North was allowed to watch from afar as Azrael began to teach his friends what they were. These ‘Scions’ - as Azrael named them – could do incredible things, it seemed. Ryouta’s left eye had looked like a lost cause to North. When he had first seen it - clouded with red and laced with golden geometric patterns - he’d thought Ryo would never use it again. Instead, it allowed Ryo to magnify his vision in that eye, though from the way Ryo stumbled about he hadn’t quite gained control of it yet. It was funny, from time to time, watching him flail about when his vision would zoom accidentally. Sometimes he’d fall on his face, others he’s just sit down right away and wait for it to stop. North didn’t envy him the sudden bouts of vertigo and what was undoubtedly mind-numbing pain.
Duke’s power seemed to be turning his body into mist and moving about unnoticed. Though Azrael promised he would be able to eventually, so far Duke didn’t seem to be able to affect the same properties on his clothing. For North and Ryouta, it was an unfortunate turn of events, and they’d seen far more of Duke than they ever wanted to.
Days passed, maybe weeks. Duke and Ryo progressed bit by bit, while North sat around and watched. Azrael continued to be morbid. Swords rained from the sky.
They’d relocated themselves to a small house they’d found that still had running water. The occupants were dead, so they’d cremated them in the street, along with many of the others from the area. There, at least, North had felt more useful. He had lived in the country before, and bonfires and fire-starting was a concept he was quite familiar with. Ryo hadn’t been much for the corpses, leaving North and Duke to build the pyres. Behind it all, the steel rain still fell in the distance. The fires in the city hadn’t gone out.
Ryo sat up to find the morning light seeping in through the window of the room he’d taken up. He pulled the cord on the blinds, bringing the light in and opening up the world for a new day. As Azrael had instructed him, he found something in the distance and zoomed his left eye in on it, closing his right eye to help his mind process things. This morning, he chose a tree in the distance, which he judged to be about a mile away. He concentrated, and his vision narrowed and brought the tree right to him. If he didn’t know any better, he’d have reached out to touch it. I’m getting pretty good at this, he reflected. He pulled back his vision and yawned, stretching his arms out.
His door opened unbidden; North never seemed to knock anymore. His best friend was carrying a bag of potato chips, which he held out to Ryo.
“Found these in the store. Looks like it’s been thoroughly looted, but there’s still a few things left. I brought back some water and canned foods as well. Not a shabby haul, all told.”
“You shouldn’t be wandering around town by yourself, you know.” Ryo scolded him, “Azrael’s right about it being dangerous outside. Those demons could attack you at any point in time, and how would you be able to defend yourself?” He knew the arguments North had, about needing to help the group somehow, about Azrael also saying the demons were most active at night, about the strange rain of swords that kept the area relatively demon-free.
“How would you defend yourself?” North asked. The question caught Ryo off-guard. He wasn’t actually sure about it himself.
“I could use a gun,” he offered, “I’m sure my vision-zooming would make me a great sniper.”
“Do you have a gun?” North countered. “Do you even know if bullets can hurt these things?”
“I… I don’t.”
“Then we all pitch in. We all take risks. Even when we can’t fight.”
Ryo wasn’t pleased with the mentality, but he understood North’s reasons for wanting to help. While he and Duke trained their new abilities every day, North did virtually nothing. Sometimes he slept, sometimes he watched, sometimes he wandered town looking for food and supplies. Ryo imagined it was excruciatingly boring. North was loyal to his friends, a protector and ally at all times, ready to do whatever needed to be done to help the people he cared for. Being powerless to do anything frustrated him to no end, that much was written in the sad lines of his face.
Ryo took the bag of chips, dropping the conversation. As he began shoveling greasy potato product into his mouth, North started describing more of what he’d seen of the city when he was out. Most places had lost running water, there was no electricity. Corpses littered the ground like grass, waves and waves of them, still. It seemed Azrael would be busy.
“And Azrael says he felt another Scion somewhere.” North finished.
“He’s mentioned that before. The Scion causing the swords to rain from the sky, right?”
“No. He says there’s a psychic around here somewhere. A girl.”
“I’m guessing we’ll be finding said fair maiden and rescuing her from a dragon or some such?”
