(Please note, not edited/checked/PR-ed. You may run into a questionable grammar or two. If you spot them, please let me know in the comments. Thanks!!)
The docking platform for the Sky Ark was, plainly speaking, impossible to describe without resorting to elaborate hand gestures.
The entire station was built to the East of the Metropolis, where it wouldn’t impact the lives of the citizens too much. Might as well – the real estate the station took over equaled that of a large town, maybe even more.
It hasn’t been long since the introduction of the Arks but the number of them in service swelled remarkably fast. Currently, only those involved in the project knew the exact number of Sky Arks in service but a regular layman could estimate roughly thirty of them in existence. Building that many in relatively short amount of time were a feat of engineering far too difficult to achieve unless a humongous amount of resources were sacrificed on the project itself. A kind of resource a small kingdom could survive on for years.
Seeing through the crystal window pane, Kaleena counted ten different-sized Sky Arks anchored in mid-air around the station, throngs of people bustling around them like worker ants doing who knows what.
These Sky Arks had various paint schemes applied to them, signifying either the different routes they serviced, or the divisions of the Imperial Government they belonged to.
The smallest was as big as a ship-faring galleon, at least thirty meters in length. The biggest one, however, that one was nearly ten times the size. It was painted in distinct hues of violet and gold, with the Imperial Crest prominently displayed on the bow.
There was no mistaking it to whom this particular Ark belonged to the Imperial Family. More correctly, the Emperor himself.
When Damien looked at it, his face hardened slightly, before relaxing a bit. The reason for that was, he saw what resembled a bunch of long range cannons on deck, with uniformed men and women milling about around them, clearly performing maintenance.
Since it was the Imperial Family’s personal Ark, it stood to reason that some amount of protection was built into it. Damien remembered that Marquis Phillips initially had no plans to turn an Ark into a military weapon, but also had to remind himself that he had been away from the capital and its ever-changing political landscape.
A lot could change in a month, never mind a year.
Suddenly, he began wondering about the balance of power in the structure of the Empire itself. The Founding Families had not been seeing eye to eye on a number of matters, and had been for years like that.
It was rather obvious to see, now that there were potentially many militarized Sky Arks out there, all of them under the command of the Emperor, those nobles thinking of dissent had to think hard before throwing tantrums.
Out of the six Families, The House of Argos always fostered a close relationship with The House of Phillips. It was a given that the Imperial Institute developed and funded Arks would form the backbone of the Emperor’s expanding iron-like grip on power.
Then there was the Lomax bloodline. He hadn’t kept up with the latest gossip but even Damien knew that the ties between his namesake House and that of the Emperor’s weren’t all that amiable at the moment.
It wasn’t to the point where daggers were drawn publicly. The path for reconciliation remained wide open, but still, the history of enmity would be impossible to erase. Once a rift of distrust formed, it’d be difficult, nay impossible, to completely mend it no matter how much time has passed.
Even one or two of these heavily armed Sky Arks would leave behind a trail of destruction never seen before, with very little means to defeat one without sacrificing even more.
Things Kain said a few months ago suddenly sounded uncannily omniscient. How did a five year old kid predict stuff like this, Damien mused inwardly.
Naturally, thinking about his son caused Damien to fall back into the previous gloomy state of mind. Frowning, he sat back on his seat, sighing. What did any of this stuff matter? His son was gone. None of this gave him comfort. All of it, was nothing more than noise.
Lizbeth glanced at her sighing husband, her face wan and gaunt. She resisted the urge to shake her head in disapproval, and instead tried to keep a placid face. Her son’s death pained her immeasurably, but she still had to mind Kaleena and her unborn child. She’d dwell on her grief in private, and unleash the built up anger on those responsible when the time came. That was how she rolled.
As the sun set below the horizon, countless beams of light began pulsating from the ground around the station, illuminating the area as if it was still in the middle of a day.
Guided by the light, the Sky Ark carrying the Lomax family touched down and docked with a loud clunk. Dozens of metallic cables, each one as thick as an ox, connected with the Ark as circles of Invocation array swirled around them.
There was a slight vibration as the Ark resonated with whatever Invocation spell there was in the docking station, which lasted for a few minutes.
Soon, a disembodied voice announced that the passengers were now allowed to disembark.
