The small crystal hummed softly as it bobbed up and down while levitating. The colour remained the same so far, the same, tame soft red. As if the colour had partially been washed away. Jennifer sat in a chair nearby, impatiently waiting for it to change. She had brought a book on magic to study, but she was too preoccupied to read it. It had been one day too late already, why was Oswald not contacting them?
She had made sure that Thomas had not simply forgotten to tell her about Oswald contacting them while he was on watch. And to make sure she had cast a spell on the receiving crystal. Every time it would activate a call, she would be notified.
She was biting on her nails when the crystal suddenly hummed in a different tone, bobbing up and down faster, the colour turned to a bright red hue. Then, as the crystal stopped moving, the colour changed to light green.
“Hello?” A voice came from the crystal, distorted but still clear enough that it was Oswald speaking. “Master? Jennifer?”
“Yes! I am here!” Jennifer blurted out quickly, then regretted doing that. She scolded herself for allowing herself to appear so needy.
“Jennifer!” Oswald sounded delighted, as much as that was possible over the crackling sound of the crystal. “Are you okay?”
“Fool!” Jennifer yelled. “Am I okay? Are you okay! You are a day late with contacting us!”
“Ah, erm,” Oswald replied. “I am okay, yes? Why? I mean, a day is not that much of a delay right?”
“It is in such a short distance! What happened!” Jennifer demanded.
“Nothing really, I just happened on a flock of beasts, too many to take on. So I decided to go around them.”
“You left them to roam around?”
“Of course not, I notified a local chapter of the Church. They will deal with it.”
“Ah, good,” Jennifer said.
“Yeah, lost a day because of that, well most of a day. But I am in Koblin Kai now. It is as master has said too, they have reset most of their destinations too. They’ll be able to send me to Maruza. At a premium though, and there is quite the queue. They expect to be able to send me in two days.”
“A premium? The bastards!”
“Ehh, it is normal. Most places do this after a general shift. I came prepared for it, you know it isn’t anything we can’t pay.”
“I know, but still. You’d think people would learn to band together in this world, after all it has pushed us through…. But no.”
“People will always be people, and it isn’t as grim as that, you know that. Look at us, look at the Nordic brotherhood. There is plenty of good examples of people banding together and doing the good thing. Things.”
“I know, I know,” Jennifer said dismissively. “But still.”
“So, where is Master? I thought I’d find him listening.” Oswald said, changing the topic.
“Disappointed that it is me?” Jennifer asked in a tease. “He took the previous shift, sat here for near twelve hours in total. Reading that book of the bonds.”
“Ah, so now he is sleeping.”
“No, he is actually still up. Still reading and studying that book. He is using Mira berries for it even. He takes no rest or pause.”
“Mira berries? Is understanding the bond the kids have that important?”
“I don’t know, must be. But they are amazing Oswald. The girl, she can already project a stable Aurem. I’m pretty sure she can move around in Anda Ríki as well if I hadn’t stopped her. I kind of wanted to see if she could. But the strain on her Aum and nervures was too big. The lad, he too is making jumps forwards. He already has the basics of channelling under his control. Master said he went through the first three chapters of the book, and the exercises, in half a day. They are both talented, geniuses even. I would like to know more about their bond as well.”
“That is…. Amazing. But also scary.”
“Yeah, for now, it is just Channelling and Aurem projection, but what if it becomes more than just those two skills.”
“What do you mean?”
“Master never said their bond was limited to two skills unlocking that early. He just said it could be because of the bond. He also never said anything about the speed they would cultivate it with. So who knows, maybe they have another bond, or it is another thing entirely.”
“Damn… Master never saw a bond actually, so perhaps the speed of cultivation is normal. But as you say… imagine if they unlock other skills early too, and improve them with the same speed as these. The things they could be capable of…”
“Imagine them wielding Black flame or Ur script.”
“By the lord…. That’s a frightening thought.”
“Yes, I start to think Master knew all of this upfront, and that is why he sent us after these kids.”
“It was out of character for him to send us after just two new Players, and expend so much effort on it all.”
“Yeah, I am sure we’ll in be for quite some more surprises.”
“Yeah,” Oswald chuckled. “Bit exciting though, isn’t it?”
