50 Years Later…
It was a warm summer day when the Inquisitors came to Clara’s village.
She was playing in the field behind the mill with her familiar, Rupert. She had a small steel band that she had fished out of the blacksmith’s rubbish heap and polished until it shone, and she would fling it into the air for the flying squirrel to catch in mid-glide. She was so preoccupied with this game that she didn’t notice the carriage winding its way down the road, didn’t notice it until it pulled around the bend and into town. The carriage had one squeaky wheel, was how she finally noticed. She gathered the squirrel up in her arms.
“Time to go, Rupert.”
The men in white had come to her village a year previously. They had sat in the back of the schoolhouse, watching the children play and scribbling notes on parchment. At the end of the week, they had visited the parents of the children they had found to be different. Clara had listened at the door, and while she couldn’t make out the words very well, she understood what was happening. The inquisitors had spoken in comforting tones, but that didn’t change the fact that they were telling her parents that their little girl was dangerous. They looked at her differently after that day. They tried to pretend that they didn’t, but they did.
Her bags were already packed. The inquisitors waited while she said goodbye to her parents. Her father gave her a basket of sweets for the journey, held her closely, and she could feel his tears on her shoulder. Her mother gave her a new knife for whittling and told her to be good. The larger of the two inquisitors hoisted her bags onto the back of the carriage, while the other offered her a hand up. There were cushioned seats in the carriage, room enough for half a dozen riders, though she was the only one so far. As the wheel began to squeak and the carriage rolled back out of town again, she stuck her head out the window and tugged at the white robe of the driver.
“Will I ever see them again?”
Fidget scrambled up the marble statue, pulling himself hand-over-hand above the hubbub below. Finally he reached the top, and joined the other urchins who had gathered to watch the festivities below. He clung to the shoulder of the statue, a beautiful woman in full plate mail holding a sword in one hand and a scroll in the other. Across the park a similar statue rose above the crowd, an armored man holding a sword and a hammer. Everywhere else along the parade route shopkeepers and city guards would shoo away the grimy young children looking for a clear vantage, but not here. On the day that ground was broken on these statues and the park they watched over, the Magistrate had declared that all would be welcome, and that tradition had endured for nearly a century.
The Unification Day parade had just begun. Held every year to commemorate the day that the fractured city-states east of the wastes had been forged into a single nation, the parade featured lavish displays of all the cultures of the Union and beyond. Carts lined with rainbows of flowers from the gardens of Garrick, sledges pulled by reindeer with ice sculptures from Doloth. The Outriders of Marn rode the streets in full dress plumage, flourishing their ornamental lances to the delight of the crowd. Elven centurions marched in perfect formation, and dwarven engineers tinkered with strange and delightful contraptions mounted to the back of wagons that belched colored smoke and fire. There was even a cadre of magi from the Academy, creating patterns of color and sound in the air above the onlookers, strange and beautiful images that would then burst in the air to rain down candy upon the screaming children.
Fidget heard the clanging of bells from the town gates, signaling the arrival of the delegation from the Volan Republic. Immediately the children perched on the statue began shouting to each other and clambering to reach the ground again. Rumor had been going around the city for months that the Volan delegation this year included an actual giant, and no one wanted to be the last one to see it. As Fidget’s bare feet found the earth, he stepped across an inscription in the marble. He’d seen it a hundred times while playing on the statue, but as always he didn’t bother stopping to read it.
“Nina Barron. Magistrate of Marn, Founder of the United Eastern Kingdoms. 195 AW – 267 AW. Stalwart in War, Compassionate in Peace.”
Garra heard heavy footsteps in the doorway and looked up. The hulking Consul Xerj Ganroth stood in the doorway, bearing a tray with two cups full of some sort of smoking liquid. Xerj was her counterpart among the orcish clans, the other half of the dual leadership the Volan Republic had established. He took a seat in the massive stone chair across the desk from her, and handed her the smaller of the two beverages, the cup looking more like a thimble held between his meaty green fingers. She smiled gratefully, and took a sip of the tea.
“You work too hard, Garra. You should be asleep.”
“No time for sleep. There’s business needs tending to.”
When Khan Dreeta had united the orcs and the halflings forty years ago, many had thought it an odd alliance to say the least. Working together, the two races soon discovered just how perfectly their abilities complemented each other, and soon they had built a nation in the sands of the Wastes and the jungles of Kreer to rival any other on the planet. Garra and Xerj were a living testament to the strength of that alliance, two great leaders who together had helped bring the Volan Republic into a golden age. Garra was strict and militant, maintaining rigid discipline and a hard front against the Republic’s enemies, while Xerj was a softer touch, a druid who saw the ruling of a nation as little different from the cultivating of a garden. They kept each other in check, and had become fast friends in the process.
“You still think it’s going to be war, don’t you?”
“I don’t see how we avoid it. My spies in the Crescent Empire report an increased militarization along the border of the Wastes. They’re getting ready to strike. It’s just a matter of time, now.”
“Patience, Garra. If Feng Vola teaches us anything, it is that we are not prisoners of destiny. Perhaps there is still a path that will spare us this bloodshed.”
“I hope you’re right, Xerj. Verdance, I hope you’re right.”
Xerj reached over and with a surprising deftness for his great size plucked the quill out of her hand.
“I’ll finish this work. Get some sleep. The Republic will still be here in the morning.”
Barra stood, stretched, wiped the exhaustion from her eyes. She was more tired than she had thought.
“Thanks. Make sure you read that trade agreement closely. Eliza’s a good sort, but she’s always looking for an advantage.”
As Garra shuffled off to her quarters, the orc hunched over the papers on the desk and went to work.
