PART I: TREASURES OF THE BLACK ISLE
Bauer shot up with a gasp, only to find his world had changed. Gone were the black wastes and cloudy skies, replaced with a cozy, if not cramped room. Wood paneling. Cabinets and a desk. Semi-comfortable cot. He'd not only made it aboard the ship, but somehow found himself resting in the captain's personal quarters. Body wrapped in clean bandages, previous attire in a bloody heap on the floor, Bauer slowly tried to regain his bearings. How did he get here? How much time had passed? Perhaps most importantly, where was Honor? For the moment, he was well and truly alone. Whether he appreciated or dreaded that fact, Bauer did not know. If nothing else, whoever patched him up was kind enough to leave a new set of clothes at the foot of his bed.
Gray. Utilitarian. Enough layers to combat the bitter seas surrounding Haskar. But as he thumbed through the stack of clothes, Bauer's eyes softened at the touch of something just as gentle. A woolen sweater. A welcome comfort. Yet as he went to pull the garment over his head, he found little in the way of relief. With one errant stretch of his arms, Bauer's legs gave out, sending him to the floor as a faint squeak slipped past his lips. Pain, once a fleeting memory, had returned in full force. Every muscle ached, protesting even the slightest motion. But it would do him no good to remain sprawled out on the floor half-naked. So with a tear in each eye, he gritted his teeth and fought through the pain. As he did. As he would. Time and time again.
Finally dressed in his bundle of sailor's attire, Bauer slowly clawed and dragged himself to his feet, finding his spectacles waiting for him on the nearby desk. And beside them, the medallion. Running his finger along the divot wrought by a piece of shrapnel meant for his heart, the man let out a soft sigh.
"You were lucky," Honor spoke up, startling the young mystic as she blinked into existence, arms crossed, back against the cabin door. "One of the crewmen managed to spot your unconscious body from afar. The next time you decide to shut down, I suggest you actually make it back to your transport first."
"Didn't realize that was up to me," Bauer replied, awkwardly fussing with his spectacles as he leaned against the desk.
"It will be. Eventually. Magic can often function autonomically, but a Sovereign is a being of power, particularly over the self. Whereas the mundane are beholden to fight-or-flight responses and adrenaline, you will be able to influence your biochemical processes as well as—" Honor cut herself off, seemingly gazing into the distance as she tilted her head. "Curious. My explanations usually aren't this technical. Certainly haven't used 'autonomically' before. This your doing?"
"Again, didn't realize that was up to me."
"Influence is... a two-way street. For example..." With a snap of her fingers, the echo's attire began to shift, the black of her robes melting away until she was no longer dressed, but instead wreathed in shadows. And yet, all it took was the mere blink of an eye for the writhing darkness to settle on a new form. A new outfit. Now, she wore a sweater and trousers much like Bauer's own—albeit in a more familiar black. Utterly simple. Absent any modicum of prestige or station. And yet, the woman managed to elevate them through raw presence. In any other context, Bauer would have thought—no, would have known this woman was a Sovereign. "I teach as I learn and learn as I teach. Rarely do I find myself on the receiving end this early, but I must say you've quite the repository of knowledge compared to recent hosts."
Bauer winced as he rubbed the left side of his bandaged head. And yet, it wasn't the gash dwelling beneath the wrapping or even his chunk of missing ear that brought him pain. Instead, the sensation dwelt far deeper—a headache quite unlike anything he'd experienced before. "And I assume this learning process of yours involves perusing my mind as you see fit?"
"That is my home, Bauer. Tearing down its walls and ripping up its floorboards serves neither of us. Though I will glean the occasional insight from your surface thoughts, I much prefer to learn through observation."
"But you could always dig deeper if you wanted, couldn't you?"
"I could, yes," Honor bluntly replied. "But I won't."
Bauer offered a weary chuckle. "Good to know, I guess. Though I imagine—" As the mystic lifted his gaze, he was met with the peculiar sight of his guide leaning even further back, her top half phasing through the cabin door and disappearing from sight. "Uh... you okay?"
"Someone's coming," she declared, maintaining her unflappable demeanor as her top half returned to view.
"I see. Should you... I don't know, hide or something?"
"You needn't worry about that. No one else can perceive me."
