on the choiciest of isles. Fields – bright and living green, orderly and tame – spread like blankets across once-wild landscapes, and, on the closest, Alexander’s keen eyes could even spot the tireless forms of golems tending to the crops, blessedly unaffected by the venomous light. Pot-bellied skyships puttered between the islands in the sky, their holds filled with the agrarian bounty of the Expanse and their spun-light sails straining against the load.
Yes, they weren’t the most valuable
of cargoes – that honour undoubtedly went to the Days mined and refined in the Far Reaches – and perhaps Port Sunlight didn’t, as a consequence, make the kind of princely profits that greater trading ports in other regions of the empire took for granted, but it was safe and it was calm and it was his
. Nothing exciting happened in the Expanse, not really, and Alexander was just fine
It left him plenty of time to cultivate his roses.
Alas, such idyllic times were not to last. Alexander Hellebore’s warm, sloe-brown eyes were turned away from the Gate - its soaring magnificence rendered a mundane part of the background by time and familiarity - when the wound in the world first tore itself into existence once again, but his senses were sharp
and he felt
the colossal bloom of power – vast even for Vershellen - as it swelled to a gargantuan crescendo.
He hit the floor rolling, even as the shock of the discharge blew the windows in. A hail of crimson razor-shards buried themselves deep into the panelling and more showered down around him even as, from somewhere within the depths of the castle, an alarm not heard in anyone’s lifetime howled to life, screaming up and down the scale and raking across already-frayed nerves.
A second-rank magister he might have been, and far removed from the courtly intrigue that meant death or razor-honed reflexes, but his power was as responsive as ever, surging forth in a spreading wave of pale glacier-gray fire, fighting back the siren song of the unfettered light now pouring in through his study windows. He gritted his teeth and poured out more; the Shardspur wasn’t large enough, or populated enough, to warrant a full city-scale shield; they relied on the runeworked walls and stained glass to keep them safe. Now, half that protection was gone
in a single instant, and if he didn’t act fast, his people would start to suffer for it. Light-madness and vitrification, neither pleasant and both ultimately fatal if allowed to fester.
“Not on my damned watch,
” he growled, still prone on the carpet, face a mask of strain as he struggled to maintain a shield larger than anything he’d attempted before. His people below were utterly defenceless against the light, just as they had been in the earliest days of Vershellen; it fell to him
, the ranking noble and representative of the empire, to do his duty and defend them as best he could. As only
As he pulled himself to his feet, cursing his own overindulgence, the doors burst open and two gleaming Brass Legionnaires stormed in, their longswords of curdled light out and glowing, ready to skewer any attacker. “Excellency!
” one of them boomed, in the resonant steel-on-steel tones that all the imperial golems tended towards. Woozily, Alexander noted the rank markings and ornamentation to the sculpted breastplate; the captain of the guard herself. “Are you unharmed?
He brushed a few slivers of glass impatiently out of his clothes and skin. “I’m fine.
” A drop of blood swelled, slowly, from his nose and burst, unnoticed, on the floor, and a headache began to pound meanly at his temples. “We need to get everyone out of the light; I can’t hold this forever.
” An admission of weakness that would be unthinkable in normal times, but the golems were loyal
, far more so than beings of flesh, and the Brass Legionnaires had unflinchingly served the House of Hellebore since before the empire existed.
The captain saluted, sheathing her sword in one fluid movement. “Evacuations to the inner citadel rooms are in progress, milord.
” She paused, as though the next was physically painful to her. “The…event…has shattered our crystal balls and transmission wafers; our coordination and communications are not…what they should be. We are fortunate the mirror-streams remain unaffected, or else we would be reduced to runners and written messages. It is making matters more chaotic than is optimal.
Alexander shook his head. “At least people are moving,
” he answered, quietly thankful for the efficiency of the legionnaires. “And get someone to silence that wretched shrieking; I can’t hear myself think for the racket!
He allowed himself to be quickly hustled away from his ruined towertop retreat, down into the bowels of the citadel and away from the poison light which had, in the space of seconds, gone from a mostly-abstract concern, a mundane fact of life rendered irrelevant by the march of progress, to a sudden and pressing danger once more.
Blessedly, someone managed to shut off the screeching klaxon, but the quiet was short-lived; the centrepiece of the inner citadel was a vaulting, windowless chamber usually used for storage and now full of fearful cries and the shrill chatter of the Shardspur’s fleshy population. Around the edges the Brass Legionnaires formed a bristling, spiky cordon, protecting their frailer counterparts and ready to cut any invading arcane monstrosity – or light-maddened soul - to ribbons.
Questions assailed Alexander on all sides as he strode confidently into the hall, the very picture of a noble magister defending his charges, the image only slightly marred by the stubborn ooze of blood from his nose and his bloodshot eyes.
“Are we under attack?
“The Legionnaires bundled me here-
” His voice, made sonorous and resonant with a cantrip every mage knew, shook cataracts of dust from the high vaults and instantly silenced the jabbering crowd. “For the time being, all windowed rooms and passageways are off-limits to anyone unable to manage a full-body lightshield. No, I don’t know exactly what’s happened, but it’s big and it involves the Gate.
