Birthright: Ascension

In the Shadow Hours

Castle Bellam at night is a quiet place, even with the addition of the Academy. The small handful of apprentices that have come are under curfew at night, lest the dangers of the Shadow Hours influence them overmuch in their formative years. Even the servants in the castle were mostly asleep, though a few guards remained vigilant – flirting with the night maids as they swept the stone corridors. Johann, too, usually sleeps during the night, fatigued from teaching his classes, his own research, and the general rigors of running his county. Tonight, it is his research that has kept his mind from sleeping. What he needs, he thinks, is a quiet place to sit and sort through his thoughts.

Johann holds his signet up before the blank stone archway and thinks, “It has been a long time since I last came down here. More than a year, I’d guess.” The air in the cold castle corridor briefly shifts as the mebhaighl energies coalesce and the ritual is activated. The individual stones beneath the arch fade silently into nothingness revealing an unworked stone passage leading below. Only the crudely carved steps betray any influence of mortal forces. Far below the winding stair, a faint blue light pulsates.

Accompanied by Zeras, Johann steps through the open arch and begins his descent into the bowels of the castle. The passage closes behind them as they cross fully beyond the threshold and the torchlight behind them, too, falls into darkness. “Be my eyes, friend,” Johann says as Zeras flies ahead. Looking through Zeras’s eyes, the faint light appears brighter – bright enough to guide them downwards.

Winding down into the caves below the castle, Johann can feel the hum of arcane energies and the occasional static crackle in the air. He considers himself lucky that despite the previous rulers’ lack of arcane talent, their foresight to build the castle atop a mebhaighl nexus has served his needs admirably. This manifestation has become stronger in the years since he has taken Cousin Sedrie’s regency. Closing his eyes, Johann can feel the web of ley lines reaching out like eager fingers across the land drawing upon nearby sources. Soon, he hopes, that he will be able to draw even more energy into this place – into his wellspring.

After descending for several hundred feet, the blue light guides them into the central chamber. At the center of the large round cave sits a still pool. The water shines with reflected light, filling the room with a calm but eerie glow but leaving the high ceiling still obscured by shadows. Hovering above the pool is a many-faceted gem the size of a man. This, Johann knows, is the true wealth of the Bellam regency.

Before the introduction of human blood to the line – indeed before they called themselves Bellamie – when his Elven ancestors first discovered this chamber many years ago, they could sense the power of this place and swore to keep it sacrosanct. The flawless, clear blue stone floats suspended in midair casting no shadow on the water. Each individual facet is perfectly formed, created of crystallized mebhaighl that was drawn into this place before Deismar, and perhaps even before the First Age of Cerilia. The last remaining pure manifestations on the southern coast, the mebhaighl energy here radiates with a clarity unknown across the rest of Anuire. The existence of other pure sources remains a mystery – idle rumors spread among apprentices across the Empire.

As he withdraws his sight from Zeras and steps fully into the blue light, Johann senses that something is not right. Fanning out from the passage he sees footprints – fresh footprints which encircle the central pool. Now on his guard, Johann drew the ambient mebhaighl to himself. His already considerable mastery would be greatly enhanced by the presence of the pure manifestation.

Just because you haven’t been down here recently doesn’t mean I haven’t. Johann could feel his face draw into a smirk as Kristoph spoke in his mind.

You should hear ze rumors which fly about concerning you, Johann. ‘Master Johann never sleeps,’ zey say. ‘He eez not right, no mortal man can work as he does.’ Kristoph’s Brecht accent rings clearly even in his thought-voice.

“You? Then these are my footprints?” Although he did not have to, Johann spoke these words aloud into the echoing chamber. Even his words seemed to be drawn into the floating crystal.

Of course zey are, my friend. Who else’s would zey be? What? Do you think that being a passenger inside your body makes time pass any differently? That I should remain in here silent all ze time even when you sleep? Zis was part of ze deal, my friend.

“Tell me then, ‘friend,’ what do you intend to do with my family legacy? Do you seek to corrupt it as you have everything else you’ve touched?”

Johann, please, such accusations are below you, no? Take credit for your own darkness. I’ve never made you do anything zat, deep down, you didn’t want to do yourself. I thought you knew me better by now – I’m not as evil as you like to pretend I am so you zat can rationalize your own dark thoughts. Besides, with all I’ve done to help you, you ought to be more appreciative of me, yes?

The arcane energy in the air swirls like mist over the face of the pool. Zeras could see both his master’s reflections there – one on the clear, pure surface and the other seemingly held in the cold swirling mists. Zeras would not tell Johann what he saw; he knew it would only upset him that the difference between them was only slight.

