Preface: This is a story set in the 'Sovereign' book series. 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.
With this story (and a couple others) I am attempting a 'new beginning' of sorts, writing a series of foundational entry points that embody certain core aspects of the universe. With Echoes, I am attempting to look at the setting's 'spirit', taking a deeper look into its magics and the cultures build around said magics.
I am also experimenting with the idea of jumping straight into the story instead of having an expositional prologue. If you desire more background, 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)
PART I: TREASURES OF THE BLACK ISLE
It's said that not all of the Haskaran archipelago is a harsh wasteland, barely capable of sustaining life. But this particular island did little to support such optimism. No animals. No vegetation. Only black rock surrounded by bitter seas. And yet, one group saw fit to cross the jagged landscape.
Weighed down by rucksacks and satchels, five men pushed inland, boots fighting for grip every step of the way. Pale faces, gray drabs, marching under a bleak sky, there was nary a speck of color to be found. But the batch of fresh twenty-somethings remained determined, even under such dreary conditions. They clambered up every hill and slid down every slope, stopping only to steady a stumbling fellow. Because every scrape and sting would be worth it once they claimed their prize. At least, so said the man who organized the expedition.
And thus, carried by the unique blend of duty and faith that only a group of bright-eyed Imperials could muster, the five explorers pressed forth, eager to reunite with their leader. Their master. Which is why the moment they caught a glimpse of the dark figure standing on the horizon, the group had a resurgence of vigor. For they would soon be in the presence of greatness.
Standing before a cliff-face, the man practically blended in with the surrounding darkness. Black robes. Black cape. Black hood. In fact, the only color to grace the shadowy figure came from the glint of gold accentuating the weapon at his waist. Single-edged. Slightly curved. A saber. But its wielder was no cavalryman or officer. No, he was something far superior; practically a demigod to the mundane beings on approach. A mystic. A Sovereign. A paragon of privilege, power, and poise.
"What in the damn hells is this?" a shrill voice spilled out of the shadowy figure.
The retinue looked past their master, examining a cliff-face that was far too smooth to be natural. That, however, was to be expected. The same couldn't be said about the man-sized fissure that had been created, beyond which was a tunnel leading deeper into the mountain.
"Already cracked the tomb, my lord?" one of the followers spoke up. "Very good, ser!"
"No, I didn't. That's the issue here." Whipping his hood back, the man revealed a face only a few years his subordinates' senior—one currently torn between a snarl and a pout. Long-haired, scruffy, the man was everything his clean-cut subordinates were not. An individual, unburdened by the codes and customs of lesser men. "Come on, papers, papers!"
Without hesitation, the followers began rummaging through their satchels, until one finally emerged with a few crumpled sheets that were promptly snatched away. And after mere seconds of perusal, the Sovereign slapped the papers with the back of his hand.
"See! 'By order of the Ministry of Mystic Arts, exclusive plundering rights of the Fjernham Burial Site, henceforth referred to as Adagarus' Tomb, shall be granted to Lord Benedikt Falke.' Exclusive!" The followers were quick to offer suggestions and explanations. Clerical errors. Natural phenomena. Sabotage. But Falke heard none of them, simply biting his lip and clenching his fists. "This was supposed to be my tomb! My bounty! I prostrated myself to the head of Arcane Antiquaries, and for what?"
One of the followers—a meek, bespectacled fellow—hesitantly raised a hand. "A broken contract must afford some recompense, right my lord?"
The Sovereign dragged his fingers down his face, stopping just short of actually clawing at his skin. "This was a license to act! If some scalper made off with the tomb's treasure, whatever bone the Ministry tosses me will pale in comparison to what could have, should have been mine!"
"Maybe not." Conscious of his every step, the young man approached the tomb's entrance. "No sizable chunks. No scorch marks. Whatever made this hole instantly turned the ensuing rubble to dust."
Though Falke refused to fully let go of his anger, his focus was momentarily captured by the mundane subordinate. "A focused kinetic strike. So our culprit's a fellow Sovereign, which I had already assumed."
The subordinate poked his head through the fissure, but otherwise refused to step past the threshold. Instead, he fished a small, metallic tube from his pocket. An electric lamp that he promptly shined on the 'floor' of the tunnel. "But look, there was enough dust to leave footprints. One set inward. Still crisp. So not only was our mystery Sovereign alone... they might still be in there."
