The morning sun shone bright and warm over the coastal city Golau, but Aeron Pryce only felt anxiety and gloom bubbling inside him as he rode in the back of an Army transport truck's troop bay. He stared at the floor, his hands bound together with thick, shiny handcuffs that clinked whenever the truck jostled over a bump in the brick roads. The truck motored its way through Golau's main boulevard, giving Aeron a rear view of the apartments, business centers, and taverns in the capital. Everything seemed so peaceful and secure here, but that was deceptive: the Talwydd Ascendancy had plunged full-time into war, both against the rebellion and the corrupted natural monsters, from banshees to lobstoids and many other races.
The truck inclined gently as it drove up the long, golden bridge that connected Golau's harbors to the hovering island where the city hall sat. The bridge was a modern marvel on many levels, Aeron recalled from his history book at the Academy. It had the distinction of being not only the largest bridge in all of Talwydd, but the most beautiful as well. The bridge's function was not marred at all by its curvy, natural elegance, flowing and bending at graceful angles like vines on a trellis. What was more, the bridge was a fail-safe against anyone who dared invade the city hall by ground. At the command of the Talwydd High Command members, the enchanted bridge could instantly become intangible. Everyone and everything on the bridge would plunge right into the deep Golau harbor, never to threaten the High Command again.
At last the truck leveled out again, and now it rolled slowly across the front grounds of the city hall on the island. As soon as the truck came to a halt, the truck's driver and passenger disembarked and escorted Aeron out of the vehicle's troop bay.
"Whoa," Aeron muttered in awe as he was led up the wide stone steps leading to the city hall's huge front doors. He had seen the city hall many times before, but never this close up. From here, Aeron could admire the flawless, majestic beauty of the complex's many pillars, arches, and vaults. The gold-tiled dome roofs glinted in the sunlight, dazzling Aeron's eyes when he looked directly at them.
"This way," the escorts told Aeron briskly as they led him through the double doors, which had just opened, and into the city hall's vast main hall. Here, hundreds of official mages walked the halls and up and down the many staircases leading to higher and lower levels. The floor had a black and blue checkered design, the colors of the Ascendancy itself. Sunlight poured through tall, narrow windows in the sturdy walls, and there wasn't even a need for light bulbs during this time of day. According to what Kenna had told Aeron, this building reflected the older days of Talwydd when there were no factories or zeppelins, just beauty and stone.
Aeron wasn't here for the sights, though. The justice branch of the Ascendancy was here in the city hall, and it only accepted the lawsuits and court martials of mages. Countless mundane courts were scattered in Golau and other cities, but Mage Force members who had to answer to justice were taken to the city hall, the heart of mage supremacy.
"He's here," one of Aeron's escorts announced when he led the wind mage through a door in the justice branch and into a spacious court room. The place was two stories high and filled with Mage Force officers, all of whom turned to see the newcomer.
"Very good," praised the general who was seated at a high podium. "He may take his seat. You two may go."
One of Aeron's escorts tapped the handcuffs with his fingers, unclasping the metal cuffs with a touch of magecrafting. Rubbing his sore wrists, Aeron walked slowly toward his appointed seat, trying to hide the trembling that threatened to wrack his body. Even though he wore the same black and sky blue uniform as everyone else in here, he felt very small.
"Private Aeron Pryce, you were called here today to answer to a charge of disobedience," the old man at the podium began once Aeron took his seat. "I am General Bythell, one of the four generals of the Mage Force and I have been placed in charge of this court martial. Your regiment commander, Colonel Brian McMillan, is present, as is your platoon leader, Commander Gwendolyn Anderson."
Aeron checked the crowds: indeed, frail old Colonel McMillan sat with the other officers, as did Commander Anderson. The latter had her long, silvery hair tied in a simple, practical bun on the back of her head, and her eyes were dispassionate and cold. That certainly fit her magecrafting, Aeron thought.
"Private Pryce," General Bythell began, leaning forward at his podium, "the Talwydd Ascendancy is at war and we need every man and woman out there defending our people. This rebellion's strength and cunning is unprecedented, and the wild monsters are preying on us like a wolf on a wounded sheep! For this reason and more, your insubordination to your commanding officer is a disgrace and a folly that we cannot afford. What can you say in your defense?"
