Silence was, in this world, an unobtainable ideal. But the notion of something unobtainable had never been good enough to hold back a world's stubborn inhabitants, and Veronica supposed that she was no different than those who had come before her and those who were to come. When she desired her own silence, she simply made it for herself. A gaze out of a nearby window and a focus on distant clouds were enough to drown out the sound of classroom annoyances. It was a talent that had taken her years to perfect, but worth the sense of peace she found when she watched the clouds slowly pass her and her city by. There were times Veronica wished she could drift with them, and other times where she bypassed the wishing and simply imagined herself doing it instead. And if Veronica looked hard enough at the clouds, as she did now, peering beyond the normal image that was presented, she could almost picture something else entirely, some unseen force just beyond her people's reach. Something unobtainable. Veronica would reach for her it in her mind, and her fingers would only just begin to graze the surface when…
"Veronica would you mind summarizing the material we just read for the rest of the class?"
Most teachers by now had figured out that Veronica knew all the answers, though none of them could explain how. Veronica liked to perpetuate the myth that the lectures came into her like osmosis, seeping into her skin even when she wasn't looking and integrating itself into her memory. In reality, it was as simple as reading the material before class and determining where she needed to jump in by sneaking a peek at her friend Keira's textbook out of the corner of her eye.
"The creation of the universe." Veronica began, looking absentmindedly at the pages on her desk. It wasn't as though the entire class hadn't memorized their creation myth already. It was drilled into them since their first year of schooling; every year was required to take a history class like this one. "In the beginning there was only the Father of the Fires, Pyrvati, and from him came the vessel of fires, Vaspyr, our planet. The planet was filled with life and form by Pyrvati's creations, the Spirituals who embodied pure essences of energies, such as Life or Flame. And when Pyrvati worked together with the Spirituals to create mixed energies, our race was born, the vaspyrians." A simple summary. There was much more to it, of course, but by now Veronica had had all interest of the concepts of creation beaten out of her.
The teacher moved on, satisfied with Veronica's answer, and began to lecture on the cultural interpretations of their creator God. Veronica's eyes drew back to the window and watched the clouds pass by again, this time with birds passing through; colorful creatures that loved to fill the skies above her city. They created flowing patterns in the sky, and as Veronica watched them, time passed to the rhythm of her silence and her slowly beating heart.
"That was quite the save you managed to pull. Only a matter of time before she figures out she won't be able to throw you for a loop."
Keira's voice pulled Veronica from her meditation, and she stifled a yawn as she began to pack her book into her bag. Keira had a look on her face that Veronica had grown to be quite familiar with. A small hint of disapproval, and even smaller hint of amusement, and a great deal of worry. "You've been looking out those windows a lot lately." The comment came, and Veronica braced herself for the oncoming barrage of lectures. Fortunately for her, they never came. "What exactly are you looking at all the time, Vee? Are the birds teaching you about World History?"
"The birds would make it interesting, at least." Veronica stood from her desk and pulled out one of her best smiles. She let words reverberate in her mind, I'm fine, mentally stable, not worth a lecture. And after a while, she even began to believe it herself. "I'm just…finished with this, Keira. You know I'm finished with this."
"You'd rather go swing that stick of yours around all day, you mean." Keira hit the mark yet again, and Veronica looked down in embarrassment. Though despite the truth of the statement, Veronica still debated over whether or not Keira truly understood. The two of them were as unlikely a pair as it got when she thought about it: the warrior and the politician in training. Veronica liked to swing swords, and Keira liked to swing words. Veronica knew which of the two was more deadly. Their world had been in a time of peace for centuries, and it was preached up and down the school halls that the politicians and the businessmen were the new warriors now. One day armies would be obsolete, or so the news would claim every so often. Veronica would believe them when she died, perhaps, or maybe a little bit later than that. It was true that she much preferred a stick to vocabulary, and even though Keira teased her for it, at the very least Veronica could count on her to be accepting. Not comprehending, perhaps, but accepting was all Veronica needed. She gave Keira a real smile this time and then a clap on the shoulder.
"You read me like a book."