Falke's jaw dropped. This Imperial, this mundane being, with his inferior senses, reflexes, and overall cognitive ability had figured out something that the Sovereign had not. And so, the mystic sharpened his gaze, asking, "what is your name, boy?"
"Hmm." Falke lunged forward with an inhuman speed, grabbing hold of the young man before he could so much as flinch. But while he could have easily wrung the life out of him, the mystic instead put his subordinate in a headlock and began rubbing his knuckles into the man's scalp. "Get a load of this little guy. Brilliant! And to think I was actually worried for a moment."
Bauer forced a smile as his master turned the neatly parted hairs atop his head into a tangled mess. "Just... happy to help, ser."
"Well, you're a credit to your people, Bauer." Finally, Falke released his grip on the young man, sending him stumbling back into the company of his fellows, each of which was positively beaming. When one of them succeeded, they all succeeded. Their leader, meanwhile, wore a different kind of smile. One of a hunger about to be sated. "Guns out, boys. This Sov lost their right to an honorable death."
"Um," one of the others spoke up, retrieving a snubnose revolver from his satchel. Double-action. Side-swing cylinder. Black frame with an ebonwood grip. A modern firearm through and through. "We just packed the one, ser."
Head dipped, Falke let out a sigh before drawing his saber. "Guess it'll have to do. Keep track of your fellows. And should you spot our uninvited guest, fire away."
"Should he... we... not maybe..." Bauer stammered before eventually gathering himself. "Should we be careful about firing inside the tomb? We don't want to damage anything, right?"
The Sovereign chuckled. "We're here for the tomb's treasure. If it's not enshrined or sitting atop some manner of pedestal, I couldn't care less about what happens to it. Onward!"
Thrusting forth his saber, Falke marched through the fissure, his men not far behind. Once more, the journey was afoot. But while the trek outside was over jagged and uneven stone, the path downward was little more than a gentle slope—a perfectly square corridor carved centuries ago, leading the group deeper and deeper beneath the island's surface. Before long, the last vestiges of natural light had faded. The mundane explorers reached for their flashlights, but the Sovereign continued to lead the pack with nothing but his own eyes to guide his path. Not that there was much room for deviation. The tunnel continued unerringly, without any manner of branches or intersections. Which prompted a bit of confusion when the corridor led to a dead end.
"Is... is that it?" one of the followers spoke up, he and his fellows shining their lamps over their master's shoulders.
The Sovereign, meanwhile, remained confident. "No, it is but our first test. Look, shallow divots, just enough to secure a grip. A test of strength to ensure only a mystic may continue."
He was right. The gray slab had a series of handholds carved into its base. But strength came in many forms. Making sure his followers were watching closely, the grinning mystic widened his stance and extended his arms. But instead of physically touching the 'wall', he began clutching and clawing at the air. And after a series of grunts, the heavy slab began to rise.
Telekinetics. One of the simplest and most widespread manifestations of external magics. As Falke lifted his hands, he willed the piece of stone up into its recess. Yet such an action was not without cost. Sovereigns had a saying: 'magic is infinite, we are not.' So though Falke was capable of summoning and controlling a force from beyond the material realm, such manipulations required energy. More, in fact, than he would have spent using his enhanced body to simply utilize the handholds. But as the Sovereign locked his elbows, hands held high, slab fully recessed, the subtle adulations and applause from his subordinates made it all worth it.
Falke relaxed his grip, breathing a surreptitious sigh of relief as the stone door remained lifted, held in place by some mechanism built into the tomb itself. "Onward!" he called out again, though with a hint of exhaustion bleeding into his voice.
Leveling out, the corridor beyond widened, finally letting the group break their single file march. Not only that, but the presence of glowing crystals affixed to the walls provided them some welcome illumination. Lightstones. Crisp, clean light courtesy of someone imparting a mystical charge. Another exchange of energy. If they weren't certain of an intruder before, they certainly were now. Though the more telling evidence might have been the body lying face down in a pool of its own blood in front of the next door.