The Lady Catherine cut through the ocean, propelled by its twin dwarven-made arcane engines. Captain Cassius Varrus found the deep thrum comforting, though he knew many on his crew were uncomfortable with the strange new technology, and with the mages working in shifts to power them. The way things were going, though, it was only a matter of time before such technology was as common as the horse and plough, and Captain Varrus had always been quick to adapt. It was one of the reasons Hierarch Eliza had hand-picked him to lead this expedition.
Eliza’s reign had seen something of a renaissance in the Elven Empire. The new hierarch had diverted the Empire’s vast resources from building new monuments to their own greatness and instead devoted the full wealth at her disposal to forging the Empire into a bastion of knowledge and scientific advancement. Schools were founded all across the Empire, and soon nobles of neighboring kingdoms were sending their children to be educated at an Elven Academy, the finest in the world. Elven researchers mapped the stars, captured and studied strange and wondrous creatures from across the world, and had even begun to make progress into unlocking the secrets of magic.
Of course, not all in the Empire were happy with this change in direction. Robbed of much of their power and influence by the revolt that cast down the previous hierarch, the elven nobility nonetheless chafed at the new order imposed by the Hierarch they referred to disdainfully as the “Professor-Queen.” Many powerful enemies conspired against Eliza, and for the first few years of her reign not a week would go by without an attempt on her life. Some of the seedier taverns even had betting pools down on how long her reign would last, with the better odds favoring under a year. But Eliza had proven a cannier foe than many had anticipated, and soon her enemies began to grow silent as their fear for her eclipsed their hatred. Many attributed her victory to an unrivalled network of spies, assassins, and criminals that carried out her dirty work, all organized and run by a mysterious human agent named Dworden. Rumor had it he had cleaned up at the betting pools.
One of the new Hierarch’s major investments had been a joint project with the dwarves to clean the seas of the refuse left behind by the Old Imperium and make them passable again. Elven resources and dwarven ingenuity had combined to create floating fortresses built to withstand attacks from the horrors beneath the sea and equipped with massive purifiers that sucked up seawater and extracted the harmful substances before spewing it out clean. After decades of work these machines had cleared enough of a path through the Sea of Chaos for a voyage to be attempted. Hierarch Eliza had commissioned the Lady Catherine, an ironclad sturdy enough to survive the hardships of the deep ocean and swift enough to make the voyage and return within the span of only a few months. Every woman and man aboard that ship knew that their mission would bring glory to the Empire, and no one shirked their duty.
A shape flitted across the sky and landed gently on the bow of the ship. The mage that he had sent ahead had returned. Captain Varrus still found the sight of a human being flying through the air somewhat disorienting, but he couldn’t dispute their effectiveness as scouts. He walked across the deck to meet the scout, a young gnome woman who was smiling ear to ear.
“Land, captain. Not a day’s journey ahead.”
Captain Varrus pulled his spyglass from his belt and gazed along the horizon. Indeed, a tiny sliver of black had just appeared at the edge of the endless shimmering ocean. He dropped the spyglass to his side, and turned to address the crewman who had gathered at the mage’s proclamation.
“My fellow explorers, this is a momentous day for the Empire. Not since the days of the Old Imperium has contact been made between our people and those of the Southern Continent. We shall soon set foot in a new world, and forge a new alliance, for the glory of the Empire and Hierarch Eliza. You honor your people today!”
A cheer went up from the crowd. Up in the crow’s nest, a woman with nine tails smiled to herself.
The journey took more than a week. In a village in Doloth they picked up three young wizards, somber children with white hair who travelled with trunks full of books. At a small Halfling enclave in the hinterlands of Garrick they were joined by a wild-looking Halfling boy, whose hair crackled with electricity and stood on end whenever he was excited. They journeyed through Two Rivers, where Clara marveled at the city, larger by far than any she had ever seen, but the Inquisitors gently but firmly warned the children to stay in the carriage. They entered an orphanage in the slums of the city and emerged with a barefoot, grimy young girl who was very quiet and clung to her rat familiar for the rest of the way.
The inquisitors were nothing like the stories had led Clara to believe. Their severe white cloaks belied their jolly demeanor, and they joked, told stories, and sang all day and through the evening. In every town they stopped in, the big one would buy a treat for the children waiting in the carriage, while the small one stood guard over them. People from the village would approach them too, hand them gifts, mumble prayers and blessings. Clara was used to people being afraid of her gift, but out here things were different. She asked the big inquisitor about it once while they were stopped.
“The Academy teaches people like you to help people like them. They know what you’re sacrificing. They’re thanking you for what you’re going to become.
Then one day the carriage rumbled out of the trees and the six children gasped as for the first time they saw a tower that seemed to reach beyond the sky. They had all heard the stories, but nothing had prepared them for this.
The carriage brought them to a much humbler set of buildings at the foot of the tower, a group large, plain structures built in a square around a garden. As the carriage rolled through the gates and came to a stop between the buildings, Clara and the others gazed out the windows in wonder. Children were playing everywhere, some their own age, some older, all watched over by Inquisitors in white robes. In one corner of the garden, balls of rainbow light arced through the air, propelled by the children below in some sort of convoluted game. Elsewhere, a bear and a lion wrestled playfully in a fountain, before the bear turned into an eagle and flew off and the lion quickly took the form of a small dragon and chased after it. From the kitchen nearby, Clara could smell the scent of freshly baking pie.
The small inquisitor opened the carriage door and helped the children down. “Welcome to Melusine Academy.”
Rupert bounded off of Clara’s shoulder, gliding off into the garden. The little girl from the orphanage squealed in delight as her rat went chasing after him. The three young wizards were smiling for the first time since Clara had met them, looking at a group of students sitting cross-legged in the garden hovering various objects between them. Clara took it all in, the kiss of the breeze and the smell of flowers and the joy that she shared with all the others who had come with her to this new world. It felt like home.