A blast of light caught attention inside the palisades. Captain Carius smiled to himself as he lowered his sword. A tall man, he wore the purple tabard of Lerian like royal robes. His weapon, an eagle hilted longsword with a clear blade, marked him as someone of great means. Pristine black hair and gold fringed epaulets emphasized that truth. Before him, smoke rose off a shattered practice dummy.
“I wouldn’t believe it if I didn’t see it,” the sergeant said, hand on his gut. “Most my archers can barely control the burst long enough for their arrows to loose.”
Carius raised his sword at another dummy. Everything slowed to his perception until he could focus every ounce of attention on his weapon. He needed that focus and the fine control that came with it. Power moved from him and into the blade where the conductive, clear metal focused it. Most archers learned the blast for two reasons. The first being the expense of creating a multi-use weapon to employ the power, the second because of how volatile it was.
But Carius could monitor it, down to the smallest moments between heartbeats. Every wrong surge, each time the power threatened to destroy his weapon and him with it. In the space of an instant, he formed and fired that power. Another bright blue bolt destroyed a second dummy and faded before hitting the wall behind. That too was his own doing, regulating that power so it wouldn’t cause collateral.
“Sir, you’re some sort of prodigy,” the sergeant said.
Carius smiled. He didn’t need to tell them of his second power, that of perception. The thing that enabled that usage. His father’s idea, the old man had the money and Carius the time. They knew he wouldn’t need to go through normal service in the military, didn’t need to learn the reach and pull, better to go with something flashy.
The captain sheathed his weapon, “if only I was of age to join the war in the north. Would have liked to try my hand against the zweiheln.”
A man in heavier armor laughed. “Captain, what would we do if you were dead already?”
“I think I’d have a chance,” Carius said. “Give it a month, maybe less, and I’ll add the Veil of the Einarr to my trophies. You’ll think different then.”
The knight patted Carius on the back. “That I’m inclined to believe.”
Carius turned his attention back to the sergeant. “Now that you’re thoroughly impressed, I came here with purpose.”
“Yes sir, how can we help you?”
“I need your maps, and I need some of your ruffians. Those with skill in the woods. Troublemakers.”
“Of course, anything you need sir. Though, may I ask why? We are already-“
“You may not.”
Carius raised his voice to carry over the camp. “We’re taking volunteers, those with skill in forestry and happy to work dirty. Any who sign up get an extra month’s wages when the job is done. We leave within the hour.”
. . . . . .
The woods opened to a long stretch of dead earth all the way to Clarient. Since the path through it straightened, Athia retracted her kite to save what little charge it retained. Her momentum power wouldn’t carry her indefinitely. It faded if she tried to coast. It prevented things like flight or infinite motion. Instead, she extended her spikes to push herself forward every so often. Much less fun.
Old farmhouses sat ruined and burned over the land. She heard about this before but didn’t really expect the extent of it. A full quarter of the local farmlands salted in the wake of the revolution. Not to mention all the other disasters of the era. Here the scars remained on the surface, and it surprised her.
A few traders traveled the roads, a faint shadow of what used to pass through Clarient. Those that did pulled anemic carts with worn beasts. They entered through a gap in the wall beside the main gate’s rubble.
Sound died and silence rose. Wheels rumbled on the ground, creatures bleated, but people didn’t speak. Soldiers watched the entrance, wearing black wooden masks with burning lamps hanging from their belts. They were the Torchbearers, tasked with keeping the Einarr revolution’s light ever burning.
Athia wanted to make a glib comment when she got to the front. When she tried to speak, none of the other travelers paid her any mind. That lead to boredom and that lead to her own silence. By the time the soldiers came to inspect her, the weight of a mute city pressed on her shoulders.
“Name,” the lead Torchbearer said, marked by a white streak on his mask.
She wiggled her toes. “Work.”
They checked her bag and took her name, then sent her through the gap. People did speak on the inside, quiet mutters and whispers, but they never rose over the groans of an old city. Words hid in alleys, behind hands, and over the long stalls of the central market.
Athia spied a man handing out leaflets to newcomers. She approached him, earning suspicious looks in her mercenary garb. While she did throw on a cloak to hide her armor and spikes, he could tell her type.
“Sir,” she said in a hushed tone. “I’ve got some money to spend. Where’s the best trader?”
He gestured out at the city square, where demolished buildings gave way to a massive, organized market. People waited in neat lines for their chance down the buffet of trade.
“This will explain,” he said, his voice a normal tone that felt so out of place it gave her goosebumps.
In Clarient, every member of a profession is part of a singular guild devoted to their craft. You will not find general traders or other shops. All you need awaits you in the central market. The workers themselves take turns selling their goods. Prices are set biweekly by the appropriate guild, with consultation by the Revolutionary Council. When and what you may buy is regimented, but if you show this paper at the market, you will be given free pass to buy what you need. This day only.
She squinted at it and said, “oh. Why’s everyone else so quiet?”
He smiled, “the people prefer quiet lives. Please don’t intrude upon that.”
Athia locked eyes with him, holding the contact until he blinked. Her attention moved the paper again, then she shrugged and made her way toward the market. If nothing else, she’d enjoy the new experience. And she’d change and get another one of these papers if she stayed a second day.