"I see," Bauer repeated.
"Still worried I'm imaginary?"
"I'm not, actually. Don't quite know why, but... I'm not."
Soon, a series of knocks rang out. True to her word, Bauer had a visitor. And as Honor blinked out of existence, the mystic managed to catch a glimpse of the man through the door's porthole. Burly. Bearded. Bewildered. Seems the sailor wasn't expecting to see a face staring back at him.
"Well, I'll be damned," came a muffled voice, each word buried in a healthy dose of grit. As he stepped inside, Bauer finally recognized him as the ship's captain. Interactions were sparse on the way to Fjernham, but the man had a way of making himself known, strutting across the deck and barking at his crew. And yet, here he was, head dipped, cap in hand, squeezing and wringing it like some timid schoolboy. "Kelso said you'd be awake, but I didn't expect to see you walkin' around. He's, uh, the one who patched you up. Not that you needed it, apparently. But someone passes out on your doorstep covered in stab wounds? Well, what are you gonna do, right? I mean..."
The captain quickly began to ramble, his thoughts and words growing more scattered by the second. All the while, Bauer forced a smile. Didn't have to be a mystic to sense the man's unease, talking if only to delay the inevitable response. And yet, the moment Bauer raised his palm, the captain immediately cut himself off.
As silence consumed the cabin, the young mystic pushed off the desk to stand face to face with its owner. A part of him thought to stand at attention, but figured the rigidity would only prove more intimidating. A more aloof stance was considered, but there was still too much Imperial in those bones to accept such an arrangement. Fortunately, the captain would remain as he was, allowing Bauer to continuously and awkwardly shift his weight, desperately searching for what felt right. Eventually, the mystic simply shoved his hands in his pockets and offered a budding grin.
"Thanks. You know... for everything."
"Ah, well, was the least we could do, honest. Just wish Falke had told us he'd brought his apprentice along. Would have been much more accommodating—"
"Wait," Bauer interrupted. "You think I'm Falke's apprentice?"
The captain's eyes widened. "By the Emperor, you're not another Lord, are you? Gods, my sincerest apologies, ser. We had no idea—"
"No, wait, I'm not—" Bauer withdrew his hands to wave in protest, but the motion only prompted more fear.
The captain—physically superior in practically every conceivable measure—flinched and cowered at the slightest hint of the mystic's open palms. Himself panicking, the young Imperial grabbed hold of the older man's arms, hoping to calm him down. He failed. The captain yelped. Bauer yelped. The pair continued to exchange startled cries—all the while, a rematerialized Honor traded her usual stoicism for a look of genuine bewilderment. And with a shake of her head, she once more faded to nothing, waiting for the pair to exhaust themselves.
Eventually, both men's shrieks quieted as they realized there was no danger. Or if there was, it had been indefinitely delayed by such an embarrassing display. Releasing his grip, Bauer slowly backed away, flashing his palms in a much more docile manner. And as the captain saw no manner of fire, lightning, or other magical conjurations emit from the mystic's hands, he too regained a bit of his composure.
"Sorry," Bauer spoke up before taking a seat on the nearby cot. "I'm not a Sovereign Lord. I'm not even a Sovereign. This morning, I was just an ordinary person. But there was an... incident in the tomb. An explosion. Whether a trap or simple mishap, the artifact we were after wound up destroying itself and killing everyone in the room. Everyone... except me. And not only was I spared, but the ordeal awakened a dormant mysticism in me that I had no idea existed. Six... twelve... no, thirteen people entered that tomb today, and I was the one who got to walk away."
The captain held a hand to his chest, letting out a curiously lighthearted sigh. "Well, that's quite the relief."
"I'm sorry, what?" Bauer asked, spectacles almost falling as he cocked his head.
"Oh, it's just... back when we thought you were another Sov, we kinda figured there were some shenanigans afoot. Maybe Falke attacked you. Maybe you attacked Falke. Whichever, whyever—and believe me, Sovereign affairs are none'a my business—I just didn't want it tracking back to my ship, you know? We assumed you had your reasons. That even if you had slaughtered your own team, that you were justified. But keep that power play and duel shit where it belongs, right? To know this was all some cruel twist of fate is a weight off our shoulders, let me tell you."
