Orrin Cael Foster pretty much hated his current life.
As the only Runescribe in the village, it had fallen to him to repair and restore the protective and utility runescript throughout the entire place. The previous Runescribe, an elderly man with more wrinkles than skin, had been one of the people purged in the invasion. He had fought back, contrary to what his own family had done, and had been wounded gravely in the ensuing battle. He died of blood loss afterwards without even regaining consciousness, making him unable to activate Recovery to stem the flow.
And he, Orrin Foster, who was barely into the Apprentice Runescribe level, was now tasked to do things that a Journeyman would do as part of the routine. It did wonders for his practical experience though, but he didn’t go to Sharom’s Reunescribe course to become a glorified maintenance man.
Grumbling to himself, he sorted out the lines on an Animatech lamp. The etchings that led to the ambient Chaos accumulators and denatured Animus converters had worn down and needed to be reapplied. He had to carefully erase the ink first, and thankfully, the etchings were light and more generalized than anything else. Only parts of the circuitry were etched and the rest used runescript ink. It made for a flimsier product, but the manufacturing process was shortened by a significant margin. Also, it meant that they were more prone to breaking down, which allowed the manufacturer to sell more.
Orrin snorted in disgust. He had no doubt that his twin would approve of the scheme, but he was perfectionist enough that the shoddy work offended his sensibilities.
However, there were far more items to repair than he had time to re-etch.
Sanding down the ink was mind-numbing work and he was free to let his thoughts wander. And whenever he did so, they always revolved around one person.
Yuriko Mishala Davar.
He’d known her for less than a year, interacted with her for much less time than he’d prefer, and he was smitten. Infatuation, desire, and lust. He couldn’t help it, and when he thought she had been lost, either dead or captured, he had been powerless.
Heroic impulses can only go so far, and he knew that trying to rescue her from the Frozen North was nothing less than suicide.
So, he had tried to forget. He threw himself into his studies and training, not forgetting her legacy of physical empowerment. Days, weeks, and Seasons of despair.
He knew his twin was affected but was much more casual than he was. Braden dealt with his grief by socialising and focusing on his studies. Orrin knew that Braden didn’t make any meaningful connections with other girls, and both of them were rather put off by some of the girls being status climbers. That did mean that they weren’t interested in a merchant family’s sons.
He’d all but given up hope except for a rather vivid dream he had that year. He thought he saw her, alive and thriving. It rekindled the embers of his hope, and then, there was no chance he would get over the loss anytime soon.
Then he received her letter and that hope was smashed to bits again. She was alive and well, but she was in Realmheart. There was little chance he’d make it there within the next couple of decades, and he was sure she’d find someone else by then. If not on purpose then by trickery, deceit, or sheer persistence.
But he couldn’t give up. Something within him wouldn’t let him. In fact…within a few days of receiving Yuriko’s letter, he was suddenly inundated with feelings so powerful that he couldn’t express them or even identify them properly.
He desired her. But he also felt a sense of worship. If she didn’t choose him, he knew he wouldn’t really mind. But he also knew that if she asked him to reach for the Luminous Moon he would do his very best to do it.
He was a slave to his feelings.
But it still didn’t change the fact that there was no way to see Yuriko anytime soon, and that little bit of despair ate at his morale. When they had been asked to leave Rumiga City for their safety, he did so without much regret. Returning home to Cierra meant that he wouldn’t be constantly reminded of Yuriko wherever he looked. But then, she occupied his mind no matter what anyway.
And here he was mooning over her instead of working. He’d finished sanding ten minutes ago and had been motionless while his thoughts lingered on Yuriko.
In truth, she’d been a constant companion in his dreams, though most of those weren’t the sort to speak of in decent company.
He grabbed his engraving pen and inked it, then followed the old tracery of lines. There was little need to innovate with all the pieces he had to repair. Not that there was much room anyway.
The door to his study opened before he could reply. A glance back showed his Uncle Colin, slinking into the room with a greasy grin.
Orrin didn’t say anything and focused on the runescript lines. His uncle knew better than to interrupt him. Once he was at an acceptable stopping point, he sighed and put down his pen swivelled his chair around and asked, “What is it, unc?”
“Orrin, my boy, I come bearing gifts.” Colin laughed and plopped a small vial onto a side table. Orrin’s eyes widened as he recognised the contents.
‘Yes, taken at great cost and risk.”
“Smuggled, you mean.”
“I prefer tax-free transportation.”
Orrin barked a laugh. “Sure. Uh. Thank you, I guess.”
“You’re welcome, lad.” Colin sighed and dropped his hearty expression. “Bear with this for now, you need to be within the threshold of Knighthood before you can convert properly.”
Orrin just stared at the man flatly.
“I know, I know. You prefer the Imperial system. But you know what it means.”
“Only your word, and only after you abandoned it.”
“I couldn’t speak of it before.”
“So I can’t verify.”
Uncle Colin smiled drily. “It would be too late by the time you’re ready to become a Knight. The Oaths will bind you whether you succeed or not.”
“So then, how did you escape?”
“By paying a cost more than most were willing to bear,” he said, pain clearly evident in his eyes. Of course, the man was a master merchant and he could express whatever emotion he wanted on his face.
However, the choice wouldn’t be made until much later anyway.
