Chapter 1: Ascension
Sara Carson was too young to die. Fifteen was too young for anyone to die. Sara never saw the vehicle that hit her, the screech of tyres and the acrid scent of burning rubber barely penetrated her senses before the truck ploughed into her. Distraught shoppers dropped their packages and hurried to her side. Amongst them, two girls, wearing the same tartan uniform as Sara, hands sheltered their gaping mouths. Blood oozed from her shattered skull, forging a meandering path down into the corner of one violet blue eye gazing fixed and unseeing, into a vast and callous sky. As the growing crowd looked on, powerless to prevent it, Sara’s final earthly breath escaped her body, spiralling upwards, a mere wisp of vapour in the cold, damp, air. Yet this was far from the end of her story…
Dawn was breaking on Ascension Day in the Afterland of Aurum, and it was as golden as the city of Aureus itself. Shafts of amber sunlight lit the majestic skyline, picking out the silhouettes of the citadel, its dark rooftops lit with slivers of gold. The most striking of the buildings was the Pyrus, the parliament building, its magnificent golden spires flying white standards displaying the three golden fyre hawk emblem of Aurum.
Adjacent to the Pyrus loomed the enormous dome of the ascension basilica and beyond this two gigantic golden fyre hawk statues flanked the gates of the ancient Oratory, the oldest building in Aurum.
Inside the basilica, two custodians waited for the year’s new intake of novices to ascend. Senior Custos Baroque fingered the golden keychain on his girdle. His tall frame was draped in the golden-threaded robes of Aurum. Pinned at his shoulder were the apis bee and half sun pins, marking his magical potens and his office.
Even now, in his thirtieth year as Custodian, Baroque still felt a surge of excitement as each cubiculum filled with ascension vapour and the sound of the ascension bell rang out over the citadel.
Marcus, a young man in only his second year as Custodian, was Baroque’s assistant. Baroque watched him with amusement as the young Gold obsessively monitored each cubiculum for the flickering vapour wisps that marked the beginning of the ascension process. Nervously Marcus brushed back his long flaxen hair, before checking for the third time that he had laid out the correct number of robes, shoes, and girdle belts on the small marble tables in each quarter. His excitement was tangible, almost as if he sensed that this Ascension Day would be like no other before.
“It’s starting!” Marcus rushed to inspect one of the stone ascension caskets known as cubicula.
Peering in through the glass of each of the Gold quarter containers, his eyes sparked with excitement.
“I have wisps in four cubicula,” he said as he caught the aroma of first ascension vapour. It was the fragrance of the honey flower, the vapour scent of the Golds.
“We have four Golds ascending in the first quarter. ” Expectantly, the young man careered around, checking each of the cubicles for vapour wisps. He smiled, hearing the faint hiss as the thick golden vapour flooded into the four cubicula. The ascension bell tolled four times over the citadel. Ascension had begun.
The circular ascension chamber had four quarters, each housing four cubicula. Fashioned from ornately carved Aurum stone, gold and glass, the cubicula were festooned with the emblems of each land. Each quarter brought forth ascendants from Terra Coram. These newly formed beings, all ultimately destined for one of the four Afterlands, would attend the adjoining Oratory to prepare for their designated roles. In ancient times, the cubicula ascended four casts, today there were but three.
There would be four Gold ascendants for the land of Aurum, four Muds for the land of Ferrum, and four Bloods for the land of Hydrargyrum.
The remaining four cubicula would not bring forth ascendants and had not for over a thousand years since the Afterland of Rhodium had fallen at the end of the great Dragon War. There were no Rhodium Whytes left to ascend.
An unpleasant, sulphurous aroma filled the chamber as the four Hydrargyrum cubicula began to wisp.
“Four Bloods wisping now!” Said Marcus, buzzing as he watched the Hydrargyrum chambers hiss and fill with orange-red vapour.
He rushed between the cubicula impatiently tapping his hands on the glass as he gazed inside. Looking back over to the Aurum chambers where the Golds were ascending, he could see their vapour beginning to solidify, forming the delicate angular features of the Golds. Their faces were now easily distinguishable through the glass and remaining shreds of mist, there were two male and two female, as was the custom. The last scent to fill the chamber was the crisp, clean smell of pinewood, as the Muds began to ascend.