Everyone, even Katrina, couldn’t get used to this voice. They were told that it belonged to that of the Ark’s captain, and the messages were broadcast via an Invocation spell. Still, to hear someone speak but not see the person say it was a bit hard to swallow for the uninitiated.
It was a simple affair, getting their travel papers processed. In order to travel between different provinces, a permit for each and every passenger was required from the point of origin. It acted sort of like as a passport, in other words. Everyone had to get it, regardless of age. Wherever they went to, there would be marks on the paper denoting where they have been to.
Have a permit, stand in a queue, get a stamp on the piece of parchment along with the customary Truth Board once-over – and one was allowed to enter the Capital of the Empire.
By the time the family caught a carriage taking into the city proper, the evening had fallen. But unlike any other city, not even Lafayette, the sunset didn’t mean the beginning of bedtime for its citizens.
Every street had rows of Invocation array supported street lamps casting bright light, illuminating the surroundings and allowing the public to carry on with their lives uninterrupted. Various businesses continued to offer their services deep into the night, and there were unending throngs of people walking around regardless of what hour it was.
If Kain saw this scene now, he’d be all nostalgic and like. After all, it was exactly like the kind of nightlife he used to enjoy back when.
Damien and Lizbeth, even Rosy, were acquainted with this kind of hubbub, but for Kaleena, this kind of vibrancy was completely unexpected and refreshingly different. The buzzing of life she felt here easily eclipsed what she witnessed in Lafayette. These two cities were totally incomparable as far as the liveliness went.
The first thing the family decided to do was to find a lodging. Michelle still had her residence in the city but it wasn’t going to suffice for the six people in her party. She also had a small house in the Academy’s grounds, which she requested to be built when she first started working there because she couldn’t be bothered to commute every morning.
But ever since tendering her resignation, it was most likely no longer there.
After finding an inn that offered good food and clean beds, Michelle left them and went back home, in order to get some things ready.
It was a truly good timing to arrive in Argos at this precise date because the admissions for entry were about to be open for the prospective learners. Certain portions of the would-be students had to go through a prior procedure to sort out their talent levels to see if they met the minimum threshold of acceptance, while some other, more fortunate individuals would be given a leeway of sorts when recommendations issued by recognized Invokers accompanied them.
The procedure to determine the talent levels was held every mid-year in the capital cities of each of the six provinces. It wasn’t a tournament or something like that, but rather, it was boring exams concentrating on testing Aeterna Affinities and aptitudes in casting Invocations. Anyone aged between seven and seventeen could enter.
Going by the inspirational name of The Festival of Soaring Will, it certainly presented a golden opportunity for those looking to make something of their lives. After all, becoming an Invoker opened a lot of doors, all of them leading to fame and fortune of unprecedented scale.
Obviously, Kaleena and Katrina didn’t participate in The Festival, so they lacked qualifications. But with Michelle around, that bit was already not a problem. The question was the burden of the admission fee and who would be able to take care of that.
Michelle assured Damien and Lizbeth that with little Kal’s latent talents, she would enter the Academy as a scholarship student so there was no problem. As for Katrina, she too possessed a solid foundation as well as highly sought-after Affinity with Dark Element so the elder Invoker foresaw no issues there.
Feeling weary after a taxing travel, both Damien and Lizbeth retired early, but Kaleena couldn’t still her excited heart and so she kept on pestering her cousin on many strange things she saw in the city.
“Katrina, why was there men and women in funny dresses singing on the street corner?”
“They are traveling bards.” Feeling slightly irritated at her sleep being disturbed, Katrina frowned but answered regardless. “Didn’t you see them in Lafayette? Oh right, they weren’t as elaborate nor as many of them there, weren’t they? Oh well. In Argos, there are lots of Bard troupes that perform for money. Even I can’t count how many of them are here in the city.”
“Singing and dancing for money?” Kaleena was shocked. “You can earn money like that?”
“Obviously you have to be talented first. Failing that, you could earn coin in many other ways.” Katrina sighed as she fiddled with the pillow. She was all ready to hit the sack but Kaleena didn’t seem to.
With more irrepressible energy bursting forth, she jumped out of her bed and directly landed on Katrina’s.
“Really? So there are other ways to earn money? Not just farming and being an Invoker, right? Just how many could there be? And can I see all of them here in the city?”