"Well at least one of us is doing some reading." Veronica followed Keira out of the classroom, her head hung low once again. "I know you're not really trying for a secondary education, Veronica, but if this is the last year of schooling you plan on getting, don't you think you should try to make the best of it?" Veronica tried to find an argument to the statement. Every single one of them was either egotistical or childish. At the very least she could give Keira honesty.
"I'm lazy and I'd rather hit things. I'm sorry I'm too much of a heathen for your educated ways."
"Stop that, you." Keira gently punched her shoulder and that was the end of the conversation, though Veronica knew they'd be having it again soon. Keira, at the very least, had the stubbornness of a politician. She'd gotten the words down with time, and now she just had to slap a uniform on and she'd be ready to debate some pointless Union article.
For now, however, they could move on with a normal day and have normal teenage discussions, something that was admittedly not boring. At least, those had been Keira's initial thoughts, which were shattered as quickly as she conjured them up when the two of them were stopped by three uniformed men with dire purpose upon their face. Veronica felt her heart freeze up, and for a brief moment an emotion rose up in her that she could not identify.
"Ms. Keira? We need to speak to you in private."
The emotion lurched and then changed to something more familiar. Veronica resisted the urge to grab onto her friend's hand and not let go. Keira was the one who kept the clearer head.
"Anything you have to say to me, she can hear too." Veronica's worries shrank slightly. Keira was good at getting her way, and the one thing she did understand was Veronica's worry and how to avoid it. "And don't bother trying to argue around that. I'm not going to talk unless she's there. I need a witness for listening to complete strangers." Veronica let out a small chuckle at that, though she was silenced by a glare from one of the men. They were angry, she realized, angry that Keira had already gotten ahold of the situation before it had even began. There was an arguing statement that was rebuffed only once by Keira before they reluctantly agreed to Veronica's presence. After that came a locked room, the principal, and Keira's parents. After that, Veronica's world came to a screeching halt. She could almost feel the clouds disperse and the birds break formation.
"I just need to know more, Nikolai. This is Keira we're talking about. Her whole life is going to change if they're right about her."
"I'd honestly thought you'd have known more about it." This was a statement of curiosity, not a jab at her. And when she thought about it, Veronica would have agreed with him. She did know the basics, and perhaps if she had thrown more initiative into her studies she would have been as up to date as Nikolai was, but that was the past now. Nikolai was the history enthusiast.
"Just tell me everything. From the beginning."
"Well, it all dates back to the Era of Warring Nations, which was probably over a thousand years ago, if I remember correctly." Nikolai began pulling books from his shelf, each with thicker contents and more elaborate titles. He had memorized them, Veronica was sure, but Nikolai thought highly of proof and evidence. "Yes, over a thousand years ago, the seven nations of the world were at war with each other near constantly. Minor tribes were overrun by feuding armies, many cultural ideals and traditions were lost simply because the armies didn't think to differentiate between enemy and innocent…"
"Little further than that, thank you." He'd start a monologue if Veronica let him. Nikolai simply rolled his eyes and turned a few more pages, his dark red eyes scanning the words with quick intensity.
"So, this is about where the details get a little bit fuzzy. The countries were too much at war to record very much, but it's generally assumed that around this time is when the Darkest One rose to power."
"The one who stole the pure essence of Darkness from the Spirituals with the intent to unite nations." Veronica was remembering the lectures better now. A single person had stolen from the Spirituals…the curious part of herself wanted to linger on that thought, but that was not what was important now. What was important was what came after. "The Darkest One lay siege to all seven nations, seemingly undefeatable until the birth of the Vessels."
"Yes, the Vessels." Nikolai nodded. "Vaspyrians such as ourselves chosen by the Spirituals to reside in and share in their power. Using the grounded mixed energies of our race and combining it with their pure essences, the Spirituals were able to turn the tide against the Darkest One. A united army of seven nations, led by the Vessel of the Spiritual Justice, drove the Darkest One deep within the bowls of our planet and sealed him there, supposedly for the rest of eternity."
"But the Spirituals stayed with their Vessels so that the union of nations would remain." Veronica snatched the book out of Nikolai's hands and began to flip through it herself, ignoring her friend's protests. "And when the first Vessels died, they chose new Vessels and began the Spiritual Cycle."
