Chapter 1: Silver and Fire
Grey was the color of the Northern twilight sky. The sky was not a shining grey, like that of polished plate metal armor. It was a dirty and murky grey, like the sickly-colored porridge paste allotted to those committed to the sanitoriums and the madhouses.
Grey was the color of his eyes. His eyes were not a dirty and murky grey, like that of the sky. They were a glinting, shining glow of silvery grey. The color of quicksilver, the color of a mercurial streak shining bright against the pale skin of his face. They were brilliant lights, twinkling behind a fragile facade of crystal.
Black was the smoke that streaked the twilight sky. Black was the hair that framed the eyes of silver. Both were as black as the feathers of the raven. The croaking calls of ravens could be heard from the twisting forms of the trees lining the road. The mercurial eyes blinked, but never ceased in their movement.
Mathiel Wesley ran. His eyes of quicksilver glinted behind his miniglasses, set within a face of pale complexion and framed by a head of disheveled, raven-black hair. Mat ran forwards, his pace rapid and unsettled. The smoke from the nearby manufactoria curled like trails of fingerpaint on a canvas of grey. Accentuating the ravens' calls were the clanks and hisses of steam-powered mechanika.
Tightly clenched in his right hand was an oversized training sword, carved from the finest charwood and engraved with the insignia of the Ynevan Martial Academy. Its length was as long as the height of its owner. Tightly clenched in his left was a travelsack. His face was heavily obscured by a muffler of thick wool and a hat shaped and sized like the wheel of a wagon. Mat's slim stick-figure was wrapped and swathed in the loose, form-concealing clothes of a traveller. He was a boy who would attempt to disappear from his life unseen, and he was a man who would attempt to make his way through the world unnoticed.
Mathiel Wesley was on the run.
The Southern morning sky was blue. It was not a light blue, the color of pastels and dreams in the sky. It was a deep blue of pure azure, much like the boundless ocean of deep waters that ringed the continent of Cradle.
Her eyes were blue. They were not the clean blue of the morning sky. They were a steely, deadly blue. They were the color of blued metal, a shining mixture of grey and azure, like the gleam of a polished gun barrel. They were harsh, burning hotly like distant stars against the tan of her sun-caressed skin. They were stars of burning vengeance, smouldering like the slender cigarillo clenched between her teeth.
The steam that hissed out of the pistons of the locomotive was grey. The long duster coat that graced her lean, lithe cat-like figure was grey. Both bore the grey of stormclouds, brewing on the horizon in late summer. The hiss of the pistons barely grazed her attention as the steam curled across the station platform.
Aja Mureness stood, her eyes of hot unsatisfied vengeance smouldering under her smooth, short-length hair of brilliant crimson. Crisscrossed scarlines accented her face like the signatures of the cynical. She was an unmoving statue, a grim monument to the hounds of Death. Abruptly, like a whimsical counterpoint, the whistle of the locomotive shrieked its long high note. It was a mocking note of dark humor, a teasing note of grim jests given on the scaffolding of the gallows while one waited for the neck-cracking drop.
Tightly clenched in her left hand was a longsword. It was unornamented and plain, and lacked a handguard or crosspiece. The hilt was as black as the scabbard. Her right hand, although as tightly clenched as its counterpart, gripped nothing but her desire for the hunt. The hat on her head, as grey as the duster that shrouded her figure, was wide-brimmed and wind-battered. It was a Mundan hat, a wanderer's hat, a hat of those who endlessly and dreamlessly wandered the Western Wastes. Aja's slim and scarred cat-figure was shrouded in the duster of a hunter. She was a woman who would attempt to make her kill without remorse, and she was a girl who would attempt to forsake her past without regret.
Aja Mureness was on the hunt.
The towering, metal-clad city of Tyrlin wasn't the ideal place for one's respiration. Nerve-numbing glacial winds, blowing in from the nearby ice-locked mountains of Cradle's Maw, constantly mixed with blisteringly hot sulfurous columns of smoke issuing from the Ynevan capital's countless manufactoria. The strange union of bone-chilling fresh air mixed with smoking and sulfurous man-made pollution resulted in a dense, grayish fog of condensed, choking soot that wreathed and pervaded the entirety of Tyrlin like a funereal pall.
The majority of the city's residents often sardonically referred to it as "Demon's Breakwind".
