Din thoughtfully brushed her fiery red hair. She had always found it amusing that the Keepers historically seemed to have hair colors somewhat matching their element. Except for Atlas of course. No, Atlas’s hair had been golden like the sun, though the match with water and ice was reflected more in his greyish-blue eyes. She hummed a mellow little tune, ‘The Plains of Aqualon’, as she brushed, stroke for stroke, viewing her reflection in the looking-glass. She kept trying to look away and then back quickly enough to see her own eyes move. As opposed to Atlas’s, hers were green like a meadow. She also liked the dark spots in her irises. Sometimes she counted them while brushing since it grew boring quickly. She wanted to know if their number was fixed or variable, like birthmarks and freckles. As for the mirror itself: glass wasn’t quite the right term. It was some sort of polished quartz with a film of mercury inside. Din knew this since she once asked Atlas about it: he had told her how in the past only very versed technocrats had known the secret of glass-growing, and substitute crystals were the more common choice. But recently, advances in magic engines in Lumina Aka had produced forges and heating systems that could reach temperatures so high that pure quartz could be forged into super durable glass shapes; though these were still expensive and mostly used by alchemists as beakers and such due to their extreme heat resistance and un-reactiveness.
As she brushed and hummed, the hairs on her back suddenly begun to stand up as the temperature dropped several degrees at once. To add to her surprise, she also noticed that the rather brightly lit room suddenly grew darker and darker, even though it was still day outside. She stood up as if struck by lightning and grabbed for her sword, but Saramaganta was lying sheathed on her bed.
A bead of sweat was running down her forehead. Why? There wasn’t anything here, no strange sounds, just some chill and maybe a cloud in front of the sun. That was all there seemed to be. But then why were her instincts telling her that something was amiss? Why did she feel… fear? She walked over to her bed, carefully, to reach for Saramaganta. She did not want to look too obvious, but a strange voice stopped her cold in her tracks:
“Wait… please.” As a cloaked person emerged from within the expanding shadows of her room’s walls, she sucked in the air around her in a surprised gasp and almost fell backwards onto her bed. But the person, a young woman judging by the shape of her body, lifted her hands in what appeared to be a non-threatening gesture.
“What? … Who?” Din stammered. She didn’t know what had just happened. She had heard about appearances like this from one of her teachers. But which one had it been? And what did they mean? Her mind was drawing a blank. It was quite different to hear about all the wondrous and impressive forms of magic and to actually experience them.
“Please, Lady Din, I have come to bring you an urgent warning and to take you with me if you permit it!” she said, her voice a strangely urgent whisper with something mixed in that sounded like… fear?
Din stared at her, speechless, as her feeling of fear was slowly being substituted by a general wariness, but also curiosity. The woman went on. She indeed sounded young, but not younger than Din, maybe a few years older. “I am of the Shadow Society. My order has been broken. Broken like the rest of the Middle Lands and parts beyond! My cell has observed and listened; we know that you are still clean, you must leave this place immediately!”
Din’s head was spinning. “Broken? Clean? What by the gears are you talking about?” She didn’t understand a word the woman had said. She remembered some stories about the Shadow Society though. Her politics teacher Marco Laplace had a very low opinion of them, calling them a bunch of murderers, thieves, and thugs; but Orthilon, her philosophy teacher, seemed to have a more favorable opinion of them. Din didn’t know what to think right now.
“The corruption!” the woman said. She seemed quite distraught as if she had been running away from something for days or even weeks without sleeping. “Haven’t you realized it yet? All the Keepers dying and vanishing one by one, the five cities under attack! And the sickness of Lord Sameth! The yellow glimmer in their eyes is the mark of corruption, a corruption of the soul that spreads like disease and turns man against man. All those infested strife to spread it and damage the clockwork and the souls around them!”
Din’s eyes were wide as saucers now. Sameth did have this strange yellow shade in his irises since the sickness. And not only him, all of the Guardians, all ten had suffered the same sickness. Was this why Kenji had left them with no notice, no goodbyes? Had he been afraid to fall victim to this corruption? Had Katy faced it? Seen no alternative but to kill herself? Or was even that a lie? Maybe Sameth had killed her when she found out! “Why… Why should I believe you!? This is preposterous!”
The woman looked at Din pleadingly. She sure was convincing. Suddenly she flinched slightly. “Someone is coming, please, don’t reveal my presence!” she urged with an insistent whisper, before she glided backwards without a sound, melting into the wall’s shadows. For a while – a while that seemed like an eternity – nothing happened; then, Din heard footsteps: soft at first, then slowly growing louder until Sameth stood in her doorway.
“Oh, hi,” she said with a monotone voice. “I was just –“ she looked at the brush that was still in her right hand “– brushing my hair,” she said lamely.
Sameth raised a brow. “Alright.”
“How can I help you?” she asked, trying to sound casual, but she couldn’t tell if Sameth was convinced.
“Ah, yes,” he said, catching himself again; apparently the strange brushing remark had made him forget his business for a moment. “I just wanted to tell you that there will be a council meeting in fifteen minutes. Please get ready and come to the council chamber, we have new developments to discuss.”
Din pouted. “Can’t you just tell me here? I mean ‘council meeting’ is a bit of an overstatement these days, don’t you think? It’s just you and me.” She instantly regretted saying that. ‘Tell me here’? What was she thinking?! But truth was she hadn’t been thinking. She had fumbled: a potentially fatal mistake. But luck seemed to be on her side since Sameth didn’t want to hear it. “Oh no, we are still the council, member-shortage or not! We have appearances to keep up. Doesn’t Laplace teach you anything?”