Taking a deep breath, Aeron hesitated before answering. By what he had heard, Mage Force court martials tended to be short and pretty one-sided. After all, the Ascendancy and the rule of mages was enforced by strict discipline and control, and any tiny leak in that control had the potential to escalate into disaster, maybe even throwing Talwydd into chaos. With this in mind, Aeron answered, "General, I am humbled by my ineptitude and ashamed of my contempt for the chain of command." That's right, keep sucking up to them. "What I can say in my defense is this: at the battle for Ryth Gawaid, the later stages of the conflict devolved into complete chaos. It was kill or be killed, and my fellow mage, Private Kenna Reece, was in mortal danger." He inclined his head and raised his voice slightly. "For this reason, I defied Commander Anderson's orders to save Private Reece from certain death at rebel hands."
Murmurs bubbled up in the uniformed crowds, but Aeron couldn't make out the words, especially over the thundering blood in his ears. It sounded much worse when he said all this aloud. He had defied the order and control that the Ascendancy depended utterly on, and it was to save just one life. How many People's Army soldiers had died back in Ryth Gawaid because Aeron hadn't been there covering their retreat?
"You defied the order to save one mage's life?" General Bythell repeated testily. "How many Army lives did you forsake for hers?"
Aeron winced as the general voiced the questions in his head, but he stuck to his story. "General, Private Reece's type of magecrafting is remarkably rare and valuable to the Mage Force and the Ascendancy. Her death would have been a major blow to both my platoon and Third Regiment. I would not have dared defy an order to save the life of a more ordinary mage." Aeron didn't like how cold that sounded, but he had to give some ground in order to gain some.
"It is true, Private Pryce, that Private Reece's abilities are a serious asset to Third Regiment," Colonel McMillan spoke up. "Perhaps her talents would be better used in a secret infiltration force rather than a rank-and-file mage. Such an arrangement could prevent rash action like Private Pryce's."
"That is true," Commander Anderson chimed in, then turned her cold gaze to Aeron. "Private, I am aware that you and Kenna Reece are well-acquainted with each other. Did you defy my order to save her life based on a personal interest?"
Aeron stiffened. "No, Commander, I did not. Personal desires and agendas always come second to my orders and the needs of the Mage Force." Still, he couldn't help blushing a little. He thought of Kenna in a Mage Force hospital with her injured leg in bandages, and he couldn't help getting a protective feeling toward her. She's my friend. I'll sooner die than see her seriously hurt.
"That is good to hear," Anderson nodded slightly, "but the Mage Force maintains that the needs of the many comes before the needs of the few. If you were to notify the family members of the soldiers you allowed to die because you weren't there protecting them like I ordered, would that change your perspective on things?"
Guilt clenched Aeron's gut and he felt sweat bead in his hair. "P-perhaps it would, Commander," he swallowed. A lot of wives had become widows that day...
"I do not believe that informing the family members of the deceased is a proper punishment for Private Pryce's disobedience," General Bythell cut in. "A sentence in military prison is usually the punishment for what Private Pryce has done."
No! I don't wanna go to prison! Aeron thought frantically. He felt himself grow warm under his uniform's collar and the room's walls seemed to bear down on him.
"However," Bythell continued, "in these dire times we cannot afford to keep mages off the front lines for long, and Private Pryce's motives are not entirely in poor judgment. Private Kenna Reece's talents are indeed rare, and Private Pryce's actions show a level of devotion to his fellow mages that is to be commended, regrettably at the cost of his complete obedience to his orders. I nominate the following punishment: transferring Private Aeron Pryce to the Sneachta Mountains for hard labor mining iron ores with the other criminal workers there. Perhaps working in a place that forbids magecrafting will teach him some humility."
"I second this motion," Colonel McMillan offered. "It is a most sensible sentence."
"I, too, support this motion," Anderson put in. "I can have Private Pryce on a zeppelin to the mountains within three days' time at the most."