The choking clouds of condensed water, ash and soot that hung in the air often made streetgoers take to the habit of carrying thick, water-moistened handkerchiefs and holding over their faces. Coughing and choking was a common sound in the Ynevan capital. Nobody escaped it. Everyone coughed sometime or another when breathing in Tyrlin's air... even those that hailed from Yneva's societal upper crust.
Mathiel Wesley, choking and coughing much like everyone else around him, was proving to be an excellent example. Mat had been raised as the youngest son of the Wesley bloodline, one of Yneva's five distinguished "First Families". The finely chiseled countenance and features on his face would normally have showed a character that brooked no disrespect from his social inferiors.
Right at the moment, however, his face mainly betrayed exhaustion, battered nerves, worry, and deep anxiety as he huddled against the wall of a foundry for warmth against the bitterly cold wind.
It had already been a week since the "incident", and Mat was still trying to figure out just where and how it had all gone so wrong. The young Ynevan boy-man, or man-boy, with all of his nineteen years compressed into a single life of strict and structured high society, patchworked with alternating years of fancy parties and regimented Academy semesters, couldn't make sense of it how-so-ever.
All he knew now was that he could do nothing but disappear. There was no other alternative. It was either that, or...
Mat shuddered and wrapped his muffler closer around his neck, as if the coal-fed warmth from the foundry wall he was huddled up against wasn't enough to chase away the cold.
Steamhells blast it all... Why, Elistan!?
His stomach chose that moment to rather inconveniently grumble in a completely ungenteel fashion. Mat winced uncomfortably. It had been several days since he'd last eaten properly, and his digestion was now complaining about the scarcity of nourishment at every given opportunity. Doing his best to ignore the calls from his belly, the boy closed his eyes and struggled to sleep.
Unfortunately, his restless dreams that night would involve food. A lot of food.
Aja tentatively sidestepped past a pair of thickset, iron-plated mechanical legs as she quietly made her way down the wide thoroughfare that consisted of Tyrlin's Street of Scholars. It wasn't until she was several blocks away that her muscles finally relaxed.
Several long years had passed since she'd actually fought one, and yet she still couldn't quite maintain her composure at the sight of an armored Dreadnaught. The fact that Yneva fielded them all over the place, both as civilian enforcers and military machines, only made avoiding them all the more difficult.
Ah, Fates. I've seen twenty-seven years pass me by, and I still jump in my boots whenever I hear one of those bloody walking pressure-cookers behind me. Bloody murdering metal molochs! Fates-damned Northerners, they would put them all over the place, ever since they won the Vapour War... rubbing our noses in it...
Gritting her teeth and shaking her head in disgust, the lithe woman made her way through the bustling crowds, her teeth tightly clenched around the ashy butt of a cigarillo and her left hand tightly clenched around the only possession she truly owned in this world. It was plain, it was battered, and it lacked any form of decoration, but the longsword in her grasp was her only remaining physical link to the life she had willingly forsaken.
It was the only thing left of the life she had unhesitatingly thrown away in the name of vengeance.
Vengeance burned in her veins. Its promise of delicious results was now her drug of choice, its heated whisper was now her sole motivation for living, and it mercilessly clawed at her brain whenever she tried to turn her attention to something else. It demanded attention, and made sure of it by constantly dredging up unhappy memories at times when she was trying her absolutely bloody best to forget them. Strong drink, strong smokes, every damned avenue of strong mental escape and comfort she had relied upon in the past had failed. By now, she knew that she would know no peace until that beast in her brain was satisfied.
And if she were to satisfy it, he would have to die. Time and method didn't matter, just as long as the bastard was dead.
The shrieks for vengeance in her brain had brought her here to the smoky, dirtied alleyways of Tyrlin, capital city of Yneva, Nation of the North. Several discreet inquiries later, she'd come to the Street of Scholars, all in hopes of digging up some information, any information that would bring her one step closer to finding him.
Absently, Aja loosely dug her free hand into one of the pockets of her duster. She promptly cursed loudly and pungently as she suddenly realized that she'd just used up the last of her Feranwort leaf. For the moment, any further smoking was out of the picture.
