Chapter 2: Thole
AI 9168:04 Astral
Thole arrived in Darmycia four days after setting out from Alevenia. The Saviors first sped east to Veilstone Village, nestled between the Venian Marshes and the Veilstone Mountains. They rested a night to recuperate their strength. The Savior’s endurance was infinite, but not so much for the pilots. They still needed to eat, drink, and go to the bathroom, as the savior stasis only slowed these requirements of life for a few days at the most. By then they would no longer have the energy to maintain their connection to the Savior, and, depending on where and when this happened, could be very bad news for the pilots.
It was nice that Veilstone Village was right in the middle of the journey because it meant that Thole got to see her brother, Rox. He had been on his way to Alevenia for his final Pursuit, and it was nice to have a chance to catch up. Although the things her brother had told her about had disturbed her a great deal.
She had found him in one of the rooms on the top floor of the Four Streams Inn. The top floor was reserved for apprentices and magisters who were on their Walk of Wisdom. Rox had been alone, sitting on the edge of the bed, staring at his left hand.
“Hey Rox, long time no see. How was Darmycia?” Thole asked as she walked towards the bed. Rox had not seemed to hear her. He made no move to stand. He remained fixated on his left hand and the gem it held. She moved towards Rox, having an increasingly difficult time taking her eyes off of the stone in her brother’s hand, and sat down on the bed next to him. The stone shimmered and sparkled, its light bouncing off hundreds of minute facets and flickering on the walls all around the room.
“Rox? What is that?”
He finally looked away from the gem, noticing Thole for the first time. She could see the strain in his eyes as they met, slowly easing away as reality and recollection slowly returned.
“You…? What are you...? Why are you here?”
“Uh, I’m heading to Darmycia. You know? That place that you just came from. I’m your sister, Thole, in case you’ve forgotten. What the hell’s the matter with you, Rox? What’s that gem?” She looked down at it again. It was a truly magnificent gem; finely cut were its faces, a luster unlike anything else she had ever seen. Even so it gave her an uneasy feeling, especially since her brother had been so entranced by it.
Rox looked back down to the gem, closed his fist, and reached over and dropped it on the end table. Once on the table it lost everything that made it so beautiful. The luster had vanished and there was not a photon to be seen reflecting off its surface. It was just a black, dead rock. “Thole, yes of course. You don’t think I could forget my only sister, do you?” He pulled her up off the bed and embraced her, wrapping Thole tightly in his arms, harder than she would have liked.
“What is that gem, Rox? I’ve never seen anything like it…”
“I’m not sure what it is, to be honest. I found it in the ruins while I was in Raxid. I’d gone closer to the crater than usual one day. As I was poking around some rubble, a sinkhole opened up beneath me. I was lucky enough to land in a small subterranean pond. Once I got on solid ground I found some tunnels down there. They could have been old mining tunnels or something. I followed one hoping to find a way back to the surface. I found this gem first, on the ground right at the edge of a cave-in. I didn`t think much about it but something compelled me to pick it up. When I did it started to shine like you just saw. I kept it with the intention of asking the magisters in Alevenia about it.”
“It’s beautiful, Rox. You best be saving that for a lucky lady. So anyways, how was Darmycia?”
Rox stepped back and looked away from her. He turned and sat back down on the bed. “Not good, sis. The Ravagers seem to have multiplied over the last few years. The magisters there say they’ve never seen that many all at one time. It had always just been the odd group of two or three of them, but now they’ve become so numerous that you see a group of five, sometimes as many as eight.”
Trepidation washed over Thole. She had been looking forward to using the Saviors to destroy some Ravagers in the harsh desert around the Buried Temple. Ravagers never posed much of a threat to a Savior in a group of two or three, but eight Ravagers could be enough to overwhelm it. “Where are they all coming from?”
“Nobody in Darmycia is sure. Everyone tries searching out in the desert for some kind of explanation, but the conditions there make it nearly impossible to find anything.”
The Buried Temple was a nasty place. Constant wind battered the temple. The sand would drift up the northern side, burying it further beneath the desert until the tempest would wash it all away to the south. Large tendrils of sand would spiral up higher and higher towards the Coil, reaching out to it with gritty fingers. The only way to venture north of the temple, where the Ravagers dwelled, was by Savior.