“Possible world-ending abilities in two kids kind of exciting, but yeah, exciting.” Jennifer allowed herself to laugh as well. “Oswald?”
“When you get back,” Jennifer hesitated for a moment. “We need to talk.”
“Okay,” Oswald said calmly. “About?”
“We’ll talk about it then, okay?”
“Okay.,” There was a silence for a moment. “I am going to have to go now. I need to find some food in this place, and then I’ll better head to the teleporters.”
“Okay, be safe. And don’t do anything stupid there okay.”
“It’s Maruza Jennifer, it is home for me. I’ll be safe.”
“Just saying, don’t you come back dead or maimed. I’ll revive you just to murder you.”
“Well,” Oswald laughed. “Maybe I should do that then if that is what it takes to discover revival in this world. Although my Lord wouldn’t really like that.”
“Dumb,” Jennifer said, but she laughed as well. “Bye.”
The crystal hummed again and then reverted to the previous state. The line of arcane communication had ended and left Jennifer alone in the room. She was relieved, to know Oswald was okay, and to hear from him. But she was also worried. Maruza maybe home for Oswald, and it may be the Vatican to his religion. But neither changed the fact it was a cesspool of vile people. Pretending to do it in the name of some deity didn’t change a thing about it. On top of that, Oswald was supposed to go there and ask dangerous questions. She wasn’t happy with the situation at all. She should be there with him. But she understood why the Master had kept her here as well. The young ones needed training, and well, Maruza was no place for Jennifer. She would probably get Oswald in more danger if anything.
She sighed and then got up, heading up to her Master to tell him Oswald had safely reached Koblin Kai and was now heading for Maruza.
Finn groaned as he fell to one knee. His breathing was heavy and quick, sweat beaded all over his body. He was wearing just shorts, the training room was comfortably warm, to begin with. Too hot after some exercise.
His leg twitched for a bit and then Finn collapsed on the floor. He was spent. Exhausted after training all day. First at Channelling, until his nervures started to ache like before. Than physical training, until his body collapsed just now. ‘Channeling,’ his master had said before he left him to train, ‘only improves what is already there. If there is little, to begin with, the improvement will be a little too. So train your body, train your mind. The stronger you are without it, the stronger you will be with it.’.
And so Finn had pushed himself on an on until his body just couldn’t go any further. His muscles already ached, he dreaded to think how it would feel the next day. He lay down on the floor, catching his breath, coming at pease with the pain and discomfort the was feeling. That was another thing his Master had ordered him to train. To get used to the pain, the discomfort. In battle, he would need to be able to push himself to this point, and still be able to function. To keep fighting. Training on it now, when it was safe to do so, was key to surviving in situations later, when he would need to. Finn understood that, saw the use of it. But it didn’t help make the training any easier or more bearable. He tried to focus on other things. But his desperation only increased when he started to think that this would be his reality for the next couple of months. He still needed to decide on what to do with his family. Send them a letter, or not. Telling them something, or nothing. And Sam’s choice had to fit his as well. Their families were too closely knit, they needed to be on one line.
He steered his thoughts away from this as well. He started to think about Sam. He would meet her soon enough after her training finished too. They would heal their wounds together, treat the spell rot and nervure damage. And then finally have some time together. Finn planned to have dinner with Sam, outside, under the stars. Their training stopped around ten, they would be free around eleven to eat and spend some time together. Sleep at twelve and back up at six. The training was brutal, and already taking its toll on Finn.
But it would get better, his Master said. Finn forced himself to believe him.
Sam. Finn sighed, he was falling in love with her. Or rather, he was realizing how much he cared for her. How much he loved her. It felt amazing, to have those feelings and emotions wash over him, knock him off his feet. To be totally enamoured with her. But it also sucked and added frustration on top of everything else.
He knew she liked him too, they had kissed. But he didn’t know what she felt, they still had to talk about that. Did she feel like he did? Did she love him? Or was it more like him? Did she have doubts as he had? About risking their friendship, their kinship over love? Finn had so many questions, and he knew the only way to get answers was to talk to her about it. But at the same time, he dreaded talking about it. Talking about it would make it real. Would make it final. And it would mean Sam answered his questions, made choices. Perhaps ones he didn’t like.