“Get off my bed this instance!!” Katrina tried to shove her cousin away and the two began engaging in an impromptu tug of war with a brown colored pillow.
The struggle lasted for a few minutes, before the physical exhaustion forced the two to stop. Although Katrina kept on frowning, Kaleena didn’t, and a small smile was etched on her face.
Seeing this, even Katrina broke out a rueful smile as well, then chucked the pillow at her cousin’s face. “Just go to sleep, will you? Ask me tomorrow. I’m tired now.”
The following morning, the family waited until Michelle returned with news. In the meantime, Kaleena continued to pester her cousin with more questions. Fluctuating from feeling irritated at the constant questioning, and proud of the fact that her country bumpkin cousin was relying on her, Katrina explained this and that to the best of her knowledge, sometimes even concocting 100% bull manure of a story when she had no clue about topics she was asked.
Next to them, Lizbeth and Damien carried a pair of complex facial expressions, both of them mentally noting to correct all the misunderstandings Katrina potentially have caused before they become bigger headaches later on.
Before long, Michelle returned with news.
“Well, I’ve spoken to the dean of admission, and he has agreed to let Kaleena and Katrina take an out-of-season Festival. They should be ready by early tomorrow. For preparation, let us depart and head for my place in the Academy. Apparently, those old fogies left my residence as is. Not sure why that was the case though.”
Michelle spoke, her face showing a bit of confusion when mentioning the last part.
Lizbeth silently mused that the reason for her teacher’s place still remaining within the Academy was probably because of the Grand Elders knew of Michelle’s personality. She was impulsive, lacked deep thought regarding certain matters, and they figured that eventually she’d return once she got bored of whatever she was doing.
And so, they were almost proven right, although it was with a different reason why she had to return so soon.
Of course, Lizbeth would never reveal her thoughts on the matter to her teacher. That would be considered…. quite inconsiderate.
After settling the account with the inn, they traveled once more. From one side of the city, to the other side where the Academy was located. The trip itself took several hours, due to the distance as well as something both Damien and Lizbeth least enjoyed about the capital city. Something that could not be seen anywhere in the world.
Midday rush hour traffic.
With a city this big, and with so many people living in it, all of whom needed to go somewhere at the exact same moment, a traffic jam was bound to happen, regardless of a fantasy world or not.
As they – Lomax family, Rosy and Michelle – sat in the horse drawn carriage, they witnessed the kind of scene that Kain was quite intimately familiar with from his previous life.
As far as eyes could see, the cobbled roads in every which direction were packed to the brim with other horse drawn carriages and goods supply caravans, as well as people on horseback scything between the stand-still vehicles, while raising the ire of those stuck in this stifling situation.
Seeing this, Damien chuckled wryly. “The traffic jam looks worse than before. Is it because of the Sky Arks with cheaper fares bringing in more folks to Argos?”
Michelle shook her head, as if the whole thing was giving her a mighty migraine. “You’re partially correct there, Damien. Ever since the introduction of the Arks, the speed of urbanization exploded beyond what the Imperial Government can manage. I hear that nearly ten thousand souls arrive in the city almost everyday.”
“Gee, that’s a lot,” Rosy murmured, her whiskers bobbing up and down. However, she looked confused. “Uh, how many is a ten thousand?”
“Apparently, it’s one too many the way things are deteriorating.” Michelle sighed. “I don’t mind folks migrating to find work and to provide better lives for their families, but there’s a need for a line to be drawn. The Capital is indeed very impressive, but even she has her limits. Exceed that, then all-encompassing anarchy will rise. An anarchy born from resentment. Resentment of not finding work, resentment of being marginalized, resentment of seeing other, less deserving people succeeding where you failed.”
“But isn’t that human nature?” Lizbeth countered. “Such resentment grows whether it’s caused by migration or not.”
“Well, in the past, nations often went to war to quell the thirst of anger in the masses. Cull the number of mouths to feed, increase the breathing room, create opportunities, incite the masses into a frenzied, blinded loyalty – that sort of things. But now, with the Empire at its peak with no one else to wage war with, I wonder how the current Emperor will tackle the matter…”
“A war averted is a precious victory earned,” murmured Damien as he recalled something the previous head of the Adventurers’ Association once told him. “If I were the Emperor, I’d probably ask the citizens to expand to other, more available territories out there. I would think there are more opportunities for wealth and fame out there than here.”