“Surely it’s not anything the Saviors can’t handle. Even a mediocre pilot could handle five if they had to.”
Rox looked back at the gem on the table and retrieved it. The eerie luminescence returned to the small room. Thole could see his eyes refocusing on the shimmer that came from within it. She could see something like anguish in his face then. He tilted his head back slowly, stretching the muscles in his neck. He lifted his head back up and looked at her. “…There’s something else, too…”
Thole sat down on the bed next to her brother. He wasn’t acting like himself and she was starting to wonder if something was really wrong with him. “What else is there? Are you sick? Did something happen in Darmycia?”
Rox dropped his head again, his gaze once again returning to the alluring gem. “No, nothing like that. I’m ok, but… there’s something else out there. In the desert, and beyond.”
Beyond? What could be beyond the desert? The hairs on the back of Thole’s head were standing at attention, her brother’s cryptic words piquing her curiosity and her apprehension. “What else is out there, Rox?”
“I don’t know. It’s hard to tell what they are or where they came from all of a sudden. We only ever saw them on the other side of the canyon, just standing there, watching. No one even knew there was land over there. The sandstorms don’t usually let you see that far across.” Rox’s hands started to shake, the light from the gem on the walls pulsing with every tremor. “I need to find the host. I need to find it before they kill me.”
Rox fell back onto the bed, his whole body trembling now. It had been all Thole could do to calm him long enough for him to fall asleep. She stayed with him as long as it took to hear his breathing change from short and shallow to long and deep, then quietly stood up and found an empty room for herself.
What are these things? Are they connected to the ravagers increasing numbers? Why does my brother think they’re looking for him? What is this host he mentioned? She had so many questions after their conversation and no answers to appease her. She had not been able to sleep for most of the night. Her head would not stop asking the same questions, nor would it stop trying to puzzle out the answers.
The next morning before they parted ways, Rox had approached Thole and apologized for the night before. He had told her that he had a fever a few weeks before and thought that it might be returning. Thole assured him that he would be alright and that she would look into what he had told her. That seemed to ease his mind. Rox’s pallid face smiled at that and they had said their goodbyes.
Thole’s group headed directly north to cross the Serpent’s Tongue, a meandering river with several smaller offshoots that ran northwest. Following the easternmost stream brought them to Darmycia, where there were two separate Pursuits. This was the most challenging stop on the Walk of Wisdom. They would learn how to use the Saviors here, the modified ones used to combat the Ravagers. They would also learn about what made it possible to live and survive in Darmycia and the Buried Temple beyond, where the wind and the heat were most ferocious.
She entered the airlock, waited for the door to close, then walked through the next door towards the large Savior hangar on the western outskirts of the city. This was the largest Savior hangar on the planet. Hundreds of them were aligned in neat rows, crouched down on one knee and covering their visors. Thole went over to an empty space in the row to her left and fell in line with the rest. A moment later she hopped down from the Savior and started towards the hangar door.
Darmycia was the closest city to the substellar point, the point on the planet that lies directly beneath the Coil. The winds here were aggressive, a nearly continuous stream of air rolling towards the south. The wind and sandstorms weren’t quite as dangerous near Darmycia, and once inside the dome they were non-existent. The Buried Temple, on the other hand, was a treacherous place that could only be reached by Savior. The winds were exponentially worse there, and that’s to say nothing of the sandstorms. If you were caught out there without a Savior, the force of the sand from the powerful gales could cut through skin. Not that you’d suffer for long, though, as you’d choke to death from the sand and dust within minutes. At some point in history there had been a large freshwater lake here. It was a mystery how there ever could have been a lake here, this close to the substellar point. The best guess anyone had was that when the meteor hit the Xenolithic Ruins it struck a glancing blow; yet hit with such force that it rotated the planet slightly, moving the substellar point by just a few degrees. The lake would have evaporated in its new location, leaving a desert wasteland full of Ravagers to deal with.