"And that's where Keira comes in."
Veronica didn't want to believe it. She'd been arguing the very notion of it ever since the words had first reached her ears. Keira, a Vessel, and not just a Vessel..."The Vessel of Justice herself." Her speech was quieter. Even though the room was empty save for herself and Nikolai, she wanted to keep the words to herself. Hide the truth away, keep Keira here and away from the inevitable future mess. "But they said they weren't sure, Nikolai."
"Sensing the haze of a Vessel has always been a difficult thing to do, as far as I've been able to figure out." Nikolai turned his attention to another book, this one on reading soulfires. Veronica had argued with Nikolai for days on whether or not soulfire reading could be so easily taught by a book, and they had both come to agreement that there was probably more to it than either of them could really comprehend. "Justice is even harder to read than most, seeing as she's more a conceptual force than a raw physical essence like Fire or Earth. I think they actually have to compare a possible Vessel's haze with that of an old relic or something, and I suppose there's always the Ceremony to decide for certain. They won't know if it's her until she can pull the sword out of the altar."
"So that's what they meant." Veronica remembered parts of the earlier conversation in the locked room, parts she had heard when she had recovered from the shock of it all. The strange men had mentioned bringing Keira to the Temple of Justice to prove her status as a Vessel. It was soon after that Veronica had been shooed away along with Keira's parents and the principal. Some things, she supposed, were for Vessel's ears only. "They're going to take her away, Nikolai. We're probably not ever going to see her again."
"I wouldn't say that." Nikolai argued. "We'll see her on television, making speeches about the balance and putting the other Vessels in their place. She's certainly got the spunk to handle it. Heck, I wouldn't be surprised if she was still in that room now lecturing those men you mentioned about daring to interrupt her before she had time to even leave the school building."
"They're going to pull her out of school; they needed to have the principal there." Veronica pointed out, continuing to flip through some of Nikolai's books. There was nothing more she could really remind herself about, but at the very least it gave her eyes a place to look. "She's probably furious about all of this. She had a career path, now that's just going to end up a memory."
"Well, Vee, we really don't have any control over that." Nikolai yanked the books from her grasp so he could reshelf them. Veronica kept looking downwards, her eyes now examining the wrinkles and lines on her hands. If she looked up at Nikolai one more time, she'd probably start crying. "But, we do have control over what we do." Nikolai continued, putting his hand on her own. "I, for one, fully intend to graduate primary school and head my way over to Union Capital. They can always use more magical historians, and I'm certain that the Vessel of Justice wouldn't mind having an advisor on magical matters."
"So you've got an easy path." Veronica shrugged. "If I join the military I won't know where I'll end up."
"Then don't join the military."
Veronica finally looked up, curiosity overtaking the pull of sadness. At first she didn't understand, but then she allowed herself to think. There were other organizations besides the military that specialized in martial defense, one of which was specific to the Vessel of Justice in general.
"You don't honestly think I can become a Heart of Justice."
They were a special force dedicated to protecting the Vessel, neutral in all other dealings and pulling members from all seven nations. The selection process was rigorous and long, and she'd likely need at least five years in military service before she'd even be considered. She knew this, Nikolai knew this as well, and yet there was brightness to Nikolai's eyes that made Veronica question whether or not there was only one path to the outcome she was considering. The Hearts were a special force, yes, and all members were hand-picked by the captain of the force personally to serve. Usually the captain would evaluate military forces for candidates, but perhaps if a candidate presented themselves early, showed unique promise…
"It's the dumbest idea that's ever passed through my head, Nikolai. There's no way he's going to accept me."
"No way at all." Nikolai agreed, the brightness in his eyes still lingering. "You might even say it's an outcome that's unobtainable. Impossible, even."
And those were the words that had her. "Damn you to oblivion."
"The Hearts came here along with those men to protect Keira as they transport her across the continent to the Capital." A smirk grew across Nikolai's face. Was she really that easily read? Or perhaps Nikolai had simply known her for that long. She gently pinched the hand on top of hers to show her annoyance.