“I’m glad you and I are having this opportunity to talk, Kristoph. I think it’s time we renewed our search for a more permanent place for you.” Johann had become accustomed to the feeling of Kristoph rooting around in his mind for stray thoughts like a rat scavenging for scraps. He could sense Kristoph’s uneasiness. Johann smiled to himself – Kristoph hadn’t been the only one who had made adjustments for their unique circumstances.

What are you hiding from me, my friend?

“I have simply… adapted to your presence, ‘friend.’ I have learned ways of making my private thoughts private again.”

Is that why you’ve spent so many fevered hours pouring over notes and the tomes, and why I’ve nothing to show for eet? Do not think you are ze only one who has been busy at work.

“Precisely so. But I think we are one step closer to finding you a place of your own. Let me ask you, Kristoph: you say that you’ve been disowned by your former allies of Azrai’s circle. Is that why you do not return to the Dream Lands while I sleep and instead walk around in my body? Do you miss the physical world so much?”

Again, Johann could sense Kristoph’s discomfort.

I admit, yes, I have a fond nostalgia for ze material world. Living – or should I say, existing – as a mere shadow of yourself, eet grows tiresome. We had all hoped to make ze best of our exile; we expected to be able to bathe in the awful beauty of our Lord Azrai. For as much as ze Dream Lands are limitless, existence within eet becomes muted after a time. And yes, as long as you have kept your body hospitable to me I have chosen to stay.

“And if I were to find you a new body?”

Kristoph was still and silent inside Johann’s mind. He did not move, nor did he snake about for answers. He remained frozen and thoughtless. As Johann had kept himself apart, Kristoph was doing it, as well.

“You keep thinking while I explain to you what I have found.”

Johann pulled out sheaves of vellum with diagrams, notes, and symbols drawn all about them. Kristoph recognized many of the symbols but could not immediately understand how they worked together. Some of them were clearly arcane, taking methods from diagrams and processes from Leonidain’s imperfect attempts at creating Vessels. Others he recognized as religious symbols drawn over and around the form of a humanoid. Instead of flesh and bone, Johann had sketched out and diagrammed magically-shaped stone, metal, and wood.

Johann, my friend, I’m not sure what you’ve been reading but zis will never work. Ze energies you’re drawing upon are simply not influenced by arcane magicks. Kristoph gestured with Johann’s hand to the symbols around the metal man. You see? Zis figure is more like the guardians employed by the Order of Light – I tell you, in all my time among ze Lost, zere was never a way to replicate the life-giving energies of divinity. Arcane magic can only animate.

“You are partly correct, Kristoph. Yes, the Order’s ritual uses primarily divine energies to instill a guardian spirit into the stone. But look here,” Johann shuffles through to another page of diagrams and notes. “These are based on Leonidan’s research. Using distilled blood containing Azrai’s essence drawn from the lizardmen of Spiritsend swamp, Leonidan was close to creating a creature influenced by Azrai’s divine blood but created and controlled by arcane energies.”

Kristoph scoffs. Leonidan was failure and madman. Do you propose we take lizardmen from ze swamps to continue his experiments? Or do you propose I inhabit such a miserable beast?

“Nothing of the sort. I believe that we can achieve similar but more stable results using a different sample. As you know, the blood of Azrai tends to be… too mutable at times. Its energy is capable of great transformations –”

As are ze other divines, zough you people always conveniently forget zat fact.

“Regardless, we have other options.”

However, unless you plan on giving your heart to one of ze gods, I don’t foresee you being able to complete such a project. Honestly, Johann, I take your body because I expected better of you.

“As is your way, Kristoph, you think too narrowly and without foresight. I believe with some collaboration we may be able to complete such a project. Vilnik’s thirst for divinity seems to match my own thirst for the arcane.”

Vilnik? Are you finally going mad, too? Do you think that he’ll be capable, much less willing? Could you possibly even trust Vilnik?

“Trust him? Of course not. But Vilnik has certainly proven himself to be resourceful if nothing else. Besides, the secrets of my research, along with these tomes we recovered, should be enough to pique his interest. And based on what happened at the tomb, it may even provide some solutions to his problems, as well.”

Johann gathers his notes and diagrams. This time in contemplation with the Source had inspired him, just as he’d hoped it would. “Be my eyes, Zeras,” he called as Zeras swooped down from his perch upon the crystal. Back up into the world they traveled. Soon there would be great changes for each of them.

Winding up the stairs, Johann’s signet sparked with mebhaighl to reveal the open arch. Stepping across the threshold, Kristoph, who had been silent for their ascent, chimed in an afterthought:

Where do you plan to obtain samples to replace Leonidan’s? Whose divine blood will you sacrifice for my sake? Volunteers for bloodtheft?

“Of course not, Kristoph. I’m going to do what any true friend would do.” Johann raised his signet again to seal off the archway.

“I’m going to give you some of mine.”

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kmohn

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