Photo by Bryan Goff on Unsplash

Knocking awoke Hesa the next morning with a start.

She’d fallen asleep in the Observatory — which wasn’t unusual, the pillows were there for more than just comfort while working — exhausted from the events, communing with her Ascended, and her emotional release.

She called out in question and Arthur’s voice responded. While Hesa donned her magus gear, the events of the day prior hit her, and she suffered a brief flash of shame.

She took a deep breath and opened the door. Arthur was smiling gently, but her upturned brows suggested there was an edge of mockery to it. Hesa twisted her mouth.

“I’m sorry. I truly am,” Hesa said. “I know how stubborn I can be. I’m going to try to be better. And … kinder to myself.”

Arthur’s expression smoothed into a real smile and she reached out. Hesa took the proffered hug. It felt odd to make contact with a creature that was only by the thinnest tethers physical, but she was well used to it.

“I’m glad to hear it,” Arthur said quietly as they both stepped out of the embrace. “You had everyone worried when you disappeared yesterday.” 

Hesa could feel her face reddening. By the stars, she’d acted so childishly! 

“But don’t worry, I covered for you. I’ll leave the notes from the review in your office and you can look over them when you have a chance. For now, you’d best be off to the war room.”

The silence in the war room was the thick tenor of many people anxiously and impatiently waiting.

It was a feeling the Golden Paladin was familiar with enduring, but it never got easier, and it wasn’t helping his current mood.

He stared so hard at the maps laid out in an ordered pattern across the tabletop that they’d left afterimages. He closed his eyes. No reason to strain them; he’d memorized the contents of the parchments at this point. But the solution to his problem was immune to his staring.

He went over the facts.

One tower was placed nearby each major city on Archaic Earth, six in total. Each tower sported a conflux. Little tokens representing his scouts and forces were scattered around, as well as several tokens indicating possible locations of the nexus itself — which they still didn’t have reliable intel on. Hesa and the other magi had been attempting to triangulate back from the towers to the nexus, but Merlin was crafty and had laid many traps along that way. The Weave, so the Golden Paladin had been told, was terribly fouled.

Not that he would know. Bitterness welled up, not for the first time. How was he supposed to direct his forces, or make any move at all, without access to — or even being able to sense — the Weave? What had the Creator’s plan been for that? It seemed an oddly blatant oversight when the rest of him had been so carefully handcrafted.

Without being able to find the nexus, they had no choice but to take the towers out one by one. But he’d been informed that attacking the towers in the wrong order was itself a kind of trap, and one that could set off catastrophic spellburn. To a very large degree, those confluxes were now keeping the nexus stable.

Archaic Earth was very literally suspended in a web of tangled threads over utter devastation. Snipping one wrong thread would mean the end, which was likely exactly what Merlin was hoping they’d do.

The first conflux, the one he and Hesa had destroyed, hadn’t been attached to the greater network. Instead, it seemed to have been meant as both an attempt on Arthur’s life and as the mana-storm generator for the entire planet (the other peoples had reported that the mana-storm had subsided everywhere around the time they would have taken it out). Stroke of luck to have that be the first. Though, that may have also been in Merlin’s plans. While the Golden Paladin knew nothing about him, the man seemed, if nothing else, vindictive as all the hells.

To make matters worse, they had little time. They needed to form a plan as quickly as possible to give the scouts time to make it to the other cities with their orders, time for them to drill and prepare the soldiers for executing said plan, and time after that for the other peoples to ready themselves.

Time that Merlin could easily use to strike.

What a mess, he thought, disgusted with himself.

He was just about to call a recess for the day when the door burst open and Hesa swept in, looking more radiantly imperious than he’d yet seen her. Whatever she’d done the night prior must have rekindled her confidence, and he was grateful to see it.

She gave him a nod of greeting, then swept her bright gaze over the discarded piles of crumpled parchment and stacks of scout intel, finally fixing her eyes on the maps tauntingly spread out before him — written on, erased, annotated, all signs of many hours of struggle and failure.

He watched her gaze trace the lines connecting the towers once, twice — her brow creased.

“Celestial’s teats,” she swore aloud into the silence, and slapped a hand over her mouth, her cheekbones darkening. The other occupants of the war room had the decency to hide their smiles. Hesa drew herself up, cast a venomous glance around the room, then cleared her throat.

“Our clever little charlatan,” she said, her voice dripping with sarcasm, “is using the leylines.”

Metacosm trivia time!

Ascended have an element or object that physical beings can use as a shrine to them. Ascended typically don’t answer prayers from churches because you can’t hide from an Ascended, and religious institutions are more sociopolitical than they are meant for the actually faithful. A natural place carved over time or a small place built with intent by either a singular person or a community is far more likely to catch an Ascended’s attention. These places will often be gifted the objects associated with the Ascended, which are created by the Ascended themself, which will act as a fount of that Ascended’s radiant power (albeit a gentle one, as Ascendent power tends to warp) and connection. There are only two exceptions: Justice and Life. Justice does not accept altars and will not answer prayers made at them; your only hope to garner the attention of Justice is to devote yourself to it. Or, we suppose, to commit an evil act, but that will only get you a certain … type of attention. And no one prays to Life. If anything, her name is maligned.

How often have you said, “Man, life sucks.” Hmm?

N.A. Soleil is a portmanteau pseudonym of the two authors' names.