Forcing herself to return her attention to the matter at hand, Aja gave a glancing once-over to the clanking, smoking buildings that lined the wide thoroughfare. Several rumorbrokers had already been tried this morning, all without any real success. The huntress was now starting to fear that she might never find him, that her need for vengeance would go unsatisfied.
As she reached her next intended destination, a Ynevan military registry, Aja abruptly found herself being jostled from behind by a young man, his face and figure heavily obscured by traveller's clothes and a large hat, shaped like the wheel of an autocoach. His eyes, however, flashed out at her behind rounded minispecs as he made instinctive eye contact with the person he'd accidentally nudged.
The young man wanly mumbled a brief apology, then continued on inside. The color of his eyes, however, gave Aja sudden and painful pause. Her mouth ajar with unexpected shock, the still-smoking stump of the cigarillo fell from her lips and dropped to the pavement.
Eyes of... silver!? Fates alive...
All at once, a memory that she'd thought long-buried flared up in painful recollection. Without thinking, Aja quietly followed the young man inside, her kindled curiosity momentarily overweighing her smouldering need for repaying evil with evil.
Mat quietly stepped into the military registry office, his rough travelling boots making scuffling noises on the tiled floor as his eyes nervously darted about the ornately decorated lobby. Suddenly, he heard muffled footfalls approaching from behind.
"...Yes, may I help you... By all the Gods! Master Mathiel Wesley, is that you!?"
Mat spun around, then grinned boyishly with relief as he found himself looking over the man he'd wanted to see. Even with the elaborately embroidered and buttoned uniform of a militariat clerk, the face, with its half-combed mop of brown hair, freckles, and arched nose, was familiar enough.
"Yardbourough Bentlack! Ha! How many times did I tell you back at the Academy to just call me Mat... I've lost count by now. Yardy, you son of a safety-valve, you're all dandied up nice and proper! The clerk's uniform suits you. How's the work?"
Yardy smiled, half-proud and half-embarrassed, as he gave reply.
"Well enough. A goodly number of the quillers are in an uproar, though. Complaining about the quarter's wages again. Hopefully, with enough luck, the office will manage to keep this unpleasant bit of news from irking the Democrarch when it reconvenes next week. So then, old chap, what brings you..."
The young clerk blinked, as realization suddenly sprang up in his brain.
"Wait just a blinking second, old chap, the Academy semester for this year's not even halfway over! Mat, why are you here when you should be over... there? Won't your father burst a valve when he hears that you've gone and played the truant?"
Mat nodded, even as he quietly motioned for the militariat clerk to calm down.
"I know, I know... It's just that... something happened at the Academy. Something serious. That's the reason why I had to leave. And I specifically need your assistance as well. That's why I'm here right now."
Yardy stared askance at the young man.
"Well, all right, anything for you, Mat, old chap. No worries. What do you need me to do?"
Mat was silent for a long moment, then spoke.
"...Have you heard anything from or concerning Gavin lately?"
The militariat clerk blinked.
"Gavin? Gavin Elasine? Why, no. Why do you ask me, Mat? You were always on closer terms with him than me. Not surprising, what with the wild stunts and pranks you two always pulled on the rest of the campus back when the two of you roomed together."
Mat sighed and shrugged.
"I just thought you might have heard from him lately. He hasn't been replying to the letters I've been sending to him for the last few years, so I'm running completely blind as to his whereabouts. I'm trying to take him up on a friendly offer he gave to me right before he graduated from the Academy. Would the registry here have anything as to where he might be?"
The clerk grinned.
"Well... Who am I to refuse a service to the Academy's 'Quicksilver Eye'?"
Yardy reached over to a nearby desk, his fingers rapidly flying over the typing matrix mounted onto its polished surface. The mechanical keys, labelled with various letters and arranged into the rough shape of a human hand, clacked and clicked as the young clerk typed away. After another moment, loud buzzings and the sound of whirring cogs could be heard coming from upstairs. Then there was a thump. Down a nearby delivery chute mounted into the wall came a weighty codex, bound in heavy leather and covered in steel facings. The descending book rested on top of a small clockwork delivery lift, chugging and clacking its way downwards on a set of iron rails, mounted into the inside walls of the chute. As it came down to eye level, the lift platform jerked to a halt.
The militariat clerk reached over and snatched up the volume. The delivery platform, upon being relieved of its cargo, wasted no time in clicking and chattering back up the way it came. Yardbourough quickly opened the heavy tome and began leafing through its contents.