North chuckled at that. “Well, you and Duke will, with Azrael merely acting as guidance. That was my suggestion. The last thing we need is him talking to people.”
Ryo began to laugh as well. When he was finished with his chips, he began to get dressed.
Time to save the day.
The Heigan Sea was his only friend that night on the deck of the Dream. The stars were out, too, but their radiance was no comfort to him. In the ship, Lady Fox and Matthias Ran were likely settling in to the guest cabin, unloading their baggage and sticking their nose into things they probably shouldn’t. They were Vanguard, like he and Mikail and Arden, so there was a chance that the two members of the Liberators might recognize the ship if given the chance to poke around in its bowels and systems.
The Infinite Dream was an experimental prototype star-ship commissioned by the long-lost Vanguardian Royal Family a year before the kingdom fell. It was top of the line; nobody had a better one, even fifteen years later. Mazkus had swiped it in the confusion, with Mikail and Arden in tow. They were boys then, all of twelve years old and full of themselves. They thought they were invincible. Mazkus closed his eyes and found the Dream looming up above him, as it had in the construction dock then, gray and gold and massive. He’d touched the hull and felt how different it was from other ships. It was his destiny, his home, his life. Amidst the fire and rubble of the capital city of Van, Mazkus Stream was born, the second he touched his steel behemoth.
Things had changed over the years, of course. When he christened it Infinite Dream, Mazkus and his partners painted the ship a deep, entrancing emerald and blazoned its new name on the hull. Since then they’d lived as brigands, pirates, starchasers, and everything in between. His favorite thing was starchasing, out of all of it. Racing through the skies, balls of pure energy blazing around him, Mazkus felt peaceful. You feel the world, and the world feels you. You are Vesrok.
Puffs of smoke drifted from his pipe into the night air. They were flying low and slow, keeping their heads down and hoping no-one noticed. To be sure, the Dream could make the flight from Aionia to Serrala in three hours at full speed, engines blazing and Imperial fighterships tailing them all the way, but it would do no good to be caught speeding over the Agart Continent with VanLib leaders on board. Sighing, Mazkus stretched out on his back, spreading his hands out and feeling the Dream hum under him. Below the ship, he could hear the sea sloshing in its glory, swirling and frothing in the white light of the dimmed sun.
The door to the deck opened behind him, and soft footsteps brought Lady Fox into the night. Mazkus sat up, removing his pipe from his mouth.
“I apologize for being so rude before, Captain Stream.” Fox said quietly.
“It’s alright,” Mazkus replied, “We all have our circumstances, ma’am.”
“That does not make my behavior proper.”
“Proper,” he snorted, “What are you, some nobleman’s daughter? This is the real world, Fox. Vanguardia is gone, swallowed up by the Empire and dragged through the mud. ‘Proper’ means nothing out here. You’re part of the Liberators, so you should understand how useless propriety is on the fringes of society. You wanted a ship, and you got one.” He studied her for a moment, taking in her wide sea-green eyes and bright brown hair with its blonder roots.
“You’re a Vanguard.” Fox said, her voice half a whisper. There was something else in it, too, Mazkus thought. A feigned surprise, maybe. “You should have told us earlier! Please, help us. The Liberators are not strong enough anymore to be of use. We need men, weapons, transportation, anything. We could use someone like you.” She crouched next to him then, her lips just barely apart from his ear. “I could use someone like you.”
Mazkus pushed his hand up between her lips and his ear, and lightly shoved her away.
“I’d prefer if you didn’t attempt to drag me into your failing rebellion, Lady Fox. I was a Vanguard. Weren’t we all? And now we are nothing. We have no country, no identity, no king. We were strong. We were a people. And now we are nothing. There’s nothing to save.”
Fox stared at him, her face a mix of despair and disappointment and anger. She left him on the deck without another word, and Mazkus thought he might have seen a tear glisten in her eyes.
Ashes, he thought, just ashes. Van lies black and gray and lifeless on a burnt plain. Our people are slaves, our nobles are prisoners, and our land is dying. My family’s motto was We are the loyal defenders, the sword that protects, but Father couldn’t save us, for all he did.Father couldn’t save us.