Bauer continued to stare, trying to keep his jaw from hanging.
"Not to say those deaths weren't a tragic loss," the captain continued, rough hand slapping down on the young man's shoulder. "But if what you say is true, that you've got some magic in ya? Well, that ain't a silver lining, that's a whole goddamn platter, boy. You've the honor of joining the Sovereign Order and I've the honor of delivering you to them! Not to mention the reward..." While Bauer remained locked in his stupor, the captain was positively buzzing. Bouncing around his cabin, rummaging through drawers and cabinets, he began to pluck an assortment of loose papers before folding them into his pockets. "We're bound for Capital, but if you've another destination in mind, we'd be happy to make a detour. I mean it. Name a port and I will make it my life's mission to-"
"Capital's fine," Bauer replied, finally snapping out of his daze.
"Even better! I'll get us underway. In the meantime, just ask one of the boys if you need anything. Food, something to drink, something to drink. Anything." With a deep bow of his head, the captain ducked out of his own cabin. And not a second past his departure, the man's true self could be heard as he began bellowing orders at his crew. While not quite petulant, it was a far cry from the warmth afforded to the young mystic.
"What... what was that all about?" Bauer muttered.
"I've the same question," said Honor, rematerializing in her familiar spot against the door, resolve fully restored. "Him I understand, but why did you start screaming?"
Bauer dipped his head, chin practically buried in his chest. "I don't know. Was just startled, I guess. Not used to being considered a threat."
"You will. Give it time."
"I don't know if I want to," Bauer replied. "Not one to assume the worst in people, and I don't want them assuming the worst in me, either."
"Then don't assume. Know. You are one-hundred percent capable of seeing people for how they truly are, as well as dictating how they see you."
"Maybe yesterday, I'd have believed you, but now... it feels like as soon as a Sovereign is involved, things just stop making sense."
"As someone who's been privy to the thought processes of countless hosts, everything makes sense to someone. Right or wrong, mystic or mundane, everyone has their codes. It's why some forgotten upstart was willing to brave a spike trap despite his guide's incessant warnings. It's why a few departmental merits were enough to turn the saltiest sailor sweet mere moments after fearing for his very life. People can be read and understood just as easy as any book, no psionics necessary. And I suppose if you continue to struggle even after your training... I'll always be there to pick up the slack."
Bauer lifted his gaze, a gentle smile on his lips. But soon enough, the gears began to turn in the young mystic's head, comfort slowly turning to confusion. "Wait, why did you disappear when the captain showed up, then?"
"I didn't 'disappear'. I will always be with you in some form or another. This?" Honor waved a hand up and down her figure. "This is something of a courtesy. A means to ease the toll I take on your untrained psyche. Though being 'out' like this still siphons some of your energy, you're not ready for the alternative."
"I am more than a sixth sense. I am a magical source of independent cognition capable of acquiring, processing, and exchanging information at the speed of thought. And the fact that you're communicating with me vocally instead of mentally should be enough to tell you that we've a long way to go before you can properly utilize me."
"So if I didn't have this 'you' to see and talk to, I'd wind up frying my brain. Great," Bauer replied, barely able to muster the energy necessary for sarcasm. "But that still doesn't explain why you vanished."
"While adopting this form doesn't take much, there is still a cost. And with you in your current state, I couldn't risk the extra strain. Not with a potential threat at the door."
Bauer offered a scoff. "What was that you were saying about reading people?"
"True, the captain ultimately proved to be harmless, but how long did it take to reach such a conclusion? Sometimes, reading people won't be enough. Sometimes, if you allow a threat to meet you face to face, it'll already be too late. If a Sovereign is to succeed, to survive, they must know when to be proactive."
Bauer groaned as he fell onto his back, the cot releasing a strained noise of its own. "So for the rest of my life, I'll be dealing with people cowering from or debasing themselves to me, all the while I have to constantly be on the lookout because everyone could secretly want to do me harm. Great."