“It is time,” Baroque watched the last hazy wisps curl and descend into the bodies of the newly formed Gold ascendants. “Prepare to receive the Golds.”
Marcus grabbed the pile of clothing he had laid ready and hurried to the first Aurum cubicula. At its foot, he placed one folded golden robe of Aurum, one pair of golden slippers and one golden spider’s silk girdle. Then he stood at the head of the prime cubicula and looked to Baroque for a confirming nod, before pulling on a large golden lever on its side. Marcus stepped back as the four cubicula began to tilt slowly upwards until they were upright and then, the glass doors swung open to reveal four perfect, naked human forms.
The Golds were a beautiful cast, delicately boned, thick golden hair, honey coloured skin and eyes the colour of amber, flecked with shimmering gold. As their eyes opened, Marcus saw within them the expression of bewilderment and fear that was common to all new ascendants. One of them, a male, attempted to vacate too quickly. In his post-ascension, trance-like state, and with his newly formed body still infant weak, he stumbled. Marcus barely managed to catch him.
“Where am I... who?” He said, with a look of bewilderment towards Marcus and then to Baroque. “I don’t...”
“There is nothing to fear here” Baroque’s words were softly reassuring. “Please, do not be afraid.”
He held out a steadying hand and helped the young Gold back into the support of the cubicula before stepping back to address the four Gold ascendants.
“All will be made clear in time,” As always, Baroque marvelled at the beauty and wonder of the ascension process, and once again, he felt privileged to be a part of it. Attempting a brief introduction, he gestured towards Marcus.
“Lord Marcus and I, Lord Baroque, as Custodians, bid you welcome to the Afterland of Aurum.”
The ascendants looked blankly back at him and then at each other before gazing vacantly at their strange and grandiose surroundings.
“I request that you be still for a while,” said Baroque “at present you are weak from Ascension, but you will rapidly regain your strength. Then you will accompany us to the Atrium, where your induction will commence, and all will be made clear to you.” He turned to Marcus. “Their robes?”
Marcus picked up the golden robes from the carefully folded piles and helped them to dress.
Satisfied, Baroque moved on to the Hydrargyrum quarter as the Bloods were completing their wisping. He laid out the four black robes, black pumps, and red dragon leather belts at the foot of each cubiculum before raising them. When the doors swung open, he found himself looking into four sets of slanted, piercingly cold ebony eyes.
The casts were referred to in a way that reflects their hair colour as it is the feature that most distinguishes one race from another. The Bloods, for example, had a mass of unruly scarlet hair. This, when combined with their slanted black eyes, blue-grey tinged skin, and purple hued lips, made them the most striking of all the casts of the Afterlands.
As Baroque welcomed the Hydrargyrum Blood ascendants, Marcus prepared to receive the Muds. He laid out their vibrant green, woven tunics and their bearskin belts and boots. Then, pushing down the golden lever, he raised them to their feet. The Ferrum Muds were a formidable cast with strong muscular bodies, caramel skin, chestnut-brown hair and eyes as green and bright as the rarest emeralds. The final four bells rang out over the city. The ascension dawn was complete.
The ascendants dressed, their strength growing rapidly though their vacant, trance-like state remained. When Baroque judged that they had recovered enough, he and Marcus helped them from their cubicula.
Although they appeared extremely curious about their fellow ascendants, they were slow to converse with each other. Remaining dazed and confused, they huddled together in the centre of the chamber, watching each other warily, like a group of lost children.
Baroque mounted the basilica’s central plinth; a single circular stone carved with the three fyre hawks of Aurum. He spoke with a natural air of authority; his tone measured, soft and welcoming.
“Ascended children of the Afterlands,” his deep voice echoed around the domed basilica, “I hope you are feeling a little stronger now. I understand that, quite reasonably, you are impatient for some answers to your questions. Therefore, without further delay, we will relocate to the Atrium. If you will follow….”
Interrupted by a loud hiss from the fourth quarter cubicula, Baroque swung his head around with a start. The four Rhodium cubicula began to fill with vapour.