“Well, you haven’t locked in your path yet. Not completely. You can choose to bind a spirit instead and slowly convert. Ah, but you’ll lose the chance to experience dense Animus…” He muttered and shook his head. “Well, up to you. My path changed and I’m still dealing with the consequences. But, I am no longer bound. Think about it.” With that, the man left Orrin’s study while whistling.
Later that evening, when he returned home, Braden walked in on him while he was staring at the Zoi Elixir. His twin’s words were something that had been simmering in the back of his mind for quite a while now.
Warriors from the Federation were being gathered here in the village, and whatever happened, Cierra would become a warzone. He wasn’t certain about defecting, considering that they were really still Imperial citizens… and he’d rather not be in the thick of things.
Neither of them had an answer, so they both went to bed. Only…
His usual dreams of Yuriko were subsumed. What he saw in his dream was a silhouetted figure in the midst of a burning ball of Radiant fire. It was her, of course, he could feel the connection. She was here. She was back in Rumiga!
When he woke up, found his twin staring at him from across the room. Braden’s face was flushed, and he couldn’t help but grin.
“I guess that makes the decision easier?”
“Yeah.” Orrin laughed. It did.
The trip through the bowels of Zarek Mountains was smoother this time around, Yuriko thought. The way the Avos manipulated the mountains meant that the caravan didn’t really need to ascend that much. Just a couple of hundred paces along an easy slope, then they were protected from both the weather and any enemies by the mountain itself.
A Stonetoise met them at the entrance of the pass, not Stepanos but a different one, to accept the tribute of a MiJin of Chaos shards. She didn’t realise how many shards that was until she saw it laid out in front of the creature.
A single shard was about two to five HiJin, and each was nearly an inch long, though less than a quarter that in width. An average Jin of it was about twenty shards, and a MiJin was nearly twenty thousand of them. The tithe had been placed inside several wooden chests, each of which was at least as long as her arm. Ambient Chaos concentrated around the chests too, raising the average by at least a third of an iarvesh. That was a lot, considering that an increase of a tenth of an iarvesh in the atmosphere translated to increasing Animus recovery by half.
Anyway, the Stonetoise swallowed all of the Chaos shards and then left. She saw a few legionnaires wince at the sight, and while she felt uncomfortably watching that much wealth used up to secure safe passage, well, if that’s what it took to get home.
It still took nearly a week though, not because they had to create roads, but because not everyone could ride the transports. They were now limited to how fast people could walk, and even the best of the militia couldn’t cover more than five leagues a day. By alternating who drove and who rested inside the transports and carriers, they managed to triple that distance per day. The journey was still more than a hundred leagues though.
Most of that time she spent training. She spent increasing amounts of time basking under the rays of the Radiant Sun, and she came to realise that even though the Sun had been present underground, it wasn’t the same quality as what she got on the surface. The Radiant energy here just felt better and more lively, while those she absorbed in Synkrasia were a bit tamer and docile.
It was funny since she never thought of the energy as having human-like qualities.
Her experiments with Radiant energy bore some fruit. She could easily consume ambient Chaos and feed it to her Radiant Essence to produce energy, but she felt that there was a way to convert Chaos particles into Radiant. It wasn’t easy, but she thought there was a way to do it.
In the meantime, she continued to oversee Gwendith’s training. While the other girl couldn’t condense her Anima to form protection, she somehow learned how to condense the water around her to the same effect. Not ice, but plain water. She could change it to ice in the blink of an eye to protect her from cuts or stabs, and she could layer ice sheets to absorb blunt strikes.
Yuriko asked her why she didn’t just keep it all ice and Gwendith replied, “It costs nearly no Animus to keep it as water.”
Well, that and the Animus Armour should keep Gwendith safe enough.
There was a rising sense of anticipation from Yuriko with each passing day. She could finally see Kato and Rami within the next couple of weeks! And hopefully, Da would be back by now.
Marron said that Da hadn’t returned, last he heard, but that was weeks ago. There was still that hope.
And finally, they would know why Rumiga City wanted to recall all of its warriors.
“I understand that you wish to continue to your hometown of Faron’s Crossing,” Commander Perry said one afternoon when the older woman asked to see her. The two of them walked alongside the command transport.
“Yes. My other brothers are there,” Yuriko said easily.
“I see. Well, I cannot compel you to return to Rumiga City with me and don’t fear that I will neglect to get your paperwork filed. I will petition you to be paid your Knight's stipend and the mercenary’s rate for the duration of your service, as well as a significant combat pay and bonus.”
“Uhm, how will I get it?”
“It will be credited to your account at the Imperial Bank.”
“Oh! Yes, that would be convenient.”
“The Empire always pays her debts,” Perry noted with a rueful smile. “Ah, you should also ask your brother and your sister-in-law to submit their leaves of absence. Once we reach the village of Horswick, we would no longer be in a combat state and normal procedures apply. That’s if you want them to accompany you home.”
“Oh, thank you for the reminder.”
That was the end of that particular conversation. Neither of them was prone to small talk so Perry dismissed her and continued on to her next meeting.
“I’ll go with you, too,” Gwendith said at dinner when Yuriko brought the point up to her brother.
“Eh, wouldn’t you rather go to your family?” Marron asked.
Gwendith shrugged. “Not really.”
“Are you sure?” Yuriko asked.
Gwendith gave her a lidded stare and smiled, “Yes. I’d rather stay with you.”
The rest of the passage was uneventful and on the 51st Day of Air, AF 2999, they emerged from the Zarek Mountains and reentered Imperial territory.