"Oh, come on. Couldn't even grant me the satisfaction of watching them die," Falke muttered. Holding out his hand, the Sovereign secured a telekinetic grip on the corpse's leg, slowly dragging it closer. Along the way, something shifted and the faintest clink rang out, followed by a sharp whistle. A metal rod—no larger than a pencil—fired out of the side wall. Then another. And another. Left and right. Right and left. As the corpse inched closer, more and more projectiles fired from outlets disguised as runic etchings. And without a standing body to intercept them, the metal rods flew inside identical holes in the opposite wall, only to be launched again. "A dart trap that recycles itself. Novel concept, but not exactly something I'd expect to kill a Sovereign—"
For the first time in a long while, Falke flinched. Though focused on drawing the fallen intruder closer, his enhanced senses couldn't help but react to the projectile sent his way. Unfortunately, such a reaction did nothing to actually move the man out of the dart's path. Which is why the Sovereign was stunned when he looked down to see the metal spike meant for his stomach had instead embedded itself in one of his follower's satchels. There was no way an Imperial's reflexes could surpass his own. Instead, Bauer had removed his shoulder-bag and held it in front of his master prior to the trap even going off.
"Did you... know that was going to happen?" Falke asked, barely above a whisper.
"I... I just saw that the door ahead had some runes on it, too," Bauer admitted, arms shaking as he continued to hold out his bag. "I didn't know if they would fire, or if they were traps at all, but I... I couldn't say anything."
Falke drew and released a few deep breaths before yanking the corpse the last bit of distance, depositing it before his and his subordinates' feet. "And why might that be?"
The bespectacled man finally withdrew his satchel, clutching it close against his chest, spike still poking out from the other side. "Well... this is my first time working alongside a Sovereign and I... I didn't want to overstep my bounds."
The Sovereign placed a hand on Bauer's shoulder, clenching just hard enough to imply that a greater strength lurked behind those fingers. "You're a smart one. You've demonstrated that. So I won't lie. Bad things are known to happen to... disappointments. And in a place like this, chances are no one would ever know of your fate. But I've little interest in swatting and choking away every paltry display of incompetence and insubordination. You are here to serve me, true... but you are also here to help me. And I'll not lash out at someone doing their job. So speak. Ask questions. Offer advice. Give warnings. Got it, Bauer?"
Again, the man offered a nod, only this time he managed to meet his superior's eyes. Not that it wasn't difficult. Though somewhat comforting, the mystic's words weren't without a certain intensity. A certain power. Whether selfish or considerate, friendly or fiendish, Falke was always the one in control. As all Sovereigns were. For that was the Dominion's enduring dynamic. A nation of two halves. The mystical Sovereign and the mundane Imperial. The privileged leaders and the dutiful followers. The towering spire, and the foundation that allowed it to attain such lofty heights.
Granted something so paltry as the ability to speak his mind, Bauer eventually managed a smile. "Understood, ser."
"Good. Now... let's see if we can't shed some light on our intruder here." Immediately, the other Imperials directed their lamps toward the corpse, prompting a chuckle from the Sovereign. "Not what I meant, but... appreciated."
Falke nudged the body with his foot, flipping it onto its back and revealing the metal spike embedded in its chest. Dressed in black robes, the intruder had a similar style to the man standing over him, though his clothes possessed what was known as the 'martial cut'. Outer coat that reached just past the waist. Cross-collared fold secured by a sash rather than any buttons. Trousers tucked into sturdy boots. Comfortable. Maneuverable. Still vulnerable to metal projectiles.
But Falke was more interested in the man's face. Similar age. Similar tones. Similar rugged-yet-not-overly-ragged visage. Easily one of his contemporaries. And yet, he was drawing a blank.
"Great, no idea who this is. So not only was someone trying to steal my treasure, they sent some flunky in their place. By the Emperor, if this is another one of Bradic's..." Falke rubbed his brow, letting out a deep sigh. "Bauer, search the man, see what you can find."
"Anything, in particular, I should look for?"
"Identification. Something from his master. Anything that'll save us the trouble of dragging the entire body back to Capital for when we file our complaint with the Ministry."
"Aye, ser." Bauer dropped to his knees and began rummaging through the corpse's robes, his eagerness quickly evaporating as his hands met the cold, lifeless body. But the Imperial simply held his breath and forced himself to continue.
"So, what made you volunteer to join my retinue?" Falke asked as he loomed over his subordinate.
"Well... I feel I've always wanted to become an antiquarian," Bauer admitted. "But even the most prestigious positions in Capital mostly deal with archives and record-keeping. They don't get to actually interact with artifacts and relics, let alone be involved with the discovery and recovery."
"Good man, putting value in the material over the ethereal."
"I... guess that's a part of it. But I also wanted the chance to study firsthand the remnants of old. Things that have managed to outlive their creators. Magical artifacts are like these works of art, each having a unique form and function. But they also tell a story. They have an influence beyond their intrinsic characteristics. And I just... I think they're fascinating."