There wasn’t time to spend on really thinking about this anyway now, they were both working themselves to the bone. Once the training got better, easier, they could talk. For now, Finn was happy to just enjoy being with Sam in the short moments they had. He grinned and turned his head, looking at the table that stood to the side, against a wall. On top of it was a vase, with a flower in it. A rose, a peony. Sam loved those, he knew, and he had woken up extra early to meet with Jennifer and ask her to help him get one. Which was rather easy apparently as Jennifer had been able to make one grow and mature right in front of his eyes with magic. Finn sat upright and started to flex and stretch. Time to meet Sam and get rid of this spell rot.
Sam’s body seemed to hum as she fell back into it. She had started calling it ‘falling back in’, it was the closest description she could think of that resembled the feeling. Of course, it was more, much more, than falling. But it had to do. Finn seemed to understand when she talked about it, and she felt it was right when she used it for herself as well. A few seconds passed as Sam kept her eyes closed and focussed on the feeling. It was an amazing sensation, the warmth of her Aum, washing all around and over her body, as her Aurem fitted back into herself. Attached back to her corporeal form. She had learned plenty the last two days, thanks to Jennifer and the books she had given to Sam.
She felt proud, she was already able to fully control her Aurem, project it at her will, and the process went smoother and faster as well. Today she had moved around in Anda Ríki even. Small, meagre steps of course, but progress nonetheless. She felt a bit of shame too, for her progress. She was moving at a stellar pace, things the book told would take weeks to master, she did in a day. It all came naturally to her, it felt good. It felt right. She had already learned to follow and trust that intuition. She didn’t fight or doubt it anymore as she did at first. Jennifer applauded her for her progress, but at the same time, Sam could see the worry in her eyes too. She understood, she could see what this meant. What kind of threat Finn and she could be to them, or any other Players. Again she was happy that it was Master Thomas and the others that found them and took them in and not some other band of Players. She was pretty sure it wouldn’t have gone the same way as it did now.
She opened her eyes as she heard the door open. A smile curved around her lips the moment she saw him.
“Hey,” He said with a smile, it warmed her, each time.
“How was your training? Rough again? You look awful.” She said with a giggle.
“Yeah, thanks for that.” He said with a chuckle. “But yeah, rough. I worked myself until I collapsed. The rot is rough as well.”
“Don’t overdo it though, you know how dangerous the rot can be, and watch your nervures too!”
“I know, I know. I’m not overdoing it, just pushing it to the limit.”
“Good,” Sam smiled and patted the floor next to her. “Come sit next to me, we’ll heal ourselves up first then.”
“I was hoping you would say that,” Finn said relieved.
“Yeah, I might throw up any moment if this keeps up.” They both chuckled.
“Better get at it then!”
They both closed their eyes and focussed on their nervures, pushing away the residue, healing the wear and tear. They were getting better at this too, albeit much slower than with their ‘boosted’ skills. They found some relieve and comfort as well in the fact that the other one was sitting right next to them. And when they finished they started a small ritual of giving a long, thorough hug. While neither of them admitted it, that had to do more with them wanting one than needing one.
“So did you see Jennifer today?”
“Not really, she was watching the crystal. I saw her for a bit after she heard back from Oswald, but then she went back to her own research. She said I was doing great though.”
“Oh, nice! You are though, you are really amazing at this magic stuff.”
“Thanks,” She gave him a sweet smile. “What about you? Did Master help you out with your training today?”
“No, he is busy studying the book of Bonds still. He has been at it for the past several days, with no rest. He said he had something he could use for that. I have been exercising with the book he gave me. It is filled with exercises that I can use, and some guiding texts as well. Right now, I need to get in better shape and train more. I can already feel the improvements, as small as they may be.”
“That is great! Plus, it’ll be more fun to look at you when you are all toned up.” Sam said with a playful wink.
“Tsk,” Finn clacked his tongue and pushed her on her side. “You are just lucky that your skill doesn’t amplify your basic physical abilities and don’t have to train like a maniac as I do.”
“I still need to train like a maniac you know,” Sam said with pursed lips. “Just in Anda Ríki and not in the real world.”