The few people on the streets eyed her as she walked. When she neared, they stepped away hid their attention. Even the color of her dark leathers stuck out in a land of people in simple robes, still in the plain colors of the beasts that first wore the wool. The city spared little fabric, even in the cold their threads could be counted at a glance. When the wind blew, the robes pressed up against hungry bellies and thin limbs.
Athia didn’t much like that, but she also knew little about life here. Maybe they were fasting for winter! She doubted that. Signs hung everywhere, detailing what waited down each street. Unadorned businesses lined the city. They listed their name, “Cooper” or “Tailor” and nothing else.
Sounds of work prickled Athia’s ears, but most of it stayed muted behind barred windows. She stopped at a bakery, enticed by the smell of bread. When she got to the window she tried to peek, but found it barred from the inside by uneven boards. A heavy curtain hung, keeping out any prying eyes.
Athia pursed her lips and thought to poke at the curtain. A sharp whistle made her jump and turn as a torchbearer approached, cudgel in his hand.
“What are you doing?” he asked, voice harsh enough that other people froze in place.
Athia raised her hands and backpedaled. She turned, instinct telling her to move into the crowd. But she found no crowd, just a scant few people walking on small errands. Why was it all so empty?
The torchbearer grabbed her arm and she resisted the urge to swing. Her attention shot back, “hi, I’m new,” she hissed. “Is that not an inn?”
“Beds,” the man growled, “are on the far end of the square. If you need something, it’s all in the market. Don’t deviate.”
Athia winked at him, “you got it, can I buy one of those lamps?”
She yanked her arm free and headed to said market. The queue stretched far but moved with a good rhythm. Athia played a song in her head, giving her a little energy as she got in line and looked over the place. Most everyone else kept eyes forward.
When she reached the front, it diverged into several lines. Food stuffs, trade goods, luxuries. She raised up on her toes to gaze down the luxuries line, curious.
People sold tools, books, toys, and other similar implements. Athia turned back to the others. She could go down one side and get access to the food and trade section at the same time. The best option. As her turn came, she reached into her pouch to count her money.
The crack of something falling pulled her attention upward. An old woman stood before a stall selling potatoes. She held one coin in a pleading gesture to the seller. A sign on the stall read, “potatoes, five for two piece.”
Athia looked own at her stash, five in total. With the price of potatoes, she realized she couldn’t buy much. Besides, she didn’t need it all that much. She cut the line, approaching the woman. Two torchbearers spied her and advanced as Athia hailed the woman.
“Here,” she whispered, holding the pouch over. “I don’t need it.”
The woman hesitated, then a torchbearer grabbed the bag. Athia went to say something but a cudgel smacked her on the side of the knee. She stumbled, dropped her board, then got thrown to the ground as the older woman choked a shout.
“Full Clariens,” the first torchbearer said, looking down into the bag. “Where’d an outsider get this much money?”
The lady’s Clarien piece rolled past Athia’s vision, not a quarter the size of the large coins in her bag. A boot came down between Athia’s shoulder blades when she tried to rise.
“Where did you get them?” the first torchbearer barked.
“For a bounty, on the border,” she said, forced flat on the ground.
“Bind her,” the first said.
If Athia knew one thing about this place, it was to avoid getting arrested. Since she’d already failed the “don’t be noticed” defense, she went for the next one. When the torchbearer went for bindings, her legs curled up in a sudden motion. Her heels caught the hips of the guard on her back, and then she whipped him down and off her. His nose broke on the stone as she rolled forward and sprung up in into a sprint.
Two steps later, she remembered her board was still on the ground where she’d fallen. She spun and the first torchbearer lunged. Athia sidestepped and sent him to the ground with an ankle kick. Her legs pressed forward and, with her power, dropped her into a slide as she grabbed her board.
Athia jumped back to her feet and ran, using her ability to steadily increase her speed beyond natural human means. People parted, frightened and quiet. When they cleared, one of her spikes shot to her hand and she tossed it.
The anchor caught in a stone wall and she removed the friction from her feet, sliding at speed and launching her around a corner. She jumped, kicked off a light post as her spike returned, and landed on top of a smaller building. The slide continued across two more rooftops until she slowed herself at an outcropping.
“Mucked this one up,” she said, pausing to secure the board to her back.
A tall woman in armor with a large riding board would be very easy to find in a place like this. She had no choice but to leave. Issue was, her kite didn’t have much charge left. She didn’t like the idea of escaping on foot, even with her empowered speed. All it would take would be a slip or unexpected obstacle for someone to close the gap. With her board-
Another problem occurred to her. Lerian wasn’t a bastion of progress and she’d be lucky to find anyone to recharge the kite for quite a distance. That assumed anyone here could. Oh, she shouldn’t have assumed that. Her lips curled in and she stared.
Athia could escape, but it would be in broad daylight. They couldn’t beat her in a sprint, she was confident, but one lucky attack or arrow could ruin that. Assuming they didn’t just have some ability to cut her off, one she didn’t expect. Thus, the question became; did she favor an escape attempt in broad daylight or her chances of hiding until night?