"I understand it's a lot to take in. Magic will almost seem simple compared to what else is expected of you. But across my entire existence, never have I bound myself to an initiate than didn't eventually become a proper Sovereign. You will adjust, just as they did," said Honor, ever so slightly softening her words to seemingly little avail. Bauer was in no mood for adjusting, remaining flat on his back, eyes glued to the ceiling. He needed something more. Something Honor could not provide herself. She could, however, serve as a guide. As she did. As she would. Time and time again. "Come on, let's get you from fresh air."
With another groan, Bauer slowly lifted himself until he was back on his feet. Once more, Honor effortlessly passed through the physical barrier while her host followed. Fortunately, it wasn't a stone slab that impeded him this time. Instead, no more than a few steps and a gentle push were required before the mystic felt the Haskaran breeze upon his face. Cold. Bitter. Oddly pungent. Looking up, Bauer saw the culprit in the form of a dark cloud rising from the ship's chimney. A fitting addition to the bleak, colorless isle. Yet compared to the black crags looming in the distance, the young mystic found the fumes almost pleasant. The byproduct of alchemically-charged fuel, that sting of the nostrils was a reminder of how far the Dominion had come. How the mystic and the mundane could not only coexist, but thrive in the presence of one another. But perhaps most importantly, it signaled that he would soon be far, far away from that damnable island.
Eager to see Fjernham shrink into the horizon, Bauer tried to get comfortable as he leaned against the ship's outer hull, careful that his recovering body didn't suddenly give out and send him tumbling over the waist-high barrier. But Honor had other ideas. She made her way astern, toward a group of bustling sailors making their final preparations. Bauer was curious to see just how far his guide could stray, but given her words from earlier, he started wondering if the Honor he saw was little more than an illusion. Unwilling to think over, let alone debate the matter of her authenticity yet again, the young mystic opted to simply follow.
"You are currently dealing with an identity crisis," said Honor as soon as her host had caught up. "Your newfound abilities put you at odds with your Imperial upbringing. However, with training to come, and proper induction further away still, you can neither accept yourself as Sovereign."
"There's-" Bauer started before cutting himself off. With crewmen drifting in and out of earshot, the mystic opted to instead converse in a whisper. "There's more to it than that."
"I'm sure there is," Honor replied, maintaining both her volume and tone. True to her word, none but Bauer could see or hear her. "And while I'm certainly capable of talking you through any and all reservations weighing heavy on your mind, I believe that so long as I possess the ability to skim your thoughts, you'll never fully embrace what I have to say."
"What gave you that impression?"
"Me skimming your thoughts."
"However, the Order will not wait for us to work through this little dilemma. The moment we are back in Capital, your training will begin. And it will require your utmost devotion. So, I've come up with a more expedient solution."
"And what might that be?" asked Bauer.
Ceasing her advance, Honor simply pointed across the deck. Most of the vessel's rear was occupied by a complex arrangement of chains and struts—tools put to much better use when the ship wasn't serving as a Sovereign's personal ferry. And whatever space wasn't obscured by the array of cranes and winches was instead blocked by a swarm of scurrying sailors. But through the mess of steel frames and steely bodies, Bauer's focus eventually fell to a most curious individual. Whilst his fellows moved as if their life depended on it, one sailor stood by his lonesome in the rearmost corner of the ship, calmly gazing out to sea.
"And who might that be?" asked Bauer.
"Someone I had the privilege of watching dress your wounds. Someone who can... provide perspective."
"And why might-"
"Because as the one who treated you, he saw you as you were, as you are, and as you could be. You're stuck worrying about your perception of Falke, the captain's perception of you, and whatever it is we've got going on... but him? He'll give you the authenticity you crave."
As Bauer prepared another question, he turned to see Honor staring back at him, eyes narrowed. Nothing overtly hostile, but the mystic knew not to push his luck. Head dipped, he muttered, "if nothing else, I should probably thank him."
Bauer set out across the deck with a somewhat tepid pace. It had been some time since Honor wasn't there to lead the way, or at the very walk alongside him. But as he peered over his shoulder, he saw that not only was she not following, she had 'disappeared' once more. He was on his own—at least, as much as he could be with the echo permanently rooted in some recess of his mind. Pressing on, Bauer took his place beside the man still staring out to sea, almost in a trance.
"Hello, ser. It's... Kelso, right?"
"Eh? Oh!" the man groggily muttered as he turned toward his visitor.