“No!” he turned to Marcus.
The shocked expression on Marcus’s face confirmed his fears.
“Go… quickly!” said Baroque “Bring the Prima Magister!”
Marcus hesitated, watching stunned and open-mouthed as the Rhodium cubicula rapidly filled with thickly scented ascension vapour.
“Now,” Baroque shouted, “get Lord Dux!”
Marcus stumbled briefly on the central plinth as he ran from the basilica. The curious eyes of twelve young ascendants fell on Baroque and then followed his gaze to the four vapour filled cubicula.
Most of the ascendants, bemused and uneasy, remained huddled together in the centre of the chamber. Baroque endeavoured to pull his attention away from the Rhodium cubicula.
“You need not be concerned,” he said, to settle them. “I am sure that it’s nothing to worry about just, very, unusual….”
The ascension bell tolled for a fourth time, an event that had not occurred for over a thousand years. Baroque could contain himself no longer. He ran over to the Rhodium quarter and fell to his knees at the foot of the fourth Rhodium cubicula. If a Rhodium Whyte is about to ascend, then it can mean only one thing.
A chill spread through his body as if an icy hand had closed tightly around his heart. His mind raced. Some sort of error perhaps, the second ascension of one of the other casts? He searched for some other explanation, but he knew, deep down, this was no error.
Then, with a sudden insight, he rose to his feet and ran to each of the cubicula, in turn, filling his lungs, inhaling the scent of the vapour from each of them.
At first, he was reassured as the aroma of pine wood, sulphur, honey flower permeated his senses, but at the prime cubicula, there was something else. His breath caught in his throat. Emanating from the first Rhodium cubicula was the unmistakable sweet and intoxicating fragrance of the snow rose.
The ascension scriptures were clear; the fragrance of the snow rose signalled the ascension of a Whyte. Baroque shook his head in disbelief, then, oblivious to the anxious stares of the young ascendants, he buried it in his hands, rubbing at his temples with his fingertips.
“This is not possible,” he said, looking through his fingers at the pale form now materialising in the cubicula before him.
There had been no Whyte ascendants for over a thousand years, since the end of the Dragon War and now, unbelievably, a Whyte was ascending once more. Baroque’s eyes spread wide as he realised the implications of this. Steeling himself, he drew in a long breath. He had been preparing for this day for over thirty years and yet it was a day that he believed he would never see.
His duty was clear; he had to get the word south, immediately.
Marcus returned, accompanied by the five members of High Council, including Prima Magister Bertram Dux, who strode into the basilica with the self-assurance and poise of a deity.
Dux was a tall, slim man, his shaven head encased within a white and gold magisterial skullcap, a golden fyre hawk emblem embroidered at its centre. The Councillors’ arrival provoked a general commotion when, upon seeing the rapidly filling Rhodium cubicula, they promptly shot a stream of questions at the Senior Custos. The twelve young ascendants, unsettled by the Councillors’ confusion and alarm, backed away to the wall of the chamber.
Baroque lifted his hands in exasperation.
“I am afraid that I have few answers for you,” he said. “Except that, I believe that we are about to witness something astounding, something we have not experienced in more than a thousand years.” He paused, amazed at the words he was about to utter, “we are about to bear witness to the ascension of a Whyte.”
Dux’s body stiffened. A shocked silence followed. Dux bent close to Baroque, lowering his voice to a whisper. “Are you saying that the prophecy of Eldwyn the Whyte is about to be realised?”
Baroque shook his head incredulously. “It appears so my Lord.”
Dux frowned “but we have received no indication of any conflict within the Land of Ferrum. Could this not be an artefact, a fault in the ascension process?”
“I fear not my lord,” said Baroque motioning toward the Rhodium cubicula. “The first part of the prophecy has been fulfilled; for is this, not a Whyte ascending in the female frame?”
The ascent was almost complete; through the glass and remaining vapour, they could see a human female face; a girl’s translucent, alabaster skin framed by a mass of shining silver-white hair. As they watched, her eyelids flickered open to reveal a pair of striking violet-blue eyes.