"I suppose they are," Falke replied, almost wistful. "You can only stick so much magic inside something inorganic, so there must be some other reason Sovereigns covet them so. Never understood it myself, but I don't need to know why something's valuable to know it's valuable. And so long as you're around to help me with my collection, I'll be sure to let you indulge in this little hobby of yours."
"It's not a—" Bauer began before quickly cutting himself off. "Thank you, ser."
With a creeping unease chewing at his insides, the Imperial continued to search the slain mystic. Weaponless. No supplies of any sort. The man traveled light, that's for sure. But eventually, Bauer felt something. Something round. Something metallic. He fished the mysterious object out, only for it to snag on the cadaver's neck. An amulet.
"Well well well, what have we here?" asked Falke as he finally deigned to crouch. "Any gems, mystical or otherwise?"
Bauer turned the medallion over, examining it front to back. A solid metallic disk, heavily tarnished, covered in intricate geometric etchings. "Doesn't look like it."
"A shame," Falke replied, quickly straightening himself out. "Then I'll let you hold onto that for now. We'll show it to the Ministry to prove someone else was here and afterwards... consider it a souvenir for your first expedition."
Carefully pulling the necklace up and over the corpse's head, Bauer tucked the medallion into his shirt pocket, not wanting to risk the consequences of a prolonged examination. And with nothing more to offer him, the intruder had officially lost the Sovereign's interest. Holding out the tip of his saber, Falke wafted the blade up and down, purposefully triggering one of the dart traps. Then he did so again. And again. And again. Each time, the spike emerged from one wall, soared across the corridor, and disappeared inside a mirrored receptacle, ready to be fired again.
"Hmm," Falke began, scratching his chin before muttering to himself.
The Imperials listened closely, gleaning what they could as their master tried to work out the mechanics of the trap in his mind. Though privy to only fragments of the man's musings, they were each certain that he fell quiet long before he had reached any significant understanding. So when the Sovereign announced that he was ready to proceed, there was a hint of trepidation amongst the retinue.
"Um, ser?" one of the underlings spoke up, voice wavering.
"Don't worry, I can handle this. See?" With that, Falke took a step forward. The first trap released its dart, but it soon came to a halt mid-flight, held in place by the mystic's telekinetics. "Just... had to get a feel for it. Without the element of surprise, something like this could never defeat a Sovereign."
The Imperials offered another round of applause for their master, though their claps were suitably spaced apart, tinged with uncertainty. But as Falke continued to make his way toward the other end of the hall, they didn't have much choice but to follow, keeping their heads down as they crowded behind the advancing mystic. More spikes shot out from the flanking stone, only to be seized by some invisible force and flicked away. Before long, the party was standing in front of the next door, a slab similar to the one preceding it aside from the holes dotting its surface.
"All right," Falke began, "everyone hit the floor. I don't know if any of these are gonna fire when I start lifting."
The Imperials didn't hesitate, immediately flopping down to the cold, dusty stone. Truthfully, Falke did wish to spare his subordinates any wayward darts. But as beads of sweat began to form on his brow, he was rather thankful they were currently keeping their heads down. The mighty, indomitable, unrelenting Sovereign was fast approaching the end of his reserves. And he still had a heavy slab to lift. Thus, momentarily ignoring the need to prove himself, Falke utilized the handholds, lifting the stone door with his own two hands, counting his blessings as it remained hoisted in its recess.
Aches and pains starting to creep across his body, Falke's nevertheless managed a sharp grin as he looked to the next chamber. He'd done it. He'd reached the end of the tomb. Ahead, a spacious, high-ceilinged room offered itself to the advancing party. Hands open, arms extended, the Sovereign offered the last of his energies. The room began to light up, crystals affixed to a ring of pillars accepting the man's magics and offering their crisp, clean glow in return.
Meanwhile, Bauer went wide-eyed as he picked himself off the floor, jaw hanging with a joyous curiosity. The chamber was large enough to accommodate dozens—and at one point in time, it very well could have. Cubic seats carved from stone were arranged with a radial symmetry around the sarcophagus in the middle of the room. The antiquarian's mind began to race, pondering what manner of rituals unfolded before, during, or after Adagarus' burial. As for Falke, his interest fell to his prize. His treasure. The artifact currently floating above the entombed.