“But can you deny the attraction of the Capital? Where the rule of the law is upheld better and the threats of Fiends and miscreants are that much lower, where their children can attend educational institutions, where they can find professional healers quickly? Where jobs are seemingly easier to find, even if the truth is different?” Michelle sighed again. “Even with the loyalty of the citizens, at the end of the day, we all want what’s best for our individual selves, and not for the collective good which is something not many of us can sense on the ground level.”
Not really understanding anything the adults were talking about, Kaleena, Katrina and Rosy ignored the heavy topic and gazed outside the carriage, hoping that the infernal traffic jam would clear up as soon as possible.
The cross-town trip took almost the whole day, but eventually they made it to the grand gates of the SOIR’s Academy on the West section of the metropolis.
Actually, the plot of land occupied by the Academy was not seen as a part of the capital city at all, but instead as a self-sustained district replete with its own branch of city hall and corresponding governors. In this case, the Grand Elders and the SOIR council acting as such. In all intents and purposes, calling it another city was not incorrect.
To put into perspective the overall size of the Academy, it was as big as Lafayette itself, maybe even more. That’s how massive it was.
Of course, it also included the training facilities which were larger than some residential areas in major cities and towns for obvious reasons – when Invocations go off, even in mock battles the collateral damage was no laughing matter. A large, uninhabited area to train Invocation was a must. The empty plot of land in front of Lafayette’s SOIR branch served that very purpose as its own training ground, away from the areas where civilians lived.
The entire Academy city was cordoned off by a series of gigantic Invocation arrays that prevented the unwanted from invading SOIR’s grounds without permission. Their protective power was so great, even an army of a million wouldn’t be able to breach it.
Inside these protective spells, the Academy was further divided into several districts. The residential district where the resident Invokers, students, visitors and regular folks stayed, the open market district where trading took place and anything Invocation and Aeterna related could be purchased, the research and development district where dedicated number of Invokers devoted themselves in the matters of research, the central district where the old fogies, as Michelle liked to put, ran the day to day operation of the city, and the school district for, uh, schooling purposes.
Suffice to say, there were thousands of buildings and structures in the Academy. And also over a hundred fifty thousand souls calling it home, more than two thirds of that number Invokers of various ranking.
Right in the center of the city was a giant mountain that was shaped like a pyramid, every line and angle in a perfect geometrical symmetry.
It was so wonderfully symmetrical, any person standing before it had to question whether the gods themselves personally carved it when they were bored silly.
Also, it was kind of funny looking too, if you saw the mountain for the first time. The lower half was in lush green due to the dense forestation covering. But from then, jagged rocky surfaces lay exposed, coloring the upper half in the mixture of dull gray and brown.
Right at the summit, a thick layer of permafrost coated the tip like a layer of sugary cream on a dessert.
So, the whole thing sorta resembled a cake.
Of course, no one dared to take a bite off the mountain, literally or figuratively. Not only it wouldn’t taste good, but it was heavily guarded by SOIR and even by some Imperial soldiers.
“Because that mountain, The Heavenly Ascension, is considered one of the holiest sites in the entire continent, that is why. Only the Grand Elders and the Emperor are permitted to enter.”
Michelle explained to Kaleena and Katrina, her tone that of a kindly teacher.
“But why? It just looks like a mountain, you know. What’s special about it?”
Kaleena asked, tilting her head in confusion. She had heard about places like Sacred Acres which were too dangerous to enter for normal people, but other than that, it seemed a bit fishy to deny everyone from climbing a mountain just because it was supposedly holy.
“One legend has it, that the mountain was the place where the Twelve Deities descended to this world and spread their teachings. Another one says that the mountain hides an enormous treasure, or itself is a treasure.”
“Oh, I heard from father something similar before,” exclaimed Katrina. “Father said that the mountain was the place where the First Patriarchs of the Founding Families met for the first time and became comrades over five hundred years ago.”
Damien nodded as he looked out of the carriage and gazed at the mountain, The Heavenly Ascension. “Right, I’ve heard that story before too. Supposedly there’s a hidden cave in the mountain that leads to some kind of an altar of worship built by an ancient civilization. That was where the Treaty of the Six was formed, or so I was told.”