"I'm going to humiliate myself in front of one of the most influential men in all of the Union's military forces."
"Make sure you bring your stick."
She found Keira and her visitors outside of Keira's home, and even from a distance she could still hear them debating. This time, however, the debate was between Keira and her parents. Veronica knew immediately what it was over. Veronica's parents would be proud of this development, no doubt, and yet Keira would stubbornly cling to the future she had been striving towards for so many years. It was hard for Keira to abandon anything, and even harder for her parents to accept that. The stubbornness ran strong in their family. But it was not Keira she was here for.
True to Nikolai's prediction, the Hearts of Justice had arrived in the city as well, or at least a small portion of them. Veronica could see them in their bright silver uniforms, the scales of justice proudly embroidered upon their coats. Veronica gave Keira but a passing glance as she marched towards the Hearts. Confidence was easy to fake, but she could only fake it for so long before her fears and anxieties overwhelmed her. She had but a few minutes to make this count.
She came to a halt in front of the Hearts and stood at attention, or at least hoped she was. Formal posture, arms behind her back, head slightly lowered in the presence of higher officers. She probably looked like an idiot. "Requesting permission to speak with Captain Solvix."
"Permission granted." One of the men stood up to greet her. He was tall, much taller than she was, and with his near-black skin and broad shoulders he was the very aspect of intimidation. Veronica forced herself to swallow down her fear and kept eye contact as best she could. "What business do you have with me, young lady?"
"My name is Veronica Jiyant." She almost tripped over her name. A beautiful first impression, she was sure. "I have spent my life training with the intent of pursuing a military career and have come to you with a request."
Solvix looked her up and down, and Veronica felt almost naked in front of him. His eyes seemed to look right through her, and she knew then that no amount of bravado would fool this man. Her fear was plain in his eyes, but so she also hoped was her determination. "Let me guess." He finally spoke. "You are good friends with Lady Keira, are you not?"
"Yes, sir." Veronica replied with a small nod. They were referring to Keira as 'lady' already. They were probably more certain in her being the Vessel than they had let on earlier.
"And you desire to join my Hearts in order to see your friend protected from harm?"
"Yes, sir." She nodded again, and she saw a small smile come to Solvix's face. It was not a smile of amusement or pleasure, but one that was perhaps more of boredom. She clearly did not impress him.
"You realize, Ms. Veronica, that every vaspyrian in my force has served years of military training before I even began considering them for a position. That they have faced down gangs and criminals, risked certain death for their nation, before I even gave them a second thought in my mind?"
"I am fully aware of this, sir. I understand that it would be a breach in standard protocol to even consider someone like me who hasn't even graduated primary yet." Veronica put a hand upon the stick at her side. It was no sword, but she had spent many years of her life with it, and it had become a comfort. "I am not asking you to take me on. I am asking you to evaluate me and tell me if there is even a glimmer of a chance that I may one day end up in your force." All she needed to do was get him or someone else in a sparring match, something, as long as he could just see what she could do...
His eyebrows narrowed and she could feel him looking through her again. Her hand clenched around her stick, and she allowed her eyes to glance downward for but a brief moment. A deep breath, and the fear was pushed down again. Then, Solvix spoke again.
"You carry a sparring stick with you. You still see merit in non-ranged combat?"
"Good. So do I." Veronica blinked in shock, watching as Solvix held out an open hand towards one of the other Hearts. A sheathed sword was thrown his way, and he caught it gracefully. He clicked the scabbard open and removed the sword, and Veronica inhaled as she caught the beauty of the blade, and felt the pulse of its haze. Nikolai had argued with her that swords didn't have soulfires, they could not produce a haze, but Veronica knew instantly that this sword had a history, a personality, and even if she could not see its soulfire, she could feel its presence pushing outwards towards her. However, it was not the blade that Solvix kept; the sword was tossed back to the Heart as he clicked the scabbard back together. "This will serve an adequate sparring stick against your own. You want an opportunity to prove yourself, Ms. Veronica. Show me now what you can do."
