Preface: This is the first story set in the 'Sovereign' book series. However, it is by no means necessary to read in order to understand and enjoy any of my other stories. Taking place on the world of Atheris, it is a fantasy setting characterized by more 'functional' magics, dogmatic organizations, social stratification, and personal identity. This particular story is set in what is known as the 'Imperial Era', a period analogous to the real-world's early 20th century. More information about the setting of this and other stories can be found on my profile. Feedback is welcomed and appreciated.
(Content Warning: May contain violent or romantic content. While other mature themes may be present, the material presented should not stray far beyond a T or PG-13 rating)
No matter the age or era, magic reigned supreme upon the world's stage. An arcane energy, a gift from the gods, a manifestation of raw power and potential, every soul knew of magic even if they hadn't the privilege of its succulent taste. With its bounty, humanity moved out from under the oppressive foot of beasts and set about conquering the world they stood upon. Civilizations rose that would stand the test of time. Orders gathered mystic ideologues that would shape and bind the limitless arcane. Society advanced, often despite itself. And for the past millennia, the continent of Ardonia presented itself as the supreme paragon of both progress and conflict, the two often brought about hand in hand.
From this land came the Templars, mystic knights with neither lords nor lands of their own, defenders sworn only to discipline and duty.
From this land came the Sovereigns, dark exiles who sought an understanding of all magics, no matter how dangerous or profane.
From this land came the Federation, born of free nations united by a common foe, standing side by side with their Templar allies.
From this land came the Dominion, a seething nation born of an eternal monarch, supported by the might of the Sovereign Order.
And thus, two major powers took center stage. A federation allied with noble independents and an empire ruled by unchained mystics. A free people defended by honorable knights and a nation dominated by amoral supremacists. Two sides, soon to be trapped in the throes of a great war. Whilst the Dominion spread its influence, conquering lands through force or personality, the Federation turned a blind eye to the militant empire's advances. At least, until one of its own came under attack. The final target of its sweep across northern Ardonia, the Dominion invaded the nation of Esheron, beginning the greatest conflict the world had ever seen.
But even as great powers became consumed by great conflicts, not all denizens found themselves thrust into the fold. Throughout the Dominion, Arcane Academies trained young mystics to harness their powers before throwing them into the unforgiving arms of powerful Sovereign Lords and Archons, destined to ascend or perish. But on the isolated island of Dalstig, hidden amidst the dry wastes and black rocks of Haskar, one particular institution was an anomaly.
By Dominion law, all mystics discovered within its borders were to be trained as Sovereigns, paragons of power, individuality, and supremacy. But countless traditions and prejudices prevented such declarations from being absolute. Only those of purity and worth were truly granted admission, those not meeting the standards sooner put to death than granted a potential spot in the Order. The foreign. The disgraced. The enslaved. Such beings were considered nothing more than blights, a curse that would only sully the reputation of the Sovereign and weaken the sway they held over the mundane. And yet, this one isolated institution had shed such limitations, secretly training almost one hundred students within its halls, each of them straying from tradition in one way or another.
The strangest fact about this class, however, was that none of the students were aware of their own peculiarity. To them, all was normal. They were nothing more than another batch of potential Sovereigns. They studied. They toiled. Blood was shed, bones were broken, and spirits were tested, all the while these dozens of acolytes remained blissfully unaware of their true station. A typical Academy would have seen those too weak to stand up to the pressure killed or cast into the nearest crags to be feasted upon by wandering hounds. For the dynamic between the mystic and the mundane was not one of tyrants and slaves, but of demigods and believers. The Imperials put their faith in the Emperor and the Order, because they knew that only those worthy of their faith would ever be counted amongst the Sovereigns. Thus, those in charge of the Academies had a vested interest in ensuring only the strongest acolytes survived. That only those who embodied the 'ideal' would ever earn the title of Sovereign.
But here, none truly perished. None faced exile. The unworthy continued to train without a second thought, blind to the absent traditions that had shaped the Order for centuries. For they had no reason to question. Years passed with the promise of improvement, the promise of graduation, and there was enough truth in the words of their instructors to entice and satiate the acolytes, keeping them content with the glacial progress they displayed. Their expectations aligned with reality in such a way that no singular facet appeared peculiar enough to warrant investigation.
The strong trained as warriors, mystic exponents of martial combat.
The cunning trained as casters, manipulative conjurors of the arcane.
Yet neither received anything approaching a true Academy's trials. Only debased approximations. The tenets of the Sovereign Order were present, but restrained. Held back. Chained. Competition and rivalry, without the true threat of death. Unlocked potential and uncovered secrets, while never attaining full understanding. The importance of the self and the individual, but never to the detriment of undying loyalty to one's superiors. The thought that one day they would be acolytes no longer, but true Sovereigns—apprentices to powerful Lords who would foster their ascension—sustained them day after day. Week after week. Month after month. Year after year. But the Lords never came.
For almost a decade, the peculiar batch of acolytes have been trapped, condemned to a seemingly endless tenure. What they lacked in life-or-death trials, they made up in countless hours of mind-numbing boredom broken up only by pain and hardship. An acolytes wakes, their senses too honed to ever permit them to sleep in. They trudge through the colorless halls of stone to meet with their instructor, keen minds absorbing lessons padded with copious amounts of natter. They march along one of countless featureless chambers for yet another trial, swinging wooden blades or conjuring magic, honing their bodies, minds, and spirits until sufficiently drained. They return to what amount to their home, wasting the hours away until the process can repeat itself. Whilst the threat of death may have been absent, the none would consider their time in the Academy as anything short of suffering. An endless cycle that showed no signs of ending.
That is, until a mysterious visitor made his presence known.