General Bythell nodded once. "It is decided. Private Aeron Pryce, you are sentenced to hard labor at the mines at the Sneachta Mountains until further notice. Justice has been served."
Aeron felt relieved at avoiding time in a military prison, but working at a mountain mine with criminals didn't sound very fun, either. I guess I brought this on myself. "Understood, General."
"Very well. This session is adjourned."
"Private Pryce, I need to see you," Commander Anderson told Aeron back in the city hall's many hallways. The two guards escorting him paused, saluting the platoon commander.
Aeron hesitated, then snapped a salute. "Yes, sir. What do you need from me?"
"Just follow me," Anderson told him briskly, striding through the bustling, sunlit halls toward a small, empty meeting room. As soon as they both slipped inside and Aeron shut the door, Commander Anderson sighed and folded her arms. "Private Pryce, I believe that the sentence given to you was fair and appropriate. However..."
Crap, I'm getting demoted? Aeron thought in a panic, then remembered that there were no ranks below Private in the Mage Force. Wow, I'm scatter-brained today.
"It may seem to you that I am cold and indifferent toward you," Anderson admitted, "but there are very good reasons the Ascendancy strictly forbids disobedience or disorder."
"Yes, ma'am. To prevent a small problem from getting bigger and toppling our control over Talwydd," Aeron responded dutifully.
"Mmmmm." Anderson pursed her lips. "That is true. Before you leave for the Sneachta Mountains mines, you should know that personal matters motivate everyone, including me. I don't want to single you out as a miscreant, Private. I'm only acting on my convictions, and I have past experience with the consequences of lacking discipline and control of one's life."
Unsure what to expect, Aeron stayed quiet.
"I have two older brothers, Private. Actually, I had two brothers. When they were teenagers, they got mixed up in gangs and illegal activities because our parents were often away. They encouraged me to join them, but I always refused."
Commander Anderson's personal life? And I've joked with a few people that she didn't have one, Aeron thought.
Anderson continued, "I was ashamed of my brothers' behavior and disgusted by them. But one day they were caught, and both executed for their long list of crimes. Then I realized how badly I missed them, and what irresponsibility had done to my family. I joined the Mage Force to distance myself from the lives they had led, convincing myself that discipline is the cure for all evil and suffering." Her normally cold eyes had almost a parental look in them. "That's why, Private, I urge you to remember your oath to the Ascendancy and what we fight for: order, justice, progress. Maybe my personal view is skewed a little. All the same, I do not want you to resent me, Private. I'm only raising you to be a good mage the best way I know how."
"I, uh..." Aeron fought for his words. "Thank you, sir, for the pep talk. I don't resent you, sir." Still, the Mage Force's discipline had nearly cost him Kenna's life. Only his impulses had saved her. Death didn't play fair, Aeron knew. He had to bend the rules a little! Didn't everyone bend the rules at some point or another?
Anderson nodded her approval. "I don't normally open up like that, Private, but you put Private Reece's life before your own, and I decided that you deserved a little insight. But do not repeat anything I told you to anyone else. Is that understood?"
With a quick salute, Aeron said sharply, "Sir, yes sir!" For a moment, he wondered if he had become Anderson's personal favorite, then quickly dismissed the idea. She's just giving a life lesson. Ugh. I bet I'll have more than enough time to think it over while I'm working at those mines. What an adventure the Mage Force is turning out to be!
It was late afternoon in Golau and the reddish sun was sinking low on the horizon, giving the capital city a sleepy, almost dream-like appearance. In her spacious office in the Golau Military Academy, Catrina Pryce yawned and shuffled a stack of papers on her mahogany desk, relieved that her duties for the day as the academy's headmistress were finally over. Hundreds more papers, maps, and official forms were scattered on her desk, both in tidy stacks and messy piles here and there. Three expensive fountain pens sat in their cases and a few framed photographs took up the rest of the desk, all of them featuring the same few people: herself, her brother Ewan, her brother's wife Moyra, and their sons Aeron and Fergus.