"...Elasine... Elasine, Gavin... Ah, here we are. Well... this is interesting. Soon after Gavin finished his tenure at the Academy and then enlisted, he was apparently assigned to an elite 'Naught company. 12th Regiment. The Grimesby Fusilliers. Served a year with them just before the Vapour War ended."
Adjusting his servo-monocle, Yardy flipped to the next page.
"Hmmm... Saw some military action near the border. The reports don't say exactly when, where or how, but they do say that it was close to the Grauervald. Probably was having some high ado with some uppity Southerners. After that, once the Vapour War was over and the armistice signed, he was given honourable discharge. The last report here in the section mentions that an outpost garrison commander apparently saw him in the occupational company of some mercenaries out west in the Mundan Wastes. I'm sorry, Mat, but I think that's all we've got here as far as this office is concerned. If you really need further details on that last report, I think the Great Archives would have some additional information."
Mat quietly nodded.
"You did the best you could, Yardbourough. If nothing else, I've now got a lead on his whereabouts. Many thanks for the assistance. I'll need to go now. I don't have much time to fritter away."
Even as Mat turned to leave, however, the clerk voiced one final thought that was on his mind.
"Wait, old chap... Please answer one question for me. Just... what happened at the Academy that made you want to leave so badly?"
Mat was silent for a long moment.
"...I can't tell you, Yardy. I'm sorry. Just know that I had no other possible choice."
At that, Mat left the registry building. Even as Yardbourough shrugged and turned in the opposite direction to return his attention back to his normal duties, however, the clerk suddenly paused. He looked back over his shoulder towards the exit door.
We were the only ones I saw standing in the lobby, and I don't think I saw anyone else come in... But I could've sworn I heard the exit bell chime twice...
Mat's breath whooshed out of him in a thump as he felt himself being slammed up against the alley wall. His peripherial vision, blurred from the impact, barely made out a pair of scarred, wiry hands holding a death-like grip on his collar and pinning him against the bricks. Along with the disorienting pain came a whiff of something that seemed to sear his lungs, a scorched-sweet scent, as if an incense brazier from a Gearsday service at the local Church of Steam had been left out burning overnight. Mat felt his hat rustle as the brim of his own hat collided with that of his assailant's.
Blinking rapidly and sputtering as he tried to regain control of his faculties, Mat looked up at a pair of eyes that seemed to smoulder and spark in their sockets.
Metal fire and cat's eyes of flame.
Next came the realization that his assailant was tanned.
A Sekuran... I'm actually being attacked right in the heart of Yneva during broad daylight by a Steamhells-damned Southerner! Sprockets alive, what is this world coming to...?!
Then his assailant's voice spoke. It was husky, as if breaths of smoke had been given sound and tongues of fire had been given speech.
"...So, Mathiel Wesley, was it? You know of Gavin Elasine's location, don't you... Speak!"
His ambusher shook him by the scruff of his muffler as the words came. Mat's sudden anger at being manhandled in such an undignified fashion made him feel quite intractable.
Ask me about Gavin, would you?! I bloody well think not!
He quickly attempted to fight free of his captor's grasp. A furious squirm here, a wrathful wriggle there. No success. Mat next tried angry bluster. It wasn't hard for him to muster up his consternation.
"That's Master Mathiel Wesley to you, Southerner! Get your blasted mitts off of me, you cretin! Do you even realize whom you've just accosted!?"
Mat immediately regretted that last remark, as he swiftly realized that rashly mentioning the prominence of his societal connections might prove imprudent should his attacker turn out to be some form of kidnapper intent upon a hefty ransom.
The personage who'd ambushed him in the alley quickly shook him like a dog worrying a section of rawhide.
"To be honest, I don't give a damn as to which politico's bastard child you are, and I'm not letting you go. Not until you tell me what you know about Gavin's whereabouts! Now speak!"
Well... I suppose you're not after a ransom after all.
Mat paused in his struggling as his eyes got a better look at his captor... and then at his captor's chest. He blinked rapidly again, this time in silent astonishment, as he quickly realized that the owner of the voice of fire was of the feminine persuasion.
"Wait a blasted second... Y-you're... you're a woman!"