She met up with her team outside the hangar and waited to be checked in. The group would be given directions to the Hall of Orientation and then sent on their way, left to their own devices until all of the apprentices had arrived. She looked around while she awaited her papers. Everywhere she looked she could see the intricate latticework that made up the dome surrounding Darmycia. She had heard of the Darmycian dome but this was the first time she’d seen it. The bulk of the dome consisted of quasi-triangular panes of tempered glass, all held in place by interconnecting cylinders. These cylinders connected to six-pointed hubs with a green blinking light at the center of the hexagons that formed within the latticework. Once Thole had her papers she continued in to the city. To her left was a host of small round huts, laid out across a curbed, circular platform. Tall, thin strands of palegrass webbed itself around the small huts. On her right side lay a similar but smaller sight. In place of some of the huts was a large, and once again circular, tavern. Thole walked between the platforms with her team across the granite cobbles. Straight ahead of them was their destination, Darmycia’s Hall of Orientation. They had a fair bit of time before they needed to be there, though. They had to wait for the group from Inquilaris to arrive, and that wouldn’t be for another few days yet.
“Do you guys want to eat? I’m about ready to eat one of these huts I’m so hungry.” Triggo was Thole’s favorite teammate, if you could call him that. He was tall and skinny, had a good sense of humor, and didn’t annoy her to death like the other two. One thing that she could do without was him whining incessantly until he got his way.
Thole didn’t argue with him on this one though. She was pretty hungry, too. “Yeah, let’s head over to the tavern and see what they’ve got.”
They sauntered over to the tavern and breezed through the door. The interior of the tavern looked much nicer than the exterior, as Thole imagined much of this city would be. The bar and the kitchen were in the back on her left, with a good number of tables set up over the other half of the room. To her immediate left were card tables, one of them currently occupied by a group of four that Thole assumed was one of the groups of apprentices that were due to arrive in Darmycia. Past the card tables was a staircase leading up to a full wraparound balcony. Above her was a small reading area with a few chairs for the patrons to sit in, and a bookcase in the corner containing a modest selection of reading material. On the opposite side were guest rooms, where they were almost certain to find some of the magisters holed up with some form of entertainment for the night.
Thole and her group sat down at one of the tables and waited for the tavernmaster. He was nowhere in sight. Triggo was looking around anxiously for a tablemaid or anyone who would bring him some food and a cold drink. “Where is everyone? I need to eat yesterday.”
Thole inspected the room. There were only a few vacant tables in the dining area, and most of the others had already been served. Her eyes stopped back at the card table with the group of four sitting there, two of whom were watching her. She gave them a scathing leer and continued to search the room.
One of the apprentices who had been watching her spoke. “If you’re looking for somebody to serve you you’re like to starve to death. Help yourself to the kitchen, there’s lots of food and drink to be had.” He gestured to the door beside the bar. “The people that work here stay in the kitchens most of the time. Especially after the scene we made when we got here, right, Gray?”
The one called Gray stood up beside his fellow apprentice. “It wasn’t that loud, Branson, just enough to get their attention.” He turned his attention towards Thole. “I would be Gray, my lady, and this is my friend, Branson. I must apologize for myself and on Branson’s behalf. I know you caught us staring.” His face reddened. “We were only admiring your hair, my lady. It’s beautiful.”
Thole’s hair was a thing to behold. She had two massive, intricately woven braids starting at her hairline and continuing on either side of a center part down her back. The two braids then twisted together and were tied at her tailbone. She looked like a battle goddess. People have been mesmerized by her hair most of her life. Her hair was jet black, here and there highlighted with streaks of blue and purple that made the braids that much more lustrous.
“Gray and Branson, is it? You’re apprentices, too, right?”
Branson stepped in front of Gray. “Yep. Coming from Raxid, this will be our second Pursuit. How about you guys?”
Two years younger than me, Thole reflected, and coming from Raxid, huh? “I’m Thole. The one that’s already finishing his first plate is Triggo. The other two are Jordi and Donagin. We came from Alevenia, this is our third Pursuit.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Thole.” Gray bowed slightly. There was something about Gray that Thole didn’t like. Maybe it was the mockery he disguised with charisma and politeness. His every word and movement seemed practised, an air of confidence in himself that was as tangible as the chair he stood from. “Our other two tag-alongs seem to be headed to their rooms. Would you and Triggo care to join us at our card table? We’re playing Sage’s Tower. If you’ve never played before we can we can teach you. What do you say?” Gray gestured towards the two empty seats that had appeared at the table.
Thole turned back to Triggo and asked if he wanted to play cards. He jumped up from the table so fast she thought he might tip it over on Jordi and Don. They had almost a week to wait for the group from Inquilaris to arrive and begin their orientation, so they might as well entertain themselves for a while.