The Sovereign urged himself forward, heart racing, lungs burning, legs on the verge of collapse. His eyes, however, spoke of an undying hunger. An unquenchable thirst. Magic was infinite, he was not. But so long as the smallest vestige of mystical power flowed through his veins, his will determined what his body was capable of. And at that moment, it demanded his body move closer. Along the way, he discarded his saber, letting it clatter against the floor. Though insignificant, it was still a weight he did not need. Better to pass the burden onto a subordinate, one of which quickly rushed to pick up the sword. Meanwhile, the others stuck close to their master, ready to catch him should he collapse. But only then. So long as a Sovereign was still standing, offering a steadying hand meant you were liable to lose it.
Finally, Falke reached the object of his desire, a metallic orb roughly the same size as his head. But upon closer inspection, the ball wasn't completely smooth. Instead, it looked to have a scaled surface, as if it were composed of a hundred tiny, diamond-shaped plates.
"Remarkable," Falke muttered. "Even after all this time, it has enough kinetic energy stored to stay afloat. The traps, they could lay dormant for centuries, waiting to activate. But this..." The Sovereign let out a weak chuckle. "This'll look damn nice on a pedestal."
"What is it?" asked Bauer.
"I honestly have no clue," Falke admitted. "All I know is that Adagarus made it, and that means it's worth something."
"What kind of mystic was Adagarus? Might give some clues to its design."
"Again, no clue. He was prestigious enough to get a tomb, but that doesn't actually mean much. Any reverence... that died out the same time Adagarus did."
"All this trouble to leave a legacy and he's little more than a name," Bauer muttered.
"If there's one thing you need to learn about us Sovereigns, it's that we don't idolize the past, especially when it comes to people," Falke bluntly replied. "It is the goal of every generation to surpass the one that came before it, so someone who lived centuries ago was likely a weakling by modern standards. This place? It wasn't for him. It was for us. A Sovereign's tomb is unlike anything you'll find outside the Dominion. It's a test. A challenge to be overcome. A means to give the dead some measure of worth and contribution to society."
"But what of the artifacts?"
"One might almost consider those a fluke. The Sovereigns of old probably thought they were sealing away their most valuable prizes to be reclaimed only by the most worthy. But functionally, even their greatest works would pale in comparison to what we could create today. However, there's something special about an artifact, something that distinguishes it from any piece of modern artifice. They're... they're like cheese."
Bauer raised an eyebrow. "Cheese, ser?"
"Or perhaps whiskey. Something aged. They are things that ought not be. Magic is supposed to be fleeting. Something that requires an organic host to be summoned to the material world. But here we have this centuries-old... thing that has not only held on to its mystical properties, but has likely changed as well. Maybe its the lingering psionic will of its creator, maybe it's just what happens over the course of many lifetimes, but this and other artifacts like it are wholly unique, not just from each other, but their former selves. And that aspect just... tickles all the old codgers' and crones' fancies. Makes them worth collecting. Makes these tombs worth regulating."
"So it does," Bauer muttered, head dipped and eyes wandering. "So... what comes next?"
"Caution. There may yet be traps unsprung. I know if I got to design a tomb, I'd want any would-be plunderer to think success within their grasp, only to snatch it away at the last possible moment."
And so, just as the artifact continued to hover, the Sovereign and his subordinates hovered around it, examining its every surface without actually touching it. Ever so slightly turning, ever so slightly bobbing, the orb continued to fascinate, but the attention of one Imperial drifted elsewhere. Beneath the floating artifact, the sarcophagus of Adagarus himself was ignored by all except Bauer. Adjusting his glasses, the man looked almost morose as he examined the stone coffin. Though the sides were as smooth as anything else in the tomb, the top was decorated with intricate engravings that covered the entire surface.
Braided patterns, indicative of Gheranian heritage. Gheran joined the Dominion four-and-a-half centuries ago, but that knowledge was practically useless without other details. How old was the tomb? Did it pre-date the nation's integration? Was Adagarus Gheranian himself, or did he just appreciate the culture? Bauer couldn't help but grow frustrated. He doubted Falke could answer his questions. He doubted Falke would let him take a tracing of the designs. He doubted Falke would ever understand his understanding, let alone his appreciation of history. But doubt was unbecoming of an Imperial. So he swallowed that feeling. Swallowed it deep. Even as his hands ached from how tightly they began to clench.
Luckily, he wouldn't have to dwell on such thoughts for long. Falke and his men weren't alone.