” Internally, Alexander shook his head at that; for five hundred years and change, the Gate had been a big floating relic, no longer understood and certainly no longer functional. “I will be calling Cynosure and the Admiralty for immediate reinforcements, and to the closest arsenals for whatever Brass Legionnaires can be spared. In the meantime-
He continued, spouting off a litany of orders and instructions with the instinctual, habitual ease of one born to rule, and under his spreading mantle of opalescent shields the garrison of the Shardspur hurried to obey.
Sky-Cutter HMS Skylark, The Gate, Aeviternal Expanse, Vershellen
The sky-cutter was a swift thing, one of the smallest skyships in common usage throughout the empire. Without exception they were sleek, the better to cut through the air, with a veritable cloud of golden spun-light sails to drive them through the endless heavens. A single rank of shard carronades lined its lightly armoured brass-dipped hull; cutters were customs vessels, designed for the chase and for close-range boarding actions with their contingent of winged Brass Legionnaires. The portholes, deep-sunk and with armoured coverings, glowed like rubies, and half a hundred painstakingly-carved sapphire eyes sat in rune-carved sockets all across the hull, a way for the crew inside to see and track their environment without being exposed to its insidious touch.
On the bridge of the Skylark
, the continual matter of navigating the vessel through the high empyrean continued unabated, running like clockwork as the ship neared the colossal portal. The crew of winged bronze golems, their patterns specially lightened and stripped down to save on weight wherever possible, moved with lithe tread and utter certainty of purpose, trimming a great bank of light-sails here, adjusting a pulley-weight there, staring intently at readouts projected onto quicksilver mirror-pools, whilst in the centre of it all a tight knot of Brass Legionnaires bristled.
This was all so exciting!
Amelia Salomé-Hellebore was at the centre of the tumult, her eyes almost as bright as the reflected glare from the legionnaires’ decorated plate. She was a young sorceress, as these things went, skin the colour of chocolate and hair the Hellebore white, marking her as a member of a cadet branch of the imperial House, and she’d demanded a place on the expedition, when the initial panic had died down.
There had been such tiresome arguments
! But, eventually, stodgy old Viscount Shardspur, bleeding from the nose at the effort of shielding the whole citadel with his magic, personally
– she’d not thought the man had the power in him to do it, let alone hold the spell - had been swayed and, at the centre of a prickling square of Brass Legionnaires, she’d been escorted into the only sky-cutter (and, indeed, the only skyship
) currently in the Shardspur’s little dock, heading straight for the swirling viridescence that snapped and crackled and roared
the music of the spheres from between weather-beaten spires of granite and marble.
A buzzing hum seemed to shake the universe as the brave Skylark
approached, everything vibrating to some unknown note. The captain said something, she was sure of it, bronze fingers dancing across flaring, erratic controls, but it was lost in the rising drone.
Magic lay thick on the air, almost as dense as it was around Cynosure or one of the princely ports, and Amelia laughed at its chocolate and cinder-toffee taste on her tongue, the sensation of plunging into an endless ocean
A cascade of images tumbled through her head as she swam through the currents; all she would have to do is reach out her hand and they – for she could instinctively feel the forged-metal glow of her golems’ souls – would be there
, and not here. There was an abandoned city, being reclaimed by the stop-motion advance of the jungle; another rainforest in the middle of what looked like a serious
cloudburst, then a sickly and graspingly hungry
, green-lit darkness she shied away from, a swampy marshland that seemed to go on for ever
, more and more came and swirled about her in a complex and shifting mandala, each eager, each keen, resonant with power and pregnant with possibility.
Sky-Cutter HMS Skylark, Gaia
The good ship Skylark
, trailing viridian streamers of energy from every spar and an excess mana-charge crackling across its gleaming hull, burst out of the great Rift and into an unfamiliar sky. Blue, blue, blue
, a great wash of azure blankness with only a few cotton-wisp clouds to break up its alien monotony, no constellations burning bright in eye-catching patterns, no siren-song music of the spheres.
Just…blue sky and yellow sunlight, filtering in through the watching eyes embedded in the skyship’s hull, rolling madly in their sockets as they rushed to drink in the new place. Blue sky and yellow sun above, green grassland and forest below – and, in the clearing far beneath, tiny figures, rendered comically small by altitude but still visible and growing larger as the ship descended, its gold-gossamer sails of spun light brushing the tops of the trees.
Anticipation, fear and wonder all warred inside her head and raked their phantom fingers up her spine. The great rip in reality was, blessedly, stable behind her, the way home
remained open, and – glory of glories – the unknown unfurled itself majestically before her.
There was opportunity here, if she had the spine and stomach to grasp it. Viscount Shardspur’s orders might have been to reconnoitre and report back as quickly as possible, but this?
“Take us down,
” she commanded. “We shall see what denizens inhabit this place, and what they might tell us of it, before we return to Vershellen in triumph! We make history today, legionnaires; they’ll carve your patterns on the Roll of Honour for your parts in this!