Aja was quickly losing her patience with this odd prisoner she'd taken in the alley. Having heard him mention Gavin's name back at the registry office, Aja had at first been struck with astonishment. Then her elation rose as her hopes were ignited at the prospect of having found a solid lead to Gavin's exact location.
However, her hopes soon became dashed as she somehow had failed to clearly overhear Gavin's apparent location from her hiding place behind the lobby's withered topiary. Her excitement giving way to desperation, Aja wasted no time in following the silvery-eyed Ynevan youth outside and promptly launching an ambuscade on his person as he'd walked into a nearby, isolated sidestreet.
Her impromptu interrogation, however, was producing no viable result, and the boy was proving to be an intolerable tightlip when it came to Gavin. Aja sighed in frustration and shook him again in an attempt to literally dislodge the information she wanted from his lips.
"Yes, I am a woman. Don't tell me you can't figure out the difference, whelp."
His silver eyes gazing into her own steely-blue in a piercing stare, Aja's captive angrily huffed into his muffler as he gave a cutting reply of his own.
"I apologize, but I couldn't tell at first. Your countenance is a bit too... unfeminine."
Holding back the urge to slap him with the barest shred of patience, Aja dropped him to the pavement with little ceremony.
Mat sat on the pavement in a ruffled heap, ruefully massaging the seat of his pants as he looked up at the woman standing over him. Her clenched fists quivered in barely restrained rage. Mat raised an eyebrow and huffed into his muffler again as he gave her a proper look-over.
This woman has got quite the temper. Hmph. Figures, seeing as how she's a Sekuran. Always so hot-blooded, these damned Southerners. Probably gets it all from that overboiled tropical climate. And one with a longsword? Must be one of those bloody uppity honor-spewing warrior-types, always going on and on about how blasted great it is to fight with a sharpie instead of a shooter...
Giving his backside one final rub, he warily got to his feet and began readjusting his skewed hat and clothes. Mat was silent for a long, considering moment before finally opening his mouth to speak again.
"Elaborate something to me first. Why are you so interested in Gavin? And how in the world do you know him?"
Fire. Smoke. Ash.
Everything was on fire. Homes, friends, comrades, fields... all of it was aflame. Blood splattered the cobblestones and dismembered limbs were scattered across the thoroughfare.
In the center of the conflagration was a single figure, stepping out of the steaming and menacing hulk of a Ynevan Dreadnaught.
Aja struggled to move, to lift her sword, to do anything but simply lie there in front of him in a defeated, crumpled heap.
His eyes, golden and cruel, were alight with hatred and fury as they stared out over the scene of devastation. His hair, black as scorched obsidian, stirred in the updraft generated by the flames. The tattered, embroidered overcoat of a Northern soldier adorned his muscular frame.
He stood alone in the midst of the devastation as a lonely harbinger of murderous despair.
Aja turned away, her teeth and fists clenched tightly as she fought to bury the memory back into the farthest recesses of her brain. After a moment, her tongue ground out a single line. It wasn't the whole truth, but all of what was in it was true nonetheless.
"...I've been looking for Gavin as well, same as you. I'm his half-sister."
The boy blinked in some surprise. He scratched his head.
"A half-sister? Gavin never mentioned anything about a half-sister... What's your name?"
The silver-eyed man-boy muttered into his muffler.
"Hmph... Well, that's definitely not Gavin's family name. Still, wouldn't be completely surprising, all things considered."
He then looked back up at Aja.
"...So why are you looking for him then?"
Aja stared at him for a long moment, her eyes flat and expressionless as she stood there, silently calculating and weighing her options. Then taking a deep breath, Aja gave her reply.
"Because I need to kill him."
The Ynevan youth said nothing nor gave off any visible reaction for a long moment, his face unreadable behind the obscuring blinds of his oversized muffler and hat. When he finally did open his mouth, however, he did something that was completely unexpected. He smiled.
Then he screamed at the top of his lungs.
"GUARDS! HALLO! HELP! HEEELP!!!"
As unfavorable Fates would have it, a street patrol of Ynevan constabulary troopers passed by at that very moment. Aja snapped her gaze towards the approaching, alerted soldiers in dismay and alarm. She then angrily returned her attention back to the direction of the boy, intent upon avenging herself on his person for as long as possible...
...Only to find that he was already long gone.