A typical reprimand from Sameth. The woman was mistaken. Din was sure of it. This was still the good, old Sameth! Why did she even consider believing such nonsense? “Yeah… you’re right…” she apologized.
“Good,” he said, now satisfied. Then he turned around but stopped again in the doorway.
“Forgot anything?” Din teased him with a smirk.
“Now that I think about it: yes,” he admitted. A stone pillar shot from the ground diagonally past Din against the wall where she heard a horrifying crunch, followed by a faint, but agonized squeak. It was the kind of crunch you heard when seven ribs were shattered into a million pieces each and then rammed through the chest-cavity into the flesh of the back. The squeak had barely sounded human, more like the kind of sound that came from squeezing too much air through a tiny opening. “It seems we have a little assassin here; tried to sneak up on you and kill you I presume,” Sameth noted. Din was frozen solid. Her ears were ringing as if a bomb had exploded two feet away from her. All she could hear was a high-pitched black-out sound, blotching out all other noise; all but the extremely faint and soft rattling breaths, final breaths of the woman who didn’t even had had the time to tell Din her name. How had she not died instantly?
“Kill me?” she said tonelessly. She couldn’t even hear herself over the ringing.
“Oops,” Sameth said and raised a brow, “I think I accidentally missed the heart.” He did not sound at all as if he had accidentally missed the heart.
Din slowly turned around. There she was: hanging on the wall, prodded up from the ground slightly. The blood had exploded out of her chest as the apparently intentionally blunt pillar had smashed her in the cruelest manner imaginable.
And in missing the heart by inches, she was still alive, just barely, clearly suffering an unimaginable pain during her final seconds, just as unconsciousness was surely eating at the edges of her vision. Her eyes were washed in tears of pain and Din felt a warm, wet sensation on the back of her head. Doubtless some of the blood had splattered over her backside when it had happened. She barely registered how her shaking hand was mechanically moving up to inspect it: no sensation of what her fingers had discovered reached her brain yet. Never before had Din seen so much fear and pain in the eyes of a human being. It was too much for her. Her hands shook more and more wildly, and she felt a terrified scream building somewhere in her gut that she had to contain like a bubble of compressed air, fearing it would come out of her like the whistle of a boiling tea kettle. Even more terrifyingly, the thought of that suddenly almost made her laugh, and she could barely refrain from smirking comically while her eyes were still locked in a wide stare.
“Well, I guess I shouldn’t let her suffer. That would be unnecessarily cruel,” he said, sounding almost bored. A second pillar emerged right next to the first, this one sharpened to a point; a spike. It slowly went up and up until the point touched the woman’s chest, right over the heart. Her upper body was shaking frantically, while her lower body seemed completely numb. Then it went on, but not in one swift motion but as slowly and steadily as before, boring into the woman with a horrifying squishing sound as her legs suddenly grew lively again, twitching wildly, her throat unable to relinquish the scream of outrage and agony that had drowned somewhere within her collapsed lungs, and so she died.
It was like Din had stepped into the shifting mirror, past the looking-glass, and the whole world around her had been inverted, turned around. It was exactly as the philosopher Maximilian Kôgetsu had described it:
‘One needs to understand that as human beings, we are incapable of viewing the world as it is. In fact one might say – to speak in metaphor – that we stand in front of a wall, the world behind us, and on that wall is a mirror constructed by our own being, showing us the world through reflection, tainted by our own experience. Indeed, man himself can be compared to a clockwork: its shape determines his being and the parameters with which the world can be viewed through the mirror, and it is ever-changing, every movement creating an entirely novel state, with gears coming and going.
All his thinking and all his perception keep the clockwork in motion, changing him, and sometimes the smallest event can trigger a complete remodeling, just like a tiny motion applied to a gearshift. When that happens, the mirror will break and reveal a new mirror underneath, hopefully one which distorts the world less than the previous one. Thus, we philosophers ever seek to shatter the mirror.’
From a scientific paper she had read just this morning, this was a bold introduction into Kôgetsu’s anthropology, using the unusual example of the ‘epiphany’ in this introductory paragraph. Now Din’s mirror had been broken, and the new one did indeed apply less filtering as all the things she had not seen, or refused to see before, suddenly came into focus, like pieces in a puzzle that suddenly fit together right before her, the last piece being the realization that, in all likelihood, Atlas had not somehow gone mad and tried to kill Sam, but indeed had somehow come to his senses and tried to kill Sam. Now, Din had come to her senses too, and she was scared out of her mind; scared and, for the first time in her life, both mentally and physically too weak to do anything; anything at all. She was nineteen years old, practically a child, and the man before her was Lord Sameth Gildorn, Keeper of the Earth, one of the mightiest mages of all of Aqualon, four times her age, part of the council since more than fifty years before she had even been born. In any fight she would be crushed against the wall like an ant, just like the woman from the Shadow Society that was dripping down from it right beside her.
“Well, so much for that. Best you go to the council chambers for the meeting. I will have someone sent to clean up this mess for you. I do apologize for the inconvenience,” Sam said magnanimously, as tranquil as if nothing had happened, as if the entire world hadn’t just been turned upside down.
But, then again, it wasn’t his world that had been turned upside down. Din nodded shakily while trying to make some noise of agreement, but all she got out was some sort of pathetic whimper. She knew her life might depend on her not appearing so scared, on her saying something casual, on her acting like this was normal. But she couldn’t. All she could do was play back that crunching noise in her head over and over and over again. She already knew now that she would hear it every night for the rest of her life, however short that might be.
“Oh, and Din,” he said.
She looked up.
“You might want to change first.” Then he left. Without killing her. Her gaze slowly wandered down to her feet. She had soiled herself. She hadn’t even noticed.