Everything the captain was, Kelso was not. Lax. Gaunt. In fact, the graying daydreamer looked as if a stiff breeze could knock him over if not for the baggy clothes weighing him down. But perhaps the greatest difference was the genuineness in his worn and weary visage. He recognized Bauer. Knew exactly what he was. Yet there was neither fear nor idolatry. Only the same gentle smile afforded all patients.
"Aye, that's me. Good to see you up and about. Din't expect you to know my name, though," Kelso admitted, tapping a wobbly finger against the side of his head. "Weren't pokin' around in 'ere, were you?"
"No, ser! The captain, he-" Bauer hurriedly replied before being cut off by the elder's cackle.
"Fret not, boyo. Been 'round enough Sovs to know you ain't a telly. Not yet, anyways. So what you need from ol' Kelso, hmm? Didn't... wrap anything too tight did I?"
"Oh, not at all. Everything's perfect. It's... it's just been a tumultuous day. And I guess I didn't want to spend the rest of the trip cooped up or talking to... myself."
"Well, you came to the right person. I'm liable to talk the rest of that ear off," Kelso offered alongside another cackle.
Bauer forced a chuckle as he prodded the bandage covering his left ear. "Don't suppose there's a chance of that bit growing back?"
"Probably not. Then again, magic. People think it's all about chuckin', shockin', burnin'... but really, what's most impressive is the fact that mystics are so damn hard to kill. Certainly makes my job easier, though. Wouldn't believe how many times I've had a gaggle of squires bust through my door, Lord on their backs, beggin' me to save his life. 'Oh please, ser, our master, our master'. In the end, just had to make sure the wounds were clean and nothing was stuck inside 'em. Some of the easiest work of my life."
"You... have a history of treating mystics?"
"Oh, I've had a few dropped and plopped in front of me. Din't always work on wee ships, you know. One of the luxuries of snaggin' me a med-ap. Any ministry, any department... just a bit of paperwork and I could bounce wherever I felt like. Probably the closest us mundies can get to the freedoms them Sovs enjoy. Now how long have you been looking forward to that, eh?"
With a sigh, Bauer leaned against the hull, gaze settling on the horizon. "That's the thing, I wasn't expecting any of this. Both of my parents were mundane, and their parents before them. Spontaneous mysticism is supposed to be, what, a one in a million chance? Maybe greater?"
"Not to imply anything... untoward, but are you absolutely sure that you're... that they're..."
"No, my parents have plenty of faults, but they were always faithful."
"Ah. Well, I'm sure they'll be mighty proud when they hear the news, then."
"Yeah, I bet they will." The mystic's grip tightened around the steel barrier. "Which is why I'm not telling them any time soon."
Bauer let out a long sigh. "You're med-ap, right? Well, I had to retake my aptitude tests four times. Not because I didn't get the result I wanted, oh ho, no. Because I didn't get the one they wanted. See, we're supposed to be a military family. 'There's a war going on, what can an archivist really provide the Dominion?' Still, same scores, every single time. Somehow I convinced them to let me work at a library for a spell, but I knew as soon as that was over, it'd just be more of the same. That's why I came out here. That's why I pledged myself to Falke. Because I thought I could prove that recovering and studying pieces of our past was actually worth something. I don't want them suddenly supporting me just because I was lucky enough to be one of the Emperor's chosen."
Another cackle from Kelso. "Let's see if you can say the same after the Academy. Sovs have a way of prioritizin' results over methods."
"That's the other thing I worry about," Bauer admitted. "I joined Falke because I assumed we were after the same thing. But to him, the artifact in that tomb was nothing more than a means to elevate himself."
"Afraid that's just the Sovereign way. Always climbin', always strivin'. They gotta give folks like us reason to believe in 'em after all."
"But what if he wasn't always like that? What if at some point, he loved the history, the mystery, all of it? But then something changed? And what if... what if the same happens to me?"
"Scared you might lose yourself?"