Aeron had graduated this academy only a month ago, and already a new class of mages was being trained. The normal three-month gap between classes had been shortened due to the developing war against the rebellion and corrupted wild monsters, and Catrina secretly feared that the Talwydd High Command would instate martial law and begin conscription for the People's Army. Increased taxes and curfews would soon follow, and an already disgruntled population of non-mage citizens might be pushed into rioting or joining the rebellion in droves.
Please, supreme mages, handle these dire times with care, Catrina prayed, standing up from her leather-padded chair and stretching her cramped muscles. The eight mages who headed the Talwydd High Command would go to any length to maintain order, most of all Supreme Magus Aodhagan, the most powerful and influential of those eight mages. It was commonly accepted that the Talwydd Ascendancy was an oligarchy that had traits of a brutal police state, but the supreme mages might push it even further.
Maybe I just need a vacation, Catrina thought to herself as she tossed her long red hair and made her way to the office's door, her high heels clicking on her office's tile floor. Maybe to the crystal islands of the south coast...
Just before the headmistress opened her door, the door's latch clicked and the heavy wooden door swung inwards, revealing a squat but beaming man with balding brown hair and an expensive tweed coat. "Catrina!" he cried, extending a hand. "I was hoping to meet you before you left. I would have come earlier, but the traffic here..."
"Is the most awful thing you've ever experienced," Catrina finished for her old friend, familiar with her friend's distaste for Golau's heavy car and zeppelin traffic. She backed up a few steps, giving room for her rotund friend to come in. "So, Alan... to what do I owe the pleasure?"
Alan Murphy was a wind mage like Aeron, but the two of them didn't have much else in common. Alan indulged in fine foods and his archaeological and zoology studies, causing him to become rather wide, especially for his petite height. Never one for physical activity, Alan had mastered the use of his wind magecrafting to move himself through difficult situations, which happened only rarely. Despite any physical shortcomings, he had one of the most curious and studious minds Catrina had ever seen.
"Something very exciting, dire, and extraordinarily important," Alan Murphy said eagerly, rubbing his pudgy hands. "Yes, I know I say that a lot, but this is different, very different, Catrina! I trust that you will hear me out?"
Catrina nodded and sat on the edge of her desk, folding her arms. "What have you got for me, old friend?"
"The zoology club I'm in, the one you quit recently, has determined that the source of corruption of Talwydd's wildlife is a single entity," Alan bubbled, indifferent to the struggles or suffering of the common people. To him, only the scientific curiosity mattered. "The entity is believed to be somewhere in the northern region, maybe in the mountains. A team is being put together to look into it. Can I count you in?"
Catrina laughed. "Whoa whoa, Alan. That's asking an awful lot of me. I mean, I have an academy to run..."
Alan's face fell slightly. "Yes... yes, I know, Catrina. But I know that this mage academy, and many others, has staff rotation for work-related stress and other duties. You were one of the better members of the zoology club. It would be such a shame to go on the expedition without you!"
At that, Catrina hesitated. On one hand, she had given up exploration to devote herself to helping raise capable new mages for the Mage Force. On the other hand... she did miss the old expedition days, and she hated to let Alan down. Maybe I've been a little stressed recently, and my last vacation was years ago, Catrina bargained with herself, weighing the options. Then a grin crossed her face and she hopped off her desk. "All right, you've roped me in. So what exactly are we getting ourselves into?"
"I am glad to hear that," Alan smiled. "I'll have a few papers ready for you at the club headquarters. We can take a zeppelin there tonight, or maybe tomorrow, depending on the awful traffic around here. I assume that you'll have staff rotation forms ready to cover your headmistress post here?" He talked a mile a minute, gesturing with his hands.
Catrina laughed as she opened the door, ushering her friend into the hallway. "Yes, I'll have it all covered, Alan. Although I might also send a letter to my nephew so he knows where I've gone."
"Oh, right. Aeron Pryce, the wind mage," Alan recalled as he and his friend walked the halls of the academy. "Is he doing well in the Mage Force?"
Deciding not to mention the news of Aeron's recent court martial that took place two days ago, Catrina answered, "Yes, quite well. He's settling right into Third Regiment. I suppose that time will tell what sort of mage he turns out to be."