“Do you think I’ll ever be able to meet you in Anda Ríki?” Finn suddenly asked.
“Well, yeah, of course! Why wouldn’t you?”
“I don’t know, Aurem projecting is supposed to be a specialised and higher-level skill right. Maybe I never get to learning and mastering it?”
“Of course you will, Oswald can do it too you know.”
“Yeah, all Players that can fend for themselves can do at least some Aurem projecting. It is just the magic focussed ones that are really good at it.”
“Oh,” Finn said with a grind. “So I am going to be the loser and you the genius, it’s like that huh?”
“Yup, exactly like that.” Sam gave him a wink and then a shove. “Like you won’t be a blade genius that can do superman-esque shit.”
They both laughed and then Finn took the flower from the bag he brought with him.
“Here, for you.” He said sheepishly as he offered it.
“For me? Why?” Sam said with big eyes, she took the flower and twirled it around between her fingers slowly, watching it from all its sides.
“Just because,” Finn said, blushing a bit. “I know you like peonies, so you know. Just wanted to surprise you with one.”
“Finn, it’s beautiful!” Sam said with a big smile. “Where did you get one like this?”
“Well, Jennifer might have helped a little bit with that,” Finn admitted.
“Thank you,” Sam said softly, she put the rose down next to her and then leaned towards Finn. Giving him a soft, long kiss. “You are too cute sometimes, you know that?”
Finn blushed more and Sam hugged him. They stayed in that embrace for a while, before they had their dinner together, counting the stars and talking to each other about their day, training and discoveries.
The magical mist slowly dissipated behind Oswald, roaring sounds and pandemonium of colours and smells overwhelmed Oswald. He needed a moment to get his bearings back, the taste of magic was intoxicating, inviting. It made you feel the power, raw power. Oswald could understand the lure and why many gave in to it. But Scripture gave the same options as Grammerie, and without sin. Oswald nodded at the two Keepers that stood guard, their glare was stern, judging. Oswald knew where it came from, not all of those who lived in Maruza looked kindly upon missionaries like Oswald. Maruza provided and was all that any faithful subject needed, or so they would claim. It did not help that one of the few areas that Scripture could not follow Grammerie in, was teleportation. That and the position of Maruza meant that missionaries had to sin, and use magic, to get in or out.
The Keepers groaned and huffed as Oswald passed, Oswald paid little attention to them after the formal greeting. He knew where to go and quickly left the Hall of Sin and entered Maruza proper. The city was huge and while the walls of rock rose up around it on all sides, the sun stood high in the sky. It’s warmth extending to all. Oswald took a moment to take in the sight, the air. He had missed Maruza more than he realized. This was, truly, home.
After some moments of recollecting old memories, Oswald went down the stairs and into the busy city streets. The streets were like a maze, the names meant nothing to the uninitiated and it was a sort of hazing for new acolytes to let them find their way on their own. Many of them would spend their first few weeks getting lost and ending up being too late. With many extra chores and duties as a result. But even that was a fond memory for Oswald, and the benefit was that he could now quickly calculate the best route to reach the Hall of Thought and Recollection. This Hall was one of them, perhaps the, biggest building in all of Maruza. The Hall of Sin was small compared to this, with its fourteen rooms. The Hall of Thought and Recollection was in the range of palaces, with huge wings and multiple floors. And it stretched twice as deep as it did high. The lower floors of its basements were used as storage and libraries, while the upper floors were reserved for meetings, offices and workplaces. Some small libraries were there too, with the most current and used works. The upper floors were lavishly decorated. Ornate and luxurious. Some visited only to take in its grandeur instead of for work. What Oswald needed would be in the lower levels, and he did not regret that. The debauchery of all the finery had always been, in his eyes, an affront to the Faith. But it was as the Master had said, power corrupts, indiscriminately, everywhere and among all. Even here, in Maruza, Oswald could see the corruption at work.
And he hoped with all his being, that the Master was wrong. That no ancient scripture had been accessed or stolen. If that was true, then The Faith and Maruza were no different than any of the other. Then it all meant nothing, then all was Sin. And Oswald’s years of servitude to the Faith would have been a lie.
That could not be true, Oswald was certain.