"Then let me be the first to tell you... you probably will," Kelso bluntly replied. And yet, as soon as he saw the dejected mystic hang his head low, he let out yet another cackle. "Come on, what's the matter? I thought you liked finding lost things? Listen, boyo, what you're going through ain't a Sovereign thing, it's a human thing. Everyone has to deal with the fact that as soon as they think they've got everything figured out, the world will fight tooth and nail to prove 'em wrong. The only difference is, a Sov can fight back. Magic? Sure, must be nice to wake up every day with a bunch of powers people like me could only dream of. But you know what we really envy? That second chance. Hell, that third, fourth, fifth, however many they god damn well please. Will becoming a Sov change ya? Maybe. Probably. But it'll also give you the means to change yourself."
"But I'm an archivist. An antiquarian. I always thought Sovereigns were supposed to be like us, just... better. But even ones in the Ministry of Mystic Arts are out there getting into sword fights. The captain all but said that if I had decided to slaughter my own team before showing up here, that would have been fine and dandy. What even is the Order? And is there really a place in something like that for someone like me?"
"I'm sure there is. And if there isn't, make a place for yourself. Prove to them just like you were willing to prove to your parents."
"I really don't think it's the same..."
"You're right. The Sovereign Order is a ruthless group seeded in centuries of unshakable dogma, filled with some of the most powerful beings to walk Atheris... so it might be even easier," Kelso replied, accentuating his next cackle with a knee slap.
This time, Bauer didn't even need to force a chuckle, one just slipped out. The sheer absurdity had cut through him easier than a piece of magically-charged shrapnel.
"Got you good with that one, didn't I?" Kelso continued. "You know, the funny thing about the Order is that there are stages to how we mundies see them. Early on, we think Sovs these mysterious demigods who exist enlighten and elevate us 'ignoble souls'. Then, somewhere along the way, we see them for how they 'really are', a bunch of selfish dastards who'd rather waste time fightin' each other than workin' toward what's important. But eventually, we settle on the truth. The real truth. A Sovereign is an individual. Right there in the name, isn't it? Plenty of 'em, that power goes to their head, sure. But the Dominion hasn't thrived for over six-hundred years off the backs of a bunch of mystical pricks, eh? If you really think you can provide something for the Order, for the Dominion... you'll find a place for yourself, simple as that."
"Thanks. I needed that," Bauer replied, matching the elder's smile with one of his own.
"Ah, don't mention it. Honestly, no surprise a couple bad eggs left you with sour notions. A Sovereign, no matter their type, is nothin' if not influential. But I've met some real gallants over the years. And from what I could tell, the one thing they had in common was that they all had somethin' or someone they could turn to. Plenty Sovs go hard on that independence, so eager to no longer be a cog in the Imperial machine. But they wind up casting off everything, thinkin' magic's the only anchor they'll ever need. But even magic can come up short. So whatever you end up doin', whatever path you wind up takin', try to find that special somethin' to keep yourself on track."
"I think I already might have."
Kelso slapped a palm against his forehead. "Ah, but of course, you've already got something to prove. With that mission in mind, I'm sure you'll—"
"No, not that. Well, yes, that, but also... something else," Bauer muttered, barely above a whisper. "Something I was afraid of relying on. Maybe because I didn't understand it. Maybe because I did. Either way, I didn't want to risk letting it change who I was. I still don't know half of what it means to be Sovereign, and chances are when I do find out, I won't like it... but so long as we've an understanding of what I'm after, I'm willing to start listening."
"Eh?" said Kelso, cupping his ear. "You'll have to speak up. Don't hear as well as I use to."
"It's fine, the right person heard it," Bauer replied, maintaining his hushed volume. After straightening himself out, the mystic finally spoke up in a more audible manner. "Sorry, it was nothing. Thanks again, for the treatment, the clothes, the talk, everything. I think I'm finally ready to take that next step."
But as Bauer literally took his next step back toward the cabin, Kelso loudly cleared his throat. "Now where do you think you're going? I said I was liable to talk your ear off and I meant it. Come on, it's a long trip back to Capital and I've many a tale to tell."
Spinning on his heels, Bauer settled once more by the man's side, trying to find whatever comfort he could as the ship finally set out on it's journey back to civilization.
"Let's see... ah, speaking of Capital, I used to work for one Lord Maynard when I was but a sprout. Now, this was back in the days of horse-drawn carriages and, let me tell you, if you thought Sovereigns and Templars were mortal enemies..."
END OF PART I