The road their carriage traveled on was wide and smoothly paved, no doubt with no small help from the Invocation spells. The traffic here wasn’t as bad as the center of Argos and they made up a good deal of time lost there.
Lizbeth mused inwardly how the roadside scenery had changed since she last came here as a young novice Invoker looking to make a name for herself.
Back then, it was wide grassland with a smattering of crop fields. Often times, a herd of cows or sheep could be seen, grazing lazily on the grass. There was even a small lake, where Nobles spent their holiday there on the shoreline.
Lizbeth suddenly recalled that there was a restaurant there, by the shore. Damien and she used to go on a date there, with Damien struggling to order anything costly while trying to look manly in front of her. That recollection brought a small smile to her lips. When she turned to see her husband, now he looked less dashing, less manly. Instead, he looked withered, tired, and weakened.
She felt anger swelling up again inside. Not at Damien, not necessarily, but at the bastards who cost her her family’s happiness. Gritting her teeth, she forced herself to continue observing the changed scenery.
And change they have done. All she could see now, instead of grasslands and a lakeside holiday area, was a sea of cheap housing projects built to offset the headache caused by the explosion of urbanization.
There was an unspoken rule of not building any dwellings close to SOIR’s Academy but many unscrupulous real estate developers saw opportunities for a quick buck here. Their avarice meant reneging on this rule by expanding shoddily built houses and shacks around the area without caring for the consequences.
Since SOIR didn’t own the land all they could do was lodge a complaint with Argos’s administrators, And all these greedy businessmen had to do was grease a few palms and et voila, they were the legitimate land owners. The complaint fell by wayside, rebuked by the same greased-up officials as privileged being insensitive towards the needs of the others.
Of course, this wasn’t some unique problem only found near SOIR. No, it happened all around the metropolis. The trouble was that, as more and more people from the rural areas moved in, the middle income families moved out of the city center.
The demand was high, and the developers were sort of justified in their actions as they were simply trying to meet this unprecedented thirst for housing away from the allegedly crime-ridden city centers.
It was the beginning of suburb-fication of a fantasy world, basically.
Thankfully, people still had some of their senses and the area around the protective arrays were devoid of houses.
There were three ways to enter the Academy, via one of its four main gates, via Invocation short space/time displacement spell which cost an arm and a leg to operate, or by riding on a dedicated Sky Ark.
Currently the Lomax family was planning to enter the Academy via the Eastern checkpoint.
As they got closer the dome-shaped Invocation shield could be seen. A thin ethereal film rose from the ground and cast a misty haze that could not be pierced by normal means. A wave of multiple colors sometimes rippled gently on the surface of this film, pulsing upwards in a bizarre fashion that, once witnessed, imparted a certain unsettling sensation.
Like, if you touched this wall of protection, you’d die. That kind of sensation.
Four gates, situated in the usual cardinal directions, allowed normal people to move in and out of this protective shield. Called Checkpoints, the structures resembled The Arc de Triomphe with guard stations built by the foot. All who wished to pass by here had to meet certain requirements like holding a correct permit or a recommendation.
As for flying in, the protective shield could be disabled in parts to allow the Sky Ark to enter.
And for the space/time displacement Invocation, the permission must be given beforehand otherwise the spell wouldn’t work.
Because Michelle’s presence, the family believed they could safely negotiate past the Checkpoint and enter the territory of the Academy. They didn’t get their wish, though.
Because as soon as they neared the entrance, they encountered a huge blockade, preventing everyone from entering through the grand archway. In front, a large crowd had gathered, and they sure didn’t look friendly.
“What is going on?”
Damien frowned deeply as he studied the commotion up ahead. He could hear the shouts of dissatisfaction but it was difficult to make out what was being said there.
However, his past experiences as an Adventurer and the lord of a village told him that it was nothing good.
Turning towards Michelle, he asked. “Teacher Michelle, do you know what’s gotten into these folks? They seem very unhappy about something.”
She looked concerned and confused at the same time. Shaking her head, she replied. “Not sure. It wasn’t like this last night. Wonder what happened.”
“Shall we go and find out?” Damien swept his gaze across his family. “Liz, Rosy, can you stay here and look after the kids? Michelle and I will go and try to find out what’s going on.”
Lizbeth nodded. “Be careful.”