There could be no hesitation now. Veronica pulled out her sparring stick and readied herself. They scooted away from the rest of the group to a more open area, and Veronica used the time to look over Solvix's stance. He was relaxed, too relaxed. He did not think highly of her, that much was certain. He held the scabbard with only one hand, and Veronica was not certain if it was style or underestimation. "If you can land one strike on me, I'll consider you. You get three chances." He commented. There were a few chuckles from the other Hearts, and Nikolai's words echoed in her head. Unobtainable. Impossible.
That just gave her determination.
She allowed herself to shift into a solid stance, her stick held out in front of her. She had good balance, she had been told, and a good eye for an opponent's movement. She lacked stamina and strength, but if she was quick today, none of that would matter. But first, she had to learn her opponent.
She did not let her eyes leave his. They were silver, a unique color, and even that was a good hint as to how his style was. He was stable, much like she was, and even in this relaxed position he had a firm connection with the earth beneath him. He had likely been training for decades, and the only way she was going to get a strike landed on him was to catch him completely off guard. A plan began to formulate. She'd have to use her first two chances wisely.
She took two steps forward and Solvix did not move. A shuffle to the side, and he remained facing forward. Veronica briefly considered trying to attack from behind, but she realized it would likely be a waste of a chance. Instead, she maneuvered back in front of him, then did a simple strike, a thrust forward towards the center of his chest. Solvix finally shifted, stepping one foot slightly back as he brought the scabbard up to parry. He did not waste movement, as Veronica suspected. "That's chance one." He noted. Veronica did not reply.
She shifted back and prepared herself. This second chance would have to be a practiced formation, striking for multiple spots in one go. Veronica did not expect any of them to hit. That was not her intention.
Her stick arched, first going for the head, then the legs, once more to the chest, and then finally towards Solvix's sword arm. He parried each and every one, his feet barely moving from his original position, but that was all Veronica needed to see. A foot movement indicated a shift in balance, even if it was only slight. If she could get him to take a step back, he would be leaning, no longer with his weight directly at his center. That was all she needed him to do.
"Chance two." Solvix commented. "Don't let me have wasted my time, Ms. Veronica."
"You haven't." She assured him. She took a deep breath, steeling herself for her final move. It had to be precise, otherwise it would end painfully, both physically and emotionally. She closed her eyes for a moment, letting her energies calm themselves. She could feel her stick begin to pulse with enthusiasm. They were both ready.
She lunged forward, feigning another thrust towards his chest. Solvix took a small step back, and Veronica took her cue. Instead of following through with the strike, she shifted her balance and ducked downwards, lunging out with her back leg. She hit the leg Solvix had initially moved, and it lost its connection with the ground. Solvix still stood, so Veronica carried through with the motion, spinning and lashing out with her other leg at Solvix's front.
A big man fell hard. She could feel the earth tremble as he hit the ground, and that was her indication that she needed to move quickly. She turned herself around, giving out a small cry as she swung her stick in a downward arc. It landed with a soft thud against Solvix's back. There was a small pause, and Veronica caught her breath. Solvix hadn't moved from his position.
"Chance three." She said quietly.
Laughter erupted from the Hearts watching nearby, and after a moment Veronica realized that some of the laughter was coming from Solvix as well. She moved her sword away as he stood, then followed suit and pushed herself to her feet.
"That wasn't half bad at all." Solvix told her. The smile on his face was genuine this time, and a wave of relief made its way through Veronica. At the very least, she had impressed him. Whatever good that would do. "Alright. I'll consider you, Ms. Veronica, but I will make no promises."
"I expected none." She replied.
Solvix gave her a nod, turned back to his group, and that was the end of it.
"What were you thinking?" Keira demanded, pulling her aside. Veronica could see the worry on her face, and she could only laugh in response.
"I was thinking I'm not going to let you get all the fun of going to the Capital."
"This is really serious business, Veronica, this is greater than both of us." Keira sat Veronica down on a bench, fussing over her. Veronica let her. Fussing was something that, strangely enough, calmed Keira down, and they both needed some calm after the day. Her legs hurt, especially where she had kicked Solvix, and quite frankly she wasn't sure she could have stood much longer anyway. "I mean it, Vee, stop smirking at yourself and think about what you're trying to do here!"
"I'm trying to look after my friend." Veronica replied. "My family."
A dark emotion passed across Keira's eyes and Veronica knew she understood. "Don't pull that argument on me, Vee. You know I can't say anything against that."
"That was kind of the point. Nikolai's going to follow after you too, you know. He's just doing it a little slower than I am. We're supposed to stay together, that's what we planned."
"You know just as well as I do that plans aren't exactly going to work in a situation like this one." Keira let out an angry huff and plopped down next to her. Veronica allowed herself to lean her head against her friend's shoulder. Keira's haze was calming, pulling away all of her anxiety.
"You're an idiot, Vee."
"I know I am." But, perhaps, she was an idiot who had pulled off the impossible.
When night came, that was when Veronica found it hardest to sleep. It had been this way for many years; the sun would go down and Veronica would sneak out of her bedroom window and out onto a rock that overlooked the cliff face near her home. Even with the lights of the city reflecting up and down the mountain, she could still count the stars and still watch pleasantly colored clouds pass by. Right now it was the beginning of spring, and though there was a brisk chill in the air when the sun went down, it was still warm enough to not provide distraction. Veronica loved this time of year, and she loved staying up for hours watching over her city. The orphanage was not at the peak of the mountain, but it was close enough.
She laid back against her rock and looked upwards, drowning out the sound around her and focusing on the day's events. Tomorrow, she would receive her verdict from Solvix and have her future decided. Tomorrow, whether she went with her or not, Keira would likely be leaving here forever. Veronica's sadness still had not left her, but she had at least managed to hold her tears until now, and at this point there was no worth in shedding them anyway.
Instead, she let her mind go blank as her eyes scanned the stars. Beyond them she could always feel a constant tugging, a haze that she could never explain. She wondered if stars had soulfires, personal essences that would burn in the night sky for an eternity. Scientists theorized that each star held planets such as their own, and that there might be an infinite number of soulfires in the universe that could never reach each other. When Veronica thought about this, she felt incredibly small. Her future dilemmas seemed meaningless against space, and even against the planet on its own. There were hundreds of thousands of people, each with problems and anxieties of their own. Veronica could understand why civilizations had been at war for thousands of years in the past. With everyone on the planet buckling under the weight of their stresses, it was not a wonder they were all belligerent. Veronica would have spent her evening hitting makeshift dummies, if not for her sore legs.
But simply thinking about such things brought a peace to her heart, and without even trying she began to meditate. Even breathing and a wandering mind, that was all it took, and Veronica had gotten good at that. After a while, she began to focus on the haze beyond the stars once again, wondering where it was trying to pull her towards. She imagined herself rising from the ground, flying like the Vessel of Air, and heading away from the pull of Vaspyr into the depths of space. She imagined herself following the haze's tug past beautiful and unseen worlds, going faster and faster until the worlds became a blur and she could no longer control where her imagination was taking her. It crossed her mind only briefly that she might be dreaming.
The tugging brought her to a small, darkened planet, upon which there arose a large temple, bigger than any building Veronica had ever seen in her life. The architecture twisted and spiraled around the peak of a mountain, much bigger than her own, and the haze that surrounded the building was almost painfully powerful. Veronica was tugged to the base of the temple, and as she landed on the ground she immediately began to walk inside, being guided by something outside of her control. She passed by many rooms in the temple, and though she saw no one she felt as though there were many eyes on her, watching as she walked.
Eventually she came across a small room filled only by the presence of a large, ornate mirror, to which she immediately walked in front of. She saw herself in the reflection, though it was hazy and hard to make out. There was a voice in the background, chanting in a language she did not immediately recognize. Veronica strained to hear it, and just when she was certain she was beginning to grasp the words, a figure appeared in the mirror behind her, blinding and beautiful, yet missing something that Veronica could not quite identify, an essence she could not, would not, refused to comprehend.
"How long will you keep coming here?" The figure's lips did not move, yet the words echoed in her mind. The mirror shattered and Veronica screamed herself awake, almost flailing herself off the edge of her rock. She clambered back onto the safer surface, her skin covered in sweat and her breathing heavy and ragged.
When she looked